New Villain in the Obesity Epidemic: Mean Gym Teachers

By Darlene Cavalier | January 8, 2010 2:45 pm

gym-teacherMy high school physical education teacher had a nickname for everyone. (Mine was “Little One” because I was the runt of the class. Better than “Chicken Bones,” as one scrawny boy was dubbed.) It didn’t bother me, but according to research recently published in Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, I dodged a bullet–or maybe the dodgeball.

Billy Strean, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, says “a negative lifelong attitude towards physical activity can be determined by either a good or a bad experience, based on the personal characteristics of the coach or instructor. For example, negative experiences may come from a teacher who has low energy, is unfair and/or someone who embarrasses students.”

One person in Strean’s study shared this: “I am a 51-year-old-woman whose childhood experiences with sports, particularly as handled in school, were so negative that even as I write this my hands are sweating and I feel on the verge of tears. I have never experienced the humiliation nor felt the antipathy toward any other aspect of life as I do toward sports.”

To help combat the obesity epidemic and give people a healthier attitude towards exercise, Strean suggests coaches and teachers emphasize fun and, until kids are in their teens, consider not keeping scores.

Not sure how my high school classmate “Ace” would have felt about that….

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Image: iStockphoto

  • Cattfish

    Nah, I’m just obese because I like to eat

  • Heidi

    *sigh* and the push for coddling continues. Teachers can’t use red ink because it hurts the children’s little feelings, gym teachers can’t motivate students because it might hurt their feelings. Tough the f up already and let the kids learn how to deal with things that are unpleasant instead of avoiding them.

  • James E.

    I would agree with #2 Heidi, though we have to make sure we don’t go to the other extreme. We should not coddle but a teacher that does not know the difference between motivation and harassment that just tears the child down with out building them up causes just as much problems later on. Military officers are trained to lead and motivate. While the techniques used to motivate solders will differ from the ones that work on children, we could take a hint here and invest in some required classes of those teachers.

  • Patrick

    up until about 8 children may prefer games where everybody wins. Losing is a negative thing to them.

    but after that they are more mature, ready to be evaluated fairly and accept losing as motivation to try harder. Games where no one loses don’t have a point and not winning is not as hurtful to their feelings.

  • Darlene

    If it means anything, the nickname “Little One” didn’t bother me much. But because my best friend was the “Big One” I’m guessing she didn’t enjoy gym class too much.

  • Natalie

    I’m afraid of balls because in elementary school, we played dodgeball every day, and I was slow and always got hit.

    Being afraid of balls means I can’t catch, so I was last picked for every team sport in high school, and put where I could do the least damage to the score.

    Talk about low self-esteem!

  • warrior

    being scored as a team and being scored on your own are very different. young kids should mostly play team sports, where their peers can motivate them, with positive reinforcement from the teacher. reaching every goal should be congratulated at a very young age.

  • I miss Home Ec.

    I wouldn’t worry, P.E. is being cancelled all over the country. You can tell where our priorities lie by where we spend money when its scarce..

    Taking soda machines out of schools, and providing healthy school lunches would help. Too bad there’s money coming in from concessions, and lobbying giants are the only ones who can lay out the resources to pull off institutional scale lunch programs.

  • Calvin

    This is pathetic. People should look at kids who play individual sports–tennis, etc.–who at a very young age (some around 3,4,5 yrs) start playing, and in games where one person (or two people if it is doubles) win and the others lose. That teaches kids early on that you need to try harder to come up with a better tactic to win. This hand-holding of children by the nanny (state) is being taken to its extreme (as it would in such a society). A cultural shift needs to take place, and soon.

  • Chuck L.

    I think people are focusing on the wrong thing here. P.E. is unique in schools because it’s the only class where you get yelled at regularly, by people wishing they were doing something else (coaching varsity). Did you get called ‘dummy’ or ‘slow’ in math or English class? P.E. should be taught by the owners of fitness clubs, who are motivated to make kids want to adopt fitness as a lifelong effort, not drill instructor wanna-bes. As to scoring, I do think the authors’ ideas goofy; kids’ll count scores no matter what.

  • Wendy

    I’ve never been physically able to do a complete push-up. In grade 9, a PE teacher (who wasn’t even MY teacher!) came over to my class’s side of the field while we were all attempting our push-ups, and singled me out in front of my whole class. He told me that I couldn’t get up until I did at least one… When I couldn’t get it done, he took it upon himself to yell at me and berate me until I was in tears. IN TEARS. (I wonder what *my* PE teacher was thinking at the time, watching a fully-grown man take some sick pleasure in making a 14 year old girl cry.) Needless to say, I never developed a favourible attitude toward push-ups. Never. Some people just shouldn’t teach.

  • http://hotmail Judy

    All through 7th, 8th & 9th grades I had aPhys. Ed. teacher who hated me. I don’t know why. Actually she hated a lot of girls – the superfeminine ones. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. She constantly called me a TUB. I was 5’6, 121 lbs in 9th grade, hardly a Tub. Not a Tub in 7th & 8th grades either. Just normal. I was even pretty good at basketball and field hockey. Not great, but not awful either. In college I later became a fencer and ultimately made the American team. Yes, THAT American team. So nasty, mean gym teachers don’t have to destroy our self-esteem, our confidence.
    Some adults, even adults in school are mean, nasty jerks. If a kid can only recognize that, she’ll/he’ll l be OK. By the way, I WAS really horrible at tumbling. Still. I have to admit, I haven’t used tumbling any more than I’ve used Algebra since 10th grade.

