How Grade School Gym Class Messed Up My Life

You may remember the President’s Physical Fitness Test. A couple of times a year school-age kids were required to participate in specific exercise challenges to determine a level of fitness. It was instituted by Dwight Eisenhower after a study indicated that 58% of children in the U.S. were not fit, compared to only 8% of Swiss children. Hugely embarrassing evidently.

To remedy this, the designers leaned on military training to develop the test. A test that ended up being completely unlike the test that made 58% of US children look like sloths. The original test focused on improving arm and core strength as well as overall flexibility. Not this one.

Some kids were great at it. Other kids, like me, were scarred for years, even decades, from the torturous experience. Sounds like an overreaction doesn’t it?

It’s not.

Was the pain physical or mental?

The exercises themselves weren’t cruel – for the most part. Sit-ups, softball throw, 600-yard run, 50-yard dash, pullups or the flexed-arm hang, standing broad jump and shuttle runs. All sound vanilla enough.

The mental aspect was the torture. Why? Because we were tested, judged and scored without ever being taught the proper way to do those skills. Gym teachers who rather forgot the teaching part. Kids are constantly comparing themselves to other kids – and the comparison was grim.

Naturally pretty good at short-distance running, the 50-yard dash always went well. But I threw “like a girl” – which was a major insult back then – so did poorly with a softball. The 600-yard run  instigated dread that eked over into panic. Heart racing before taking the first step and always one of the last finishers.

Here’s how it messed me up.

  1. It taught me that you’re either naturally good at something or you’re not. And whichever you are, you’ll always be that way relative to that skill. Speedy at the 50-yard dash? That was natural. “Throwing like a girl” was also my destiny.
  2. It also taught me that being an athlete was forever out of reach. Nope. Kids like me who got picked last for kickball – not because of having no friends but because I stunk at sports – had better focus on other skills ‘cause sports aren’t an option.

Unlearning bad lessons

It took decades to learn that you can get good at many things at which you initially suck if you have the right information, teacher, coach, desire, motivation, etc.

It took until 2007 – at age 46, to realize being an athlete was possible. And you know what sport shifted that mindset? Long-distance running! Crossing the finish line at that first long-distance race was pure joy. A 180-degree shift from the terror brought on by the 600-yard dash 35 years earlier.

Beware of assumptions

People – sometimes clients – make statements about a certain unhelpful behavior or mindset being “just the way it is” and not likely to change, but experience proves otherwise. We can learn, we can change, we can be things we thought we couldn’t be. And it doesn’t have to take the decades it took for me.

The other important lesson was not to assume what other people know how to do. Just like when we were kids, adults can find admitting lack of know-how very difficult, even embarrassing. Create an environment of trust where vulnerability is allowed, even respected and people are more likely to fess up. Outcomes are just better when people know what they’re doing. Crazy concept, no?! 🙂

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