Overcoming The Fear of Physical Education – Getting Women into Sport

2016 has another great summer of sport. From Euro 2016 and Wimbledon, to the London Anniversary Games going on at the moment and the Rio Olympics starting in a couple of weeks, there’s a lot of inspirational sport on the television right now. There have been lots of clips and reminders of the wonders of London 2012, and I am feeling guilty that I didn’t stick to the resolutions I had after watching so many people achieve so many amazing things four years ago. In a rush of enthusiasm I bought a load of sports gear with ‘Team GB’ emblazoned on the side, but after only a few weeks I gave up and went back to general sitting about. Why do so many of us find it so hard to keep active?

I recently read the book Eat Sweat Play by Anna Kessel, sports journalist for The Guardian and The Observer. The book is all about getting women more involved in sport, encouraging us to get active but also highlighting the issues still rampant in women’s sport today. One of her main arguments is that for women, sport and movement is usually tied to losing weight. While men and boys are encouraged to go and kick a football around for the joy of it, for women and girls it’s all too often about burning calories, losing weight, and becoming a more accepted shape. Of course, this can be true of men too. The stereotype of the shy boy who starts going to the gym and works out for confidence is a familiar one, although it’s often tainted with ideas of taking protein supplements or steroids to get really ‘ripped’, sometimes to the detriment of their overall health.

Sport is inherently tied up with body image for men and women. The difference seems to be that more women are put off attempting any kind of sport for fear of looking stupid or being laughed at. Anna Kessel cites a figure of 75% of women who feel this way. In a world where advertising has women looking perfect and pristine at all times, without a wrinkle or a blemish or a hair out of place, the thought of getting hot, sweaty and untidy is not appealing to many women. Especially if you’re doing something you don’t know much about at the same time and potentially getting it wrong.

For me at least, the fear of being laughed at because of my body shape or because I couldn’t do something was born at school, in PE classes. I detested PE because I had to wear shorts, and I didn’t like my legs, and I had already decided by age seven that I was terrible at everything and there wasn’t any point in trying. I hated sports days so much that one year, aged seven or eight, I got terribly upset and made myself sick, in what looking back seems suspiciously like an anxiety attack. I was allowed to sit indoors, but, as with most anxiety attacks, as soon as the threat was removed I felt much better, and then sat guiltily in the classroom feeling like a fraud for the afternoon.

PE lessons throughout high school are littered with similar memories of feeling stupid and embarrassed and unworthy: the whole class seeing how many basketball hoops they could get out of ten, or how often they could catch a ball bouncing it off the wall. On both occasions I think my score was one when nearly everyone else seemed to be saying eight or nine at least. I sat miserably wishing I could disappear and never have to do PE again. As with so much of school for me, the aim was to pass unnoticed, so during hockey or football I would run up and down the side of the pitch level with the ball, looking active but often running away if the ball came close to me. Rounders was a particular pet hate because at some point all eyes would be on you when you went up to bat. Already convinced I couldn’t hit the ball, of course I never hit the ball, so the whole thing was a total nightmare.

Kessel talks about PE classes at school and how very often the boys are given more attention than the girls, as the teachers too have an inherent attitude that the girls will be no good. This seems to be borne out in my memory of our lessons as never really involving being taught how to get better at anything. We did the same things in each class of a rotation of a particular sport, but apart from dribbling a ball in and out of cones with a hockey stick to, presumably, improve control, I don’t remember being taught how to improve. The teacher didn’t come up to me after my dismal attempts at scoring baskets or catching balls to try and teach me how to do better. I was allowed to flop in my teary state and be ignored. This was even more true when I turned 14 or 15 and someone finally noticed I didn’t do very well at PE, and I was moved down from the top set away from my friends (heaven ALONE knows how I stayed there so long- probably because I could run a bit when I first arrived at high school, proceeding to get less and less fit as the years went on). In the lower sets it was a total free-for-all, with the teacher sitting at the side gossiping or just gazing into the distance.

In recent years I have tried to get back in to some forms of exercise. I have swum periodically, very occasionally gone for a run, and went to regular dance classes for a long time which improved my tone and fitness. I have recently moved away from my place of work so I have a longer commute, making regular activity more difficult, but at the same time I have become more determined to keep fit. I have moved in with my partner who has been going to the gym regularly for six years, and credits it (as so many do) with keeping him sane and keeping his self-esteem strong. After reading countless articles about how effective exercise is for your mental health, body image, and sense of worth, I resolved to try more kinds of exercise and try to keep it up.

The idea of going for a very short (ten minutes or so) run in the mornings before catching a train at 7.15 have proved difficult to maintain. I will frequently manage 10-15 minutes of yoga, and although I don’t suppose it’s doing much for my overall fitness it is a good way to check in with the body first thing and give a sense of calm and achievement. At the weekends, we’ve tried badminton, weight training at the gym, swimming, and this weekend just gone I went horse riding for the first time in a few years. This was a prominent method of keeping fit for me when I was growing up, as I loved not just the horses themselves but being allowed to wear long trousers and boots to cover up my hated legs. Sitting on top of an animal several times your strength and weight, it’s difficult not to feel good about yourself when things go well. Plus I love speed, and nothing beats galloping a horse across a stubble field in summer.

