I, a bookworm, somehow made the 9th grade field hockey team despite never having played team sports in my life. I was afraid of the ball, the opposing team, of messing up, of my own teammates and coach. I improved a lot, but by the end of the season I would inevitably be a resigned, defeated wreck. In my one year of senior field hockey I became so unhappy that I was relieved to injure my leg—an excuse to not participate the following year. It would have been easy and understandable for me to reject sports from thereon out.
It was a surprise, then, to learn that I didn’t HAVE to be bad at field hockey. When left to my own devices on intramural teams, I discovered that I was actually okay—even had the ability to become good. But who could have told me? It wasn’t that I had no potential; I had just never played before. No coach is encouraged to see athletic talent in someone like me, much less acquire the tools to nurture that talent. The attention of the coach and the approaches that drove other students to excel in the sport made me quail and mess up. Some students need compassion and encouragement instead, or a different combination of approaches.
There is a deeply entrenched notion (in which gym class participates) which holds that someone is either physically capable or mentally intelligent, and that the two are mutually exclusive domains. But that is not the case.
I am in the process of changing my relationship to field hockey and to my body. I want to grow and to see it as a game of one, where I push myself to the limit no matter what psychological or situational factors are at play. I’ve become more comfortable moving and speaking confidently, and at expressing my gender. I’ve done this with the aid of philosophy.
Philosopher Iris Marion Young tied the Heideggerian concepts of presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand to the feminine experience of the body. It’s the notion that if you’re forced to consider, scrutinize and be made conscious of it, it is harder (perhaps impossible) to use your body in a seamless, unconscious fashion.
Reading this philosophy of embodiment, and being surrounded by female friends in Annesley Hall, changed my relationship to my body. I tried relaxing my body and mind while taking free hits, something I’d previously found very difficult because it was a precise, individual activity where screwing up was very visible. But when I relaxed, my hits were suddenly near-perfect.
Young further argues that women specifically have an arrested experience of their bodies because they’re made to consider their bodies as aesthetic objects and objects intended for (often masculine) consumption. I’ve found this to be true of myself: I was an awkward teenager, uncomfortable with my changing body and with the possibility of looking or behaving masculine, wary of touching others inadvertently and of taking up space. Heightened awareness of my body and gender made it hard to play sports successfully. People of all different kinds of embodiment have found this to be true for them as well.
So it’s understandable that so many experience their bodies in this arrested way. Gym class serves as a magnifying glass for individuals’ relationships with their bodies and physicality, where the function of their bodies is scrutinised by their peers, teachers, and themselves, literally evaluated during a time of growth before they learn to inhabit their newly altered bodies. Is it any surprise that gym class hurts more than it helps? It is clear that gym class represents (at best) a squandered opportunity to do something about serious problems young people face and (at worst) actively harms students and reinforces harmful behavioural and gender norms.
So what’s going on? Why is gym class so deeply useless? It involves learning only enough of a wide variety of sports to know that you are, once again, bad at something, never staying on any one activity long enough for it to become a skill. It could, hypothetically, allow students to choose a physical practice from a tradition they find fulfilling or entertaining, and pursue that for several years (long enough to become good). Why don’t we do this?
The problems with gym class doesn’t stem from gym alone. These courses are modelled after survey courses like History, because public education in North America was conceived with a specific intention and a specific ideology—to allow more of the population to gain the skills and mentality to enter the industrialized workforce. Even teaching resembles an industrial process, where every step is compartmentalised, depersonalised, and mass-produced. Gym class is a litmus test for the physical ability of a person to join the industrial workforce, and is preoccupied with instilling these values in students when they examine themselves and their physicality.
It’s abundantly clear that high school itself does not serve the needs of students, or care about student success; teachers enforce notions about grade distribution curves that assume some students will fail, and no effort is made to implement curricula or practices that will correct these trends when there is increasing evidence that such correction is possible. Gym class is a particularly interesting example, because, with a new, capitalistic value placed on intelligence, neither failure nor success are regarded as significant. The class is a simply a useless breeding ground for abuse.
Public school does not foster critical thinking and self-knowledge, because it was not constructed to do so. It teaches adherence to authority and enforces normalcy, and no effort has been made to restructure education to resolve these systemic issues. Clearly the problem reaches deeper.