It is interesting to ask why schools and even major institutions have physical education and sport programs. My understanding is that “physical education” such as in elementary schools is focused so as to provide education to children, for example, so that they can become more physically fit. At least that is what the words “physical education” seem to imply to me. One premise is that the human mind will function better if the body is fit, and hence we strive in education to nurture both the mind and the body. Another premise is that as all of us grow, especially in our early or formative years, that we at times need help in proper development of our motor abilities, just as we need help in developing higher thought processes. Human movement is a complex task. It is a fallacy to think that all humans will somehow automatically become good athletes or even persons with good coordination. As humans grow we learn to perform, first as infants and then as older children, simple things like reach to grasp an object, or to throw a ball, or to walk upright on both legs, to hop or skip or jump, to swim, or even ride a bicycle. Some people seem to have given gifts that make them great athletes, and as such Michael Jordan comes to mind. I suppose that it is possible that Michael Jordan could improve his ability in basketball if he were to be coached and to take lessons, but it defies me to think that anybody could actually be good enough to coach Michael Jordan in terms of development of efficient body movements.
When I reflect on my adolescent years in the 1940’s while attending Wilcoxson Grade School in Stratford, Connecticut, we had “recess” but nothing that I could today call physical education. During recess, if it wasn’t cold or raining, the class would go outside onto the playground for our appointed fifteen or so minutes. Often sides or teams were picked, and a competitive game was played, possibly softball. At other times the game would be a form of dodge-ball throwing where the object would be to hit some other person with all persons standing in a circle or possibly running around, trying to make that person “it.” Yet at other times the children would be free to spend their time as they wished, such as playing jump rope or even shooting marbles, or even standing around talking.
It is possible that I would have then been dubbed a nerd, if we had such a word. In general, as a growing child I was tall and lanky, and had fairly poor coordination. I was never selected to be pitcher of the team, or first baseman, or even shortstop, but rather relegated to some outfield, typically right field. When teams were picked, I was usually among the last of the kids to be selected, although one or two other really uncoordinated kids usually held that distinction. When in right field I actually dreaded the idea that somebody would hit the ball towards me because I feared that I would mess up and not catch the ball. I can recall going out for the football team as I entered high school. At the end of the first drill, the coach had all the new kids line up at one end of the practice field and we then raced to the other end. Obviously, the coach wanted to know who his best runners were. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t best but instead I was last out of about seventy or so would-be ninth-grade football players.
As I now reflect back on sports, physical education, and motor movement, I now realize that one reason why I was a slow runner was that nobody ever took the time to teach me how to run. I say “teach me how to run” because running involves a motor plan, and in fact execution of a motor plan. Although I have never sought the advice of an expert or specialist, my hunch is that one reason why I wasn’t then a good runner is the fact that I neglected to use all of my parts, or at least properly. In particular, I suspect that I ran mostly with my legs and thighs, but that I lacked “spring” in the sense of using my ankles to spring me forward with each stride.
What I am saying is that as we do simple movements, we develop patterns of habitual muscle actions, and not all humans optimize as much as others. That is why some people have a natural gift for athletics, and yet others are, let’s say, clumsy. Let the truth be known, as a kid growing up I was clumsy. I had two older brothers and we played ball in the streets, but I can’t ever recall anybody coaching or spotting me in how to perform any athletic feat better.
One of my favorite movies is “Max Dugan Returns,” script by Neil Simon (1983). In particular I like the scene where the young boy Michael McPhee (the film debut of Matthew Broderick) is doing poorly in Little League. As he walks dejected away after striking out, an older man, a stranger to him, interacts with the boy. It turns out that the stranger is Charley Lau, the batting coach of the Kansas City Royals – hired by the eccentric grandfather (Jason Robards) to teach the boy how to hit. When first introducing himself to the discouraged boy the coach says things like – “Kid, you are lousy. But, it’s not your fault. Nobody ever taught you how to hit.”
Of course the boy does learn how to hit well when coached, and wins the final game of the season and all that.
In my opinion, physical education should be about spotting and working with developing children so as to allow them to be better athletes and hence have better motor coordination. Another aspect of game playing is sportsmanship — something that is in short supply in our society. With the improved motor skills and physical fitness, comes improvements in self-esteem, ability to interact socially, increased speed in processing worldly images as the world as viewed moves (relative to the person), as well as a host of other attributes including the smile factor.
In my case I never went out for any competitive or team sport – other than my brief try at going out for football in ninth grade. Competitive sports were not fun for me, and I only participated to the extent that I was required to by adults, or in cases if the whole neighborhood gang of kids decided to play a ball game. In those cases I was invariably the last kid to be picked to be on a team. In all my years of education from kindergarten to college I have no recollection of any physical education teacher actually teaching “physical education.”
Instead, the typical scenario was that, like in high school, we would quickly change into our gym clothes, scrimmage for most of the period, run a few laps around the practice field or gymnasium near the end of the period, and then be given three minutes to run back to the locker room, undress, shower, and be at our next class. Our activities were a form of exercise and competitive game involvement, but not being coached. Quite frankly, our high school physical education teacher had been in that job when my father was in high school. After three decades of being the PE teacher, the teacher (Mr. Jim Penders) had reduced his level of involvement to that of assembling the kids, checking off names, tossing out a ball, blowing a whistle, and retiring to the teachers’ lounge for coffee and –.
The other aspect to consider about sports is the notion of varsity sports. Varsity sports are dominantly about winning. With winning comes ego building and with some combination of things, the evolvement of a financially solid and self-sustaining sports program. By the time we are in top-tier colleges and universities, winning and dollars are everything. Athletic directors of major schools are in a business – a business of attracting and recruiting star athletes and then keeping the coffers filled with cash coming in from donors.
“Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.’” – Luke 19:45-46
Institutions of education that have constructed sports facilities under the guise of physical education, and yet who manage the physical facilities for the purpose of glorification of the winning sports team are way off mark when it comes to serving the physical education needs of the students. In selecting locations for our adapted bicycling programs, where physical education is our goal, we can’t overturn the tables of the money changers in the temple, but we can and do take our program elsewhere. If athletic directors and coaches refuse or object to permitting adapted activities for the benefit of those still trying to achieve the most fundamental levels of physical skill, we know that we are in the wrong place.
As time permits we will come back to this topic of the theology of the bicycle. It is a deep and rich topic.