It’s early days, but it’s been wonderfully enjoyable remembering, or, in some cases, discovering anew what my body and brain together can do. I found I can remember how to play badminton (roughly) and that I am still a moderately quick swimmer. When I went riding I found I could remember all the old movements and jargon; I could remember the aids for canter and bend, how to check my diagonal and what it means to change the rein from M to K. Did any of you see any of the dressage at the Olympics? It was a surprise hit, watching riders control horses so brilliantly that they could take tiny steps to the side (full pass), half to the side half moving forward (half pass), to switch leads in canter on every stride (flying changes and counter canter), and to go from halt to canter without a single stride of walk or trot in between. Well I haven’t done a lot of dressage, but when I rode at the weekend I was on a horse who used to compete at national level dressage, and knew how to do all that crazy shit. Even though it was only a half hour class and I’ve been riding on and off for nearly twenty years, I learned a great deal with that horse and that instructor. I got off feeling like I’d achieved something, similarly to when I went to the gym and found out I can do squats and lunges carrying a 20kg bar on my back (this is a significant weight for me as I am very slight, and had done nothing remotely similar before). The aches and pains over the next few days of doing any of these activities act as a reminder that you have used your body and found out something about it, instead of looking at it in a mirror with a creased forehead wishing there was a little less flesh here, a little more there.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games (pun absolutely intended). For activities involving more than one person, like badminton, it’s good fun to have someone to play against of a similar level to you in terms of skill but also fitness and strength. I was playing my partner who has a good eight inches on me in height, weighs a third as much again and is a great deal fitter than I am. AND has played badminton much more recently. We had a fraught game as we discovered he is toeing an impossible line of not playing well enough that I just feel like a twat running from one side of the court to the other or serving seventy times in a row, or playing so gently that I feel patronised and irritable. In many ways it was good because any anger is immediately released by smacking it or doing a particularly hard serve, and I did feel a smug pleasure in occasionally hitting it at him hard enough that he squeaked (I didn’t hit it directly at him on purpose, of course – no I really didn’t, basically all of my effort was going into returning it at all). But for every squeak he made I had twenty tiny tantrums of frustration, jumping up and down on the spot or sighing so heavily I’m surprised the net didn’t fall over. It takes balance, patience and acceptance that you aren’t going to be that good, at least not for a long time and possibly not ever if the person you’re playing has such gains on you in height and strength.

Overcoming the fear of being laughed at and judged is one of the most difficult things for me. That’s why I find it tough to be so much worse at badminton, because I’m worried my partner will be bored or be thinking, ‘Jesus, she’s rubbish.’ When he took me along to his gym to show me how to lift weights, it was all I could do not to sprint out of there as soon as I walked in. What was I doing in this room full of intimidating equipment, some of which I couldn’t even guess the purpose of, with all these fit people doing ten times what I could do? I felt small and weak and terribly out of place. But then I realised that nobody was playing a blind bit of attention. They are all there for themselves, and focussed on what they are trying to achieve. There were, I’m sure, glances of curiosity at the skinny girl being taught how to bench press by this 6ft 2 chap, especially when said girl climbed onto a weight counterbalancing machine where you’re meant to sink down and then pull yourself up- but I was too light for the weight it was set on and just sat there like a prune while my partner laughed at how cute I looked. But really, nobody cared about what we were doing.  I found that liberating and encouraging. And when we changed the setting on the machine I found that I could lift more with my shoulders than either of us expected. So I left already feeling the pull in my thighs, but with a feeling of achievement, of having pushed myself through and found I could take the weight (again, pun definitely intended).

So it’s not all going to be roses, but I’m going to try and keep up the exercise as much as I can, for both body and mind. It’s a sad catch-22 that so many women avoid exercise because they’re uncomfortable with their bodies, when exercise is exactly what could make them feel better about their bodies by seeing what they can do and really using them to get good and sweaty and have a lot of fun. Kessel made a sobering argument that women and girls aren’t encouraged to just ‘have fun’ that often – if they do I feel it’s usually meant to be associated with shopping or make-up (I suppose going shopping physically could be described as exercise, but who ever feels better about themselves when they come back from a shopping trip? Especially if you go into Zara or H&M or American Apparel and attempt to fit into their clothes apparently designed to fit malnourished schoolchildren).

There are so many options to try, and there’s something to suit everyone – as evidenced by the Olympics. You see the full range of body types competing in different Olympic events, all at the peak of their game and taking so much joy from seeing what they can do with their wonderful bodies. Even in a line-up for the same race, you’ll see so many different body types, for both men and women. Some have slim hips, some wider, some have more muscle tone, others are very slender. If ever there was a snapshot to show that trying to get all people to be the same size and shape was total balls, looking at these people would be it. Sadly even among these top athletes there is body image pressure, with Jess Ennis-Hill famously being declared ‘fat’ (WHERE?!) and others speaking out about pressures to make their bodies look a certain way. We are not all the same, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all go out and have fun and feel better about ourselves. Jess Ennis-Hill is a particularly good example of a woman dropkicking society’s expectations over the trees – winning gold in a heptathlon thirteen months after giving birth. We are so powerful – we just need to give ourselves a chance to experience it.