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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

REFLECTIONS: Something is missing from P.E. in schools

Maybe it is just me, but something seems to be missing from P.E. in public schools in the U.S. Besides the smelly sweat socks and aroma of wintergreen-scented muscle soreness cream I recall from my youth, team sports was the curriculum most impressed upon us. It seemed like the gym class mission for every student in this country was to be taught how to hit and run bases in baseball, defend and attack a soccer goal, and play a man-to-man defense in basketball. Track and field events were a close second as we seemed to be always working towards running the elusive comfortable mile.
    But times have changed. Or have they? I am not and have never been a teacher of physical education in schools so I don't pretend to have any idea of the content in their curriculum. In other words, I am far from a P.E. expert. However, it seems to make sense that our youth would be given the same level of instruction in sporting endeavors that included both individual and team oriented activities. That was not what I experienced.
    This time of year, or actually further into the season (since it has been so unseasonably warm this year in March), students would be pushed onto a tennis court with ancient racquets, tennis balls only suitable for one's pet, and little to no instruction about technique, scoring, strategy, or movement. I can't really blame the teachers since I know all too well from my own educational experience how much content they are probably required to cram into about a 185-day school year. But it is clear that tennis in NOT a priority in the curriculum. It seems to barely be a blip on the radar.
    So no one cares about tennis you say? I beg to differ. We just recently finished the BNP Paribas Open located in Indian Wells, California. The largest of the combined ATP World Tour (men) and WTA (women) events, it broke attendance records for the sixth straight year and welcomed 370,408 fans to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden during this two-weeks of world class tennis. Certainly attendance like this as a U.S. tennis event must warrant another look at the growing popularity of tennis and how much emphasis we place on sports in schools that we are unlikely to actively pursue past our school years. How many parents over the age of 40 play soccer, football, baseball, or run track and work on standing broad jumps? In other words, it seems that kids are being primed for sideline-adults who become content to simply follow their favorite teams instead of enjoying a scaled-back version of healthy athletic action.
   The last time I checked, tennis was A LIFETIME SPORT. Certainly it is not the only one since golf ranks highly in this category. But I challenge you to compare the physical advantages gained by hitting tennis balls in a court versus a golf ball on a course. Notice any overweight tennis players on tour versus what we see on the PGA? That could be because the ATP and WTA players are hitting balls about every few seconds while golfers take a swing maybe every few minutes or even longer. Oh, and there is no cart in tennis that takes you to the next shot.
   The reason I bring this up is that my continued observation of teenagers on the courts show that most have absolutely no clue about anything tennis. They are having fun, getting exercise, and breathing in relatively fresh air. This is all good. But they seem to have learned nothing from P.E. classes about this sport, and it is a shame that their level of frustration grows quickly as they miss one shot after another due to a lack of even rudimentary knowledge of stroke production or court positioning. Why would any kid want to keep pursuing a sport that schools care so little about. I know in my high school, most of the sports budget went to the football team. I wonder how many from the team are playing football today? My athletic pursuit was the tennis team, and decades later I'm still running around the court. I may have not been one of the highly popular football jocks, but at least I'm still using the skills I started developing in my youth. This is simply the nature of a lifetime sport.
    Is is possible we can elevate the status of tennis just a bit as we see the well-documented healthy and worthwhile activity it could be in our public school systems? Tennis has a low barrier to entry, free public court availability, can be played day and night (where lighting is in place) and needs as few as two people for participation. If we could just break out of the "must be a team sport" mentality and realize that LIFE is an individual sport that brings the following: your individual report card, your individual high school diploma, your individual college degree, your individual résumé, your individual interview, your individual job, etc.
   No man is an island, and we must interact with each other in a synergistic fashion for maximum results. There is little doubt that teamwork is an extremely valuable lesson. But you might think that P.E. teachers never heard of the Davis Cup where the best international tennis athletes come together and compete for their county on a team of players who on any other given day would be their individual competition at tournaments. Perhaps we could pay attention to the individual-effort sports just a little bit more. Physical Education in schools seems like it would be a great place to promote the lifetime activity of tennis in order for one to potentially gain a healthier and more energetic lifestyle. Screaming for your favorite team from the couch may be fun, but actually competing head-to-head in an athletic activity is much better for you and unquestionably more aerobic.

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