  • K

    I don’t remember having a nasty teacher, but I do remember there were always certain activities I liked better and certain activities I didn’t like at all. Too bad there isn’t enough teachers to go around and work with what kids like to do. Some kids like being competitive, some kids don’t. Some kids like doing weights, while others get high off of running (definitely not me). I guess I’m lucky because I went to a DoD school overseas and the teachers were nicer there, and there seemed to be more of a budget to do different activities. Although I hate running, I like any activity where I get to hit something (pickle ball, kick ball, tennis, badminton, etc.) There’s lots of different ways to build a body.

  • marbee

    Remember it started with the smokers? The people doing the “studies” and the people who benefit are nothing but ORGANIZED CRIME! Big pharma money is ALWAYS behind this, it’s right on the RWJF (aka Johnson & Johnson) website. I bet those kids who have always felt loved don’t feel abused. But I’ll also bet there is major damage being done to their psyche. What a waste in every sense! What are they going to tell these kids? You’re fat (guilty)! I see now they are banning school bake sales somewhere. What ever happened to Free To Be, You And Me? They have also begun removing overweight kids from loving homes. Why isn’t every parent saying enough is enough! These thugs should be thrown in a gulag. It’s like living in a horror flick and it needs to stop!

  • marbee

    Living in this world as it is now with all these judges and nannies lording over our every move, why aren’t there more people with emotional issues! Seems that will be the reason in the end for high insurance premiums, not the reasons big pharma would have us believe. Because there are drugs for all these. They would have us be a nation of legal drug addicts for all of our ‘maladies’, like nicotine replacement ‘therapy’ which is nothing more than NICOTINE! Then there is Splenda, made by Johnson & Johnson who lost a lawsuit against the sugar industry. Health organizations have become nothing but Perception Management firms. They are PAID to CREATE “truth”. Created truth is controllable. It has never been about health, just profits for big pharma. Dig a little and see how much they pay out in grants for study outcomes that benefit them.

  • Frank V.

    I was the fattest kid in my highschool, but all my gym teachers loved me. The only time I got a hard time from P.E. was when a substitute or a teacher from another group would replace my regular teachers. They all took my low performance for laziness instead of my just being out of shape.

    The whole “self-esteem” movement has been shown to be a load of BS, but I don’t think the other extreme is any better. I think, when it comes to anything these days, moderation is the best answer. If I ate a little less, and exercised a little more, I would be in much better shape.


    Our gym teachers were huge! Maybe they were assigned gym duty by the state for their health as well as for the kids’

  • Notlazy

    Had two PE teacher/coaches through high school. One weighed about 400 pounds, the other hated everyone. Daily PE classes were universally dreaded. If they couldn’t make at least one of us cry they would work on making one of us throw up.

    Looking back now I realize that the football team had enough talent to win a few games, but because these two morons did nothing but scream, berate, belittle, and at times physically assault us (the smaller one once jerked my helmet off and punched me in the face for jumping off-side during practice; this was in extremely rural north Louisiana in the late 1960s and it was tolerated) we went zero for 32 when I was in high school.

    And the idea of playing without keeping score is silly. The kids will always keep score.

  • geeta

    There is no one way of teaching all and getting the talent out of them; but teachers have their limitations and goals to meet. So every child cannot be treated in the way that is fair to that particular child, but learning that things are not always fair early on should help the child be a better suited adult, if he/she is guided properly and that has to be done by the family. Also the child needs to learn to get over childhood – good or bad – rather than living it the rest of the life.

  • Mike Wagner

    Our elementary school teacher would punch kids, pull their hair, insult them, push them. He was basically an 8 year old bully in adult form. A real sadistic a**hole.
    He still teaches apparently, but I guess they don’t let him get away with it any more since I made a point of checking up on him in case he needed a visit from someone more than 4 feet tall.
    Hi Mr. Brady! I’ll be watching!

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • http://foxfire Lori

    I liked P.E. and my coaches. When my coaches were tough on me, it seemed to motivate me to be better. I liked all types of exercise and still do now. Sports came fairly easy to me, so I excelled. In college I cheered for University of Miami and that experience was phenomenal. It tested me and made me a better person in a multitude of ways. I loved it! I am currently trying to get back into exercising after a long………..hiatus. I find it difficult to get to the gym, but I will……one of these days. It’s hard for me to believe that I am saying that since I spent the first 30 years there.


  • Elizabeth

    I had this gym teacher (Mr. Bowser) and he is the jerkest of the jerks! He stares at girls and yells at everyone! He even gives out homework and I’m like “really?” He also makes us jog until we are pretty much collasping and makes us play all the games that we hate. He’s also fat which doesn’t make sense. Thank goodness he’s being fired next year :)


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