By Safiya Young

Sport is never a neutral word. It either fills your mind with competitive flourishes of joy, or causes you to implode with dread. I’d be surprised if, in my Hastings school career, I was alone in my familiarity with the second experience.

The Department of Education recommends two hours per week of physical education for school pupils. Physical exercise is one thing, that’s all fine and dandy. Chaotic and unplanned sport is quite another – the more so since the schools I have attended or know of take PE lessons as the arbitrary kicking or hurling of a spherical object.

My experience was of being prised away from my friends and given a different team number, carelessly flung among fellow classmates who may as well have been strangers. Then we tried to outsmart the teachers by positioning ourselves throughout the line in the hope of being picked for the same team, only for them to work out our strategy and split us up for good. And finally we cowered in the corner of the pitch while supposed teammates haphazardly kicked or chucked various objects every which way. I would not have been surprised to hear that, many a time, those disordered ball games had defied the laws of physics. Nor would I have batted an eyelid if a fellow student’s head had been tossed into the goal as a globular substitute for the object of the game. Suddenly, students who would normally look baffled at the mention of my name felt the need to ferociously broadcast it to the world in the hope that their pressure and judgment would more efficiently propel my petrified legs. Many tears were shed during those lessons. Many knees grazed and ankles twisted. And an infinite number of water-dipped blue paper towels handed out to swaddle the damage.

Often, the main cause of my sporting inability was put down to my gender. I was told that I caught, threw or ran “like a girl” by the puckered little faces of smug male teammates. As a young child I was always confused though I grew to understand that it denoted that I wasn’t as good. According to a study, little girls often learn this social stereotype by the time they are five years old. I remember longing to wake up one morning with the confidence and skill to permanently prove them wrong, nevertheless I unfortunately lacked the motivation or dedication.

I still wonder why being female is so inhibiting to success in sport. How certain games seem automatically gendered: netball is for women, while basketball is for men. How, over the past month, the media have been merely coughing up scraps of the women’s World Cup, compared to the abundant coverage the men’s equivalent received last year. (Though the England women’s team actually did quite well). Why did my year six PE teacher feel that the promise to us of gymnastics “next term” made up for not teaching me how to play basketball.? It took an immense amount of courage to tell him I didn’t feel confident.  Oblivious as he was, he brushed off my confession. I showed him that I was just as inflexible as I was shy. Actually I did enjoy gymnastics more – for the simple pleasure of not being shouted at by incoming classmates at an alarming volume and frequency.

However, PE lessons improved considerably during the final years of secondary school. Though the early years were much the same as in primary, in the latter ones we did finally learn about the necessity of exercise. The theory was tedious, but sweet relief from the many years of chaos we’d endured previously. Students were too tired to be overly competitive or raucous. Those who could extract a certain joy from kicking a ball would arrange themselves into serious games, while the rest of us larked on the sidelines, running the occasional lap for the sake of our health. In the lead up to GCSEs this year we were even allowed to use the time for exam revision. Finally the lessons were of use to me.

As someone who loves to be active during my free time, I have always found that sport in schools is a missed opportunity. After all, dog-walking could technically be classed as a sport, and I might even go so far as to enjoy a friendly game of badminton. So why does it cause such stress in a school environment? You’d have to ask my competitive classmates.


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