‘I genuinely believed sport just wasn’t for people like me’
If the mere thought of taking part in competitive sport brings you out in a cold sweat, the chances are those negative feelings can be traced back to your school days. But handled differently, PE lessons can spark a life-long love of physical activity which has little to do with winning or losing. As the Guernsey Sports Commission launches its 5 Year Action Plan to encourage more people to take part in sport, Laura Fry reflects on the impact of her own childhood experiences
HAVE you ever reflected on your experiences of sport as a child? Ever wondered how these experiences have impacted on how active or sporty you are as an adult?
Recently, I did just this. Following a conversation with a good friend, Marie, and the launch of Guernsey Sports Commission’s 5 Year Action Plan, I found myself wondering where our attitudes to sport and physical activity come from and what impact they have on us as adults.
During our conversation, it struck me that mine and Marie’s attitude and experience with sport differs. Most years, Marie will set herself a goal involving signing up to ultra marathons, open water swims