As a sports teacher the first thing that struck me, or should I say shocked me, was that sports was not a time that everyone looked forward to. In fact, when I started out I was surprised that almost fifty percent of the students who I was to work with, did not like the class at all and their questions ranged from, “Do we all have to come?”, “Why is it important for us?”, “What's the big deal, it's my body!” to “This is not even my sixth subject”. It would not be wrong to say that there were other students who were enthusiastic, almost fanatical about this class. They hated even a minute taken away from it. As they got off the bus they would ask, “Can we play football today?”, “Could you make teams before we come to the field?” and “We won't warm up today; if we run from the class to here is that not enough warming up?”
By communicating such contrasting emotions, the students threw me off my stride as I was not prepared for this. Their responses puzzled me, as I came from a school where being athletic and fit automatically made you 'cool', not so long ago! Exercising had been so much fun I found it hard to understand why some of the students resisted it. Faced with this challenge, I began to explore ways of making a sports class student-friendly, by involving all of them. Given this context, I would like to share my journey as a middle school sports teacher.
Barriers in our minds
People are often unaware of the close interlink between the body and mind. That is, even if an individual is physically capable of some activity or sport, he/she believes it is impossible to do and is therefore unable to do the same. This is the first and perhaps most difficult barrier I was forced to deal with while taking classes. It is amazing and yet not surprising how caught we are in the images we build, how easily and how often one hears “I can't do it”, “I have never done this”, “I don't like this” and “I won't do this”. It requires a lot of firmness, affection and persistence on the part of the adult in order to break through. Of course, like in other fields one might fail here too. But the chances of success improve greatly when, as in other subjects, the adult begins to explore with the students.
The best way for the adult to explore with the students is to play with them. It helps children when they see the adult putting theories into practice. A 'cross pass' in football when you have gone too far to the corner while trying to score a goal would be an example of that. They also learn that it takes practice and attention to improve your game and that no skill is your slave.
There is freedom from fear when joy is shared. It is important the student feels that he/she is not being subjected to something, but that we are all in the process of exploration, together. It is an immense discovery for the child that it is important for all of us to take care of our bodies.
A teacher acts as a great role model in a world where fitness is gaining a lot of fashion mileage but comparatively much slower awareness. If a teacher is fit, enthusiastic and motivated about personal fitness most students begin to take interest because of a natural sense of curiosity that they possess. To exemplify the same, I would take part in all the activities of the class and keep myself fit.
Gender bias is quite visible in sports classes. It is an area where the students require immense support and hand-holding by the teacher. Like most of us, students come to the class with strong opinions about 'girl sports' like skipping and throw ball, and 'boy sports' like football and cricket. Therefore, to hold a mixed class where everyone is to be pushed and exercised becomes quite a challenge. Since many boys and girls are conditioned to think in a stereotypical manner, girls seem to have become comfortable with the status of non-players and therefore are quite resistant to learning. The boys do not want the girls to play, as they feel the girls 'spoil' their game. The girls are also happy with this because it helps them avoid listening to remarks the boys make. They even accept being allotted quite obviously unimportant positions in the game. Of course, there are exceptions: some girls are very enthusiastic about playing sports.
Usually the divide grows as students move to senior classes. More and more girls drop out of sports and this makes them feel even more inferior as sportspersons. This is when common physical training can be used as an excellent tool for learning together. Often, after exercising together, girls and boys discover that in terms of physical stamina and capacity, they are not too different. Training involves some challenging and interesting cardiovascular exercises such as various kinds of running, skipping, hopping and so on. The newness of these tasks holds them and does not make it boring for them. This helps break barriers as each student irrespective of the gender becomes aware of their physical capacities and mental blocks: the scope for compartmentalization as boy and girl sports is significantly reduced.
