By Molly Heath, Marketing Assistant
Working for Create, I never cease to be amazed by the enthusiasm that those around me have for physical activity; quite literally, it is what gets them up in the morning, motivated by the impact that they know it can have and a constant love of being energetic. More often than not, they’re people that have loved physical activity their entire lives, and want to ensure that more young people leave education with this same fantastic relationship. For over a year, I’ve tried to blend in with them, tried to pretend that I too have this life-long love for sport, but now, it’s time I come clean with my co-workers. There’s something I need to confess. I, Molly Heath, hated PE.
I wouldn’t say that my overall experience of PE and Sport was entirely negative; I had some high points, some lessons where I had fun with my friends, I occasionally participated in inter-house sports competitions. Albeit, this was usually because no-one else would, but I stand proudly by my 5th place in the high jump (the person who came 6th didn’t show up). I started secondary school with some enthusiasm for PE too. Sure, I was never considered good at PE in primary school, so didn’t try my hardest, but in light of this, I wanted to be more active now that I was older. I resolved that I was going to go to hockey practice – it was a sport I’d not really tried before, and it looked fun. I had my first in-class lesson, which was difficult, and I struggled slightly, but I wasn’t demoralised. What did put me off was when we were back in the changing rooms and the teacher called out a list of girls’ names to come and speak to her, and I overheard her tell those girls that they were the ones she wanted to come to practice. I never went. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t wanted, that I wasn’t good enough at PE for it to be my ‘thing’.
My enthusiasm for PE lessened the longer I was in school; from that point onwards, I was in a process of ear-marking myself as the girl who wasn’t good at sport, that it wasn’t what I did. I was good at words and books and PE was just an irritating interruption to my day. And my experience only reinforced this. I was sick of being chastised by the overly competitive girls who made me feel like I was doing wrong by them by not being able to hit a rounders ball. I was sick of being told I wasn’t good enough if I did try and put myself forward. I was sick of the annual embarrassment of the ‘Bleep Test’, which was not used as a tool by which we could measure our fitness and motivate ourselves to get better, but was simply a lazy first lesson. Worse, the girls and boys were regularly made to run it in front of each other. In Year 11, my final year, I dropped out at 2.9; I wasn’t going to get hot and sweaty in my third lesson of the day, and at least if I went out pathetically early, it would look as if I didn’t care rather than have to openly admit how unfit I was. When choosing sports to do, I wasn’t encouraged to challenge myself in any way, nor did I want to. I picked what was easiest, what my friends were taking, and would put myself (if I wasn’t already put there by a teacher) in the lowest ability group so that the hour would go as quick as it could.
Leaving PE behind at school was a relief. But two years later, something changed. In the terrifying loom of my approaching A-Levels, I found myself stressed. Looking for a way to deal with this, I decided to join the gym, in the hope that it might reduce my stress or be a way for me to take my mind off what I regarded as my inevitable failure and the end of my life. I was initially apprehensive, in full knowledge that my fitness levels have never been great, and sure that even if I did convince myself to go regularly, it’d be a chore. Yet out of the blue, I loved it. There was something great about being able to go at my own pace, to be able to feel like I had ownership over my progress and to be able to challenge myself. I was also lucky enough to have a friend go to the gym with me. She was much better than I was, but the advantage was that where I failed to push myself, she would encourage me to keep going, rather than make me feel rubbish for it.
The difference that I put this down to? The exercise was for me. It was not to please a teacher, not because I had to be there, not to try and stop some over-competitive girl from shouting at me. Exercise wasn’t a punishment, not a chore, but it was fun, not least because I loved feeling that my body was getting stronger and that my mental well-being was improved too.
Now, I come to the point-making part of my self-indulgent exploration. Why did it take a bout of courage at 18 for me to discover that physical activity was something that I enjoyed and that had an overwhelmingly positive impact on my life? Where were the processes when I was younger that would make me feel included, like PE was a safe and fun place where I could challenge myself? Why was I left to feel as though sport wasn’t ‘for me’?
This is clearly an issue that spans all groups, but it seems as though my experience is particularly pertinent in young girls. The relationships that young women have with their bodies are frequently awful, and a negative relationship with physical activity only enhances this. Younger girls often feel put off by sport at break times, feeling that the running around is just ‘for boys’. At secondary school age, feeling bullied in lessons by the girls who were good at sport has a negative effect on your self-esteem and your willingness to participate. This doesn’t diminish the older you get, as adverts for fitness regimes and wear are filled with the impossible standards that the pressure is constantly on women to reach. The statistics only prove this; in 2012, 70% of adult women said they felt pressure from television and magazines to have a ‘perfect’ body. The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign did fantastic work in addressing this issue; taglines such as ‘sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox’ and ‘I jiggle therefore I am’ reminded us as women that everyone has those insecurities, and that we can use them instead to feel fabulous whilst we get active.
But this should be addressed earlier. Young girls, and indeed boys, should have the opportunity to realise the importance that sport has for their physical and mental wellbeing, viewing keeping active as fun and an opportunity for personal challenge from a young age. Where girls so often not only drop out of physical activity in their teens, but develop issues with body confidence and self-esteem, it is critically important that we create the positive relationships as early as we can. This way, we can ensure that these relationships last for life.
I, Molly Heath, love physical activity. But I should have known this sooner.