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Bad memories of PE can give people the lifelong impression theyre not cut out for sport. But plenty of adults have left behind sedentary lifestyles you just have to find the right approach
When Sarah Overall was a child, a PE teacher held the entire class back because Overall would not do the high jump. She was tiny as an adult, she is under 5ft (1.5m) tall and was scared of hurting herself on the metal bar. I was too short to get over it, she says. I remember the whole class watching. Netball was pure hell. She enjoyed hockey, which suited her body better, but she felt written off by her PE teacher. I was like: Do you not get that I actually work really hard at the things I can do?
Now, years later, Overall is a personal trainer and sees the damage that bad PE lessons have had on her clients. Its pretty much everybody who comes to me, she says. I dont think Ive got anybody, especially a woman, who has said: I was good at sport at school.
It is something other trainers see, too. Kids at school are not like babies and toddlers who try to crawl, fail, try to crawl, fail, says Joslyn Thompson Rule, a personal trainer. They sense embarrassment and shame, and its easier not to try than to try but fail. Unfortunately, it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and leads to them not being able to do it. Teenage experience, she says, can affect your perception of your ability.
The things we are told as children and teenagers stay with us. I was not particularly sporty at school, although I clearly remember being praised by my PE teacher one day after a volleyball class. The idea that I am good at that one particular sport has, weirdly, become a small part of my identity even though I have never played a game of volleyball since. Likewise, I hated cross-country running with a passion and, for years, told myself it wasnt for me, only to discover a love of running especially over fields and hills more than two decades later.
Kids pick up all kinds of stuff, whether or not anybody actually labels them they make comparisons with their peers and draw conclusions, says Wendy Johnson, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Theres nothing intrinsic to say these kinds of labels have to get wired into our identities, but sometimes they do when kids are often last to be picked for teams or laughed at for being slow or clumsy. Things can happen along the way to reverse impressions like this, but for some kids, these identities can last a lifetime.
All of this is not to bash PE teachers, although many adults who still hate exercise blame the teaching methods of decades ago. There is a lot of good practice out there, says Stuart Kay, schools director of the Youth Sport Trust. Schools are under immense pressure, and PE is suffering (according to research last year by the trust, 38% of secondary schools in England have cut the time dedicated to PE for 14- to 16-year-olds since 2012).
The stereotype of the sadistic games teacher is probably largely unfair, but, says Kay, there is room for improvement in some areas. Historically, PE lessons were largely about physical ability, he argues, but for older children it is equally important for the lessons to cover social and emotional wellbeing.
If you think about some of the things that turn people off sport, theyre probably the same things that turn people off competition, he says. Competition can be made more inclusive beyond physical ability. Were not trying to get rid of competition; instead, were saying what can you do about the rules, the environment, and how are you going to decide on a winner? By reframing competition, you can make it more inclusive, and make sure that things other than sporting prowess are celebrated.
These could include allowing everyone to play, rather than only a select few making a team, or changing the scoring so it is not only about goals or runs the outcome of a game but also giving scores for behaviour or skill.
Johnson says she always told her children: Exercise is good for our bodies, and everyone can find some exercise they can enjoy; it doesnt matter if youre particularly good at it. As an adult, you can shift your identity around whether or not you are sporty by simply doing it, she says. Pick up any issue of Runners World its full of people who have come to running in their 40s or 50s and ended up getting into it and running marathons. I dont mean winning, but they see the benefits not just of the exercise, but joining a club, where the focus is on the community rather than being the best.
Labels such as sporty have particular connotations, she says, and it is not necessarily useful to think of yourself in those terms. Not just about exercise and health, but about fashion, values, lifestyles, athleticism and sexual identity. Physical exercise that boosts physical health and psychological wellbeing comes in many forms that arent sporty dancing is exercise, as is gardening, carpentry and housework. If the goal is physical exercise for health, one doesnt have to have a sporty identity. Think broadly about anything that involves getting yourself moving.
Overall rediscovered sport after enjoying aerobics classes. Hannah Lewin, a personal trainer, says many of her clients suffer from a lack of confidence around sport and exercise, usually instilled in them as teenagers. Instead of something to be enjoyed, sport became a stressful experience. An early negative experience around being shamed, or being forced to do something you werent naturally very good at and then belittled for not being very good at it is something I see every day. It really does carry through into adulthood.
Adults tend to find their way to her and exercise once their confidence has improved. They may have had other successes in work or relationships, says Lewin. Overall adds: Youre now doing this for yourself. You dont have the pressure of teammates, and nobody is judging you. Dont compare yourself with anybody else. Once you find the activity that is right for you, and a situation you are comfortable in, you can be surprised at what you can do. She has had clients who have gone from sedentary lifestyles to running marathons.
All the personal trainers I speak to say you should choose something you enjoy this isnt about compulsory rounders any more. Gyms can be daunting places and you can feel the same as an adult as you did as a child not being good enough, fit enough, strong enough, says Thompson Rule. If being shouted at in a HIIT class isnt working for you or brings back bad memories do something else.
If you keep forcing yourself to do something youre really not enjoying, its going to become another source of stress, says Lewin. Youll give up and come back to that old idea of: Im not sporty. Thats not the case. You just havent found whats right for you.