Organised competitive sport or exercise
I found that the enthusiastic group's love for the sports class was limited to organized sports. They seemed to have little interest or were unwilling to engage with the body otherwise. This over-dependence on organized sports meant that there was never complete engagement with one's body, and the stimulus was external rather than internal. Since the focus of organized team sports is primarily to win, one is always concerned about how the another person is performing. Therefore, competitive games tend to be driven by a need to win, instead of being used as a tool for exercise. This scenario provides the perfect foundation for the uninterested students to shy away from exercising. It also enhances barriers in their minds, as they are considered to be non-performers by the other students and are put in secondary roles like defenders in football, or the last batsmen in cricket. Both groups of students seem happy with the arrangement, as the enthusiastic ones can have a good game without too much interference from the uninterested ones and the uninterested ones can get away without doing too much. But that is not the idea of a sports class - it is to ensure that each student is exposed to the right skills and training for the sports that they are interested in, and also that they learn to work on their own fitness through the right kind of exercise. They might choose common sports activities like football and cricket or uncommon ones like cycling, hiking and long distance running. This started the search for a model that would ensure that each child is stretched.
It was challenging to develop a skills programme that involved all the students and stretched them to their capacities. The skills programme was to facilitate learning and practising basic skills required to play a sport, for example dribbling, passing and tackling for football. The class was divided into small groups of three to four people and they practised a certain prescribed skill with each other. They helped each other learn the skill and practice it over a period of time with some help from the teacher. The teacher at this point became a resource person and most of the class was conducted by the students themselves. This has proved quite successful as it improved the quality of the game and gave the students real game situations to practice their skills in.
A fairly intense warm-up ensures that the whole group gets enough physical exercise. This enables them to practice their skills without feeling bored. This works particularly well for sports like hockey, football, cricket, volleyball, basketball and ultimate frisbee. The role of a teacher in these situations is generally to give techniques, to practice skills and encourage everyone to try out all possible options. What generally tends to happen is that while not all students take to the sports, at least they all become familiar with some of the skills involved, and therefore do not feel lost when a game is being played.
Almost all our class reviews began like this, but always ended up becoming interesting discussions. Competition always gave us a lot to talk about. It seemed important to talk about it in a forum like the sports review class as one does not want it to become a theory or something to be only talked about in culture classes.
For most students sports and competition are one and the same thing : this is not surprising, as that is what they see all around them. There seems to be competition and animosity between the teams when we watch a sport. With all the hype, publicity and praise that aggression and competition receive from the media, and even from the players themselves, it is not surprising that to a student it seems like the most natural thing.
It is therefore all the more important for a student to become aware of these tendencies that we human beings develop. To question the very nature of competition and its place in sport seems like the most important and integral part of a sports class. It is important to understand that competition and sports are not the same thing. Competition is an entirely different game played by the mind alone. Scores, win—loss are all factors that end at the end of a game, but competition is something that we feed on before, after and during the game. The numbers involved never help you become healthier, exercise or play better, but the pleasure of becoming a winner becomes so great that one readily surrenders to it and does not mind losing the pure joy of playing and exercise. This is where a teacher can help the student become aware of this movement.
Many of us wanted to have a Sports Day that ensured participation from all students without feeling the pressure of scores, wins or losses. We also realized that it wasn't very easy to change the structure without upsetting the students. Although there were a few students who were excited about this new format, most of them were completely closed to it. We also discovered that not everybody from the teacher body was convinced about this change.
After many dialogues with the Class 12 students we decided to try the new model. It was decided that the whole school including all staff would be divided into sixteen vertical groups each mentored by two Class 12 students. The role of the mentors was to ensure participation from all group members and to dialogue with them on the importance of the new format. Each group met every evening during the last hour for fifteen days to talk and practice for various athletic events. By the end almost everyone had begun to enjoy the interactions through this new process.
For the Sports Day there were no points, winners or losers. There were a few individual events and many group activities like obstacle races, lemon and spoon race, hopscotch and others. At the end no one felt left out as there were enough events for each one to participate in.
One could say that this kind of Sports Day is not ideal to stretch all the students, but that it needs to happen in the sports classes. The Sports Day is for the whole school to enjoy playing together.
A sports class is a great forum for students to explore and express themselves, as it does not place certain external demands on them such as of exams or homework, yet deals with very sensitive issues during a child's growing years. It gives the students a chance to exercise both the growing body and the growing mind. It is often considered an extra-curricular activity, but the possibilities of connecting the learning happening here with the rest of the curricula are immense. It is here that one sees that freedom and order go hand in hand. When engaged in a physical activity completely, one can be totally free from scores, competition and all the rest of it and there is great beauty in that.