TALKING about physical education in schools generally gets one of two reactions: a happy smile, or a horrified shudder.
Chiara Belluomo falls into the second category. She says being forced to play team sports was her worst nightmare.
The 26-year-old went to a large private school at Bowral, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, and she had an impressive arsenal of tricks to skip class.
“I’ve done everything I could to get out of it from faking blood noses — I even brought bloody tissues to school — to the period excuse, to pretending something bad was happening at home and just crying,” she said.
When asked how the experience affected her later in life, she laughed and said “it’s made me more manipulative as an adult, I’m very creative”.
Ms Belluomo explained for people who aren’t naturally sporty, the worst part about being forced to play team sports at school is being publicly shamed.
“(It) was awful especially when the teachers would single you out. I’ve got terrible hand-eye coordination,” she said.
She avoided teams sports and fitness as much as possible until she had something of revelation at university, when she discovered she actually really enjoyed going to the gym to attend pilates and yoga classes.
“I think that was just a hangover from this awful, archaic attitude to sport. I didn’t do sport at all until I got to uni, and there was this new take on fitness.”
Physical education in schools has never been more important.
Research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows more Australians are overweight or obese than ever before, and along with dietary risks, it’s the second highest contributor to our national burden of disease.
A health tracker published by Fairfax Media on Tuesday shows up to 80 per cent of residents in some suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne are failing to walk for even three hours a week, which is the base level required to maintain health.
Would it be different if schools stopped forcing Australian students to play team sports, and instead shifted the focus to encouraging healthy fitness habits?
Leah Davies told news.com.au her son Ryan, who is currently enrolled in year 10 at a public school in Western Victoria, really hated playing football.
Mrs Davies said although he’s healthy and can happily kick a footy around for hours on end, he doesn’t enjoy the intensity of being forced into a team.
“Instead of making it fun, it was all about the competition, and he did not enjoy that. The peer group exacerbated it. I think it’s the exclusion, you’re in or you’re out.
“Ryan loves being out and about, he loves his bike, and if it’s a nice day he’ll be out the door. It’s not an aversion to being active, it’s just team sports.”
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) told news.com.au the national health and physical education curriculum simply aims to teach students the movement skills they need to participate in physical activities.
Beyond that, it’s up to state and territory education departments and individual schools to decide what is actually taught in class.
Ryan Hulteen, a research associate at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, said it’s also about confidence.
He told news.com.au team-based activities are typically more popular in early childhood, but that adolescents tend to be more interested in individual exercises.
“What happens in team sports is the ‘best kids’ dominate game play, and sometimes they don’t allow all the kids to participate. Sometimes individual sports can be better so kids can pursue them to their own intensity, and there’s not as much shame.”
A critical issue in discouraging children and teens from forming healthy fitness habits as adults is a lack of confidence in their ability.
“We know that children who have high motor confidence are more likely to be physically active later in life,” he said.
“In order to be active, kids need to have the motor skills, but other things like confidence in their ability are important to have as well.”
Ashley Wick told news.com.au she loathed being forced to play netball so much it put her off competitive team sports altogether.
The 22-year-old joined a touch rugby team at university with her friends, but said it was more about being social than actually working on fitness.
“When you’re finished school, it’s up to you to find things,” she said, explaining she now prefers swimming and working out at the gym.
“I hated PE, hated it, because it was very much all about team sports. You play this for a term, and that for a term … I would like to see more choice.”
Natalie Sampson, a member of the Senior Pathways Team at Nhill College, told news.com.au she was never into sports as a kid, but loves fitness classes as an adult.
“Having said that, I think it’s important for schools to expose kids to all areas of fitness, whether that be sports, athletics, swimming or fitness activities.
“Not all kids have the opportunities through their homes and families to try these things so if schools don’t give them that chance they may never get a go.
“And it’s good for kids to try things they don’t like, it won’t hurt them and it’s character building.”