3 April 2016

Proper PE: More health, less sport.

Recently the Sport and Recreation Alliance produced a report on the social value of sport (you can read it here), in which several writers outline the positive outcomes to be gained through increased sports participation. The case was made in particular for sport as a tool for righting the wrongs of inactivity and obesity. I'm sure there’s nuance in the writers’ minds but what is down on the paper strikes me as unduly imbuing sport with an almost miracle-working capacity.

For example, on page 9 of the report the writer declares, with reference to improving the health and fitness of young people in the UK, ‘It can be done. All we need is the right sport’. I could hardly disagree more. I think we need to stop pinning our hopes on sport, and start talking about the much broader, and much more accessible options to people who don't want to play sport.

Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=511409

It got me thinking about how and why this idea of sport-as-elixir-to-health persists. So, I turned first to my own practice and found a clue.

I am currently teaching a unit at my College as part of the Level 3 BTEC in Sport which is called PE and the Care of Children and Young People. Apart from the fact that I have to revamp all the presentations and content every single year due to the relentless curriculum and government changes, it’s a unit that I enjoy teaching. Some of the students are thinking about going into teaching, and others will be coaching and leading others in teacher-type capacity, so it’s of relevance to them.

I asked them recently to decide what they would include in the PE curriculum were they given a blank slate. I gave them minimal instruction in advance and left the task open-ended because I had a hunch - which turned out to be correct - that they would have significant difficulty in moving away from a very traditional and fixed view of what school PE should look like. I asked them to come up with 6 key curriculum emphases, and, with some exceptions, almost every student pairing included a list of sports. Not activities, not health outcomes, not learning objectives, but sports: football, hockey, netball, cricket, and so on. The same old stuff.

This is no surprise really; it enabled us to have good discussion about the assumptions and biases of many of us in the ‘Sport and Active Leisure’ sector. I've noticed that we tend to have great difficulty in the PE world differentiating between PE and sport. We - me included - so easily slip into using the terms PE and sport as synonyms, and I think it’s counter-productive. If we can carefully pick these two apart and see how they work, we might make headway towards a better solution to the nation’s health woes.

Sport is not PE, and PE is not Sport. Sport means competition, sport produces hierarchy, sport is meritocratic, and the point of sport is to win. None of these things are wrong in and of themselves but it is crucial to understand that they appeal only to a select group of people. They appeal to the very people who tend to go on to become PE teachers and repeat the formula for the next generation. They appeal to the kinds of people who work and write for the Sport and Recreation Alliance. As a consequence there seems to be a bias towards emphasising the so-called positive social outcomes of sport. The problem is of course that despite this repeated emphasis these outcomes continue to elude us as a nation.

The ‘sport-is-the-key-to-health’ trope needs to be jettisoned. It only works for some. But when the government department with responsibility is called the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, you know there’s a long road to walk. Here’s to a Department for Culture, Media and Physical Education.

School PE, in its proper and purest form, is not about sport. Sport doesn't even have to feature. School PE should be about health, about experiencing the freedom and joy of movement, about personal triumph, about play and physicality. You can do it through sport sometimes, but strictly you don't have to. What is essential though is that the obsession with winning is toppled from its position of primacy, and a great way to do this is to stop endlessly teaching sport.

So, I believe a critical element in engaging more kids nationwide to be active and thrive physically and physiologically is to do less Sport. Instead they should be doing more - or at least better - PE. In PE no scores need to be kept and no goals need to be scored. Just teach them to enjoy moving.


  1. Mike,
    Love the piece. I share your sentiments regarding sport and the overemphasis on winning. It certainly drives a lot of kids away from sport/competition.

    I wonder, though, if the problem lies NOT with SPORT per se, but with our preoccupation with winning, and hence our dysfunctional relationship with "competition" and sport.

    My class revolves around MOVEMENT, but we certainly do SPORT, and we are not afraid of competing. Having said that, within the first two weeks of the school-year, we go through a lesson or two on defining competition, illuminating its benefits, and how to do it in such a way that honors the opponent. In short, we teach the kids (through video, images, inquiry, reflection) that competition (especially in sport or games) is YOU vs YOURSELF and that the opponent is your partner. Both parties are on a mutual quest for excellence and so honor and respect each other by doing their best, playing fairly, preparing, etc. We talk about sport/games/competition/play (and pretty much the whole educational endeavor) as a meaningful way to KNOW THYSELF (and the "OTHER"), effectively drawing the attention away from winning. WE DO NOT EMPHASIZE WINNING in my class, but we are not afraid of it, nor are we afraid of LOSING. The point is to do your best, honor your teammates, honor your "opponent," and the spirit of competition ("respect the game"). So yes, we do keep score, but mostly to help create the "sweet tension" that emerges from competing honorably.

    I agree that, in some places, we need to "stop endlessly teaching sport." But I wonder if we (and our students) would be better served by teaching it BETTER! I'm not saying that it needs to be the primary emphasis in PE, but when and where we are to engage in it, we need to do so FUNCTIONALLY, not DYSFUNCTIONALLY. If we can't do that, then yes, we probably need to move away from it or we run the risk of driving too many kids away.

    By the way, I like your exercise of asking students to think about creating a PE curriculum starting from scratch. I'm sure they get quite a bit out of that exercise.

    Nate (@coachnateb)

  2. Thanks for the comment Nate, your lessons sound great!

    Yes, I agree with you to a large extent and so naturally I'm not about to say that sport is to be completely discarded. What does concern me though, from my sociological reading at least, is that the ethic of sport is something which seems to be ingrained into its very format. To remove that ethic (including the preoccupation with winning, for example) is - arguably- to produce something that is no longer sport.

    This of course makes it very difficult to overcome. It sounds to me like the way you go about it - by making very explicit the ideas of respect and honour - is the best bet for utilizing sport for positive educational ends.

    I'm really grateful that you took the time to comment.


  3. Mike,

    It seems paradoxical, to "compete" without "winning" doesn't it?

    The way we frame it (in my class) is to ask the kids, before we start the lesson on competition, "what is success?"

    We get a lot of different answers, of course, but what we try to focus on is the process---on what we can control. Once I get the kids thinking about that---about doing their best, with what they've got, wherever they are---they start to have a different conception of "success" and along with it, a different conception of winning. Because to them, and probably with most people, winning and success are essentially the same thing, and for most people the evidence is in the measurable---cars, money, wins, etc.

    Once we work through the notion of success, we then get to competition and winning. What we try to emphasize is that their job/goal is to be successful in sport/competition, not necessarily win. You can win and not be successful (because you cheated, were much better than the opponent but barely tried), and you can be successful and not win....essentially, we value process over product.

    Going back to your comment about sport becoming something other than sport when we de-emphasize winning: As with any term, idea, notion, concept, etc., we create problems when we try to establish fixed definitions and calcified truths. The truth is that sport is a multiplicity---it is different from place to place, depending on context. There is plenty of overlap that we can agree on, but it becomes problematic to draw clear lines and build thick, high walls. Sport is a concept that is fluid and always in a state of becoming. It should not be limited to any one particular historical definition. But no matter what form it takes, what probably remains in all cases is the "sweet tension" of competition. It is this tension that keeps us interested----that keeps us coming back. If the goal of competition were winning, then we would stop once we won. But that doesn't happen, does it? Even when we win, we keep coming back.

    One reason we come back is because we've set up winning as an ideal, or a false idol, that is unreachable. A thirst that is unquenchable. No matter how much we win, it will never satisfy. Partly because life is always becoming, always in flux, never motionless. There is no point to reach. And partly because some of us think winning will impress others. But it never really does impress people. I mean, it does, but it's such a shallow recognition that it never really satisfies. So we keep trying and trying and trying to win even more titles with the hopes that one day in the future we will have finally reached some sort of climax. But that never materializes.

    But the best we reason we come back relates to meaning....and what is probably most meaningful, at a deep, lasting, sustainable level is the "sweet tension." Of course, relationships/camaraderie matter too, but the "playing" of the game, the flirting with the edges of chaos, the flow states where we are completely immersed in the process---those are the most functional reasons we return to sport/competition. It is in these moments that we connect with both our wholeness and our possibilities for becoming....

    So maybe sport has historically been about winning, but maybe its greatest potential has always been in its ability to bring us to the edges of chaos, to connect us with ourselves and others, and to reveal novel ways of living.

    Maybe sport never really was about winning---maybe it has always been about the "sweet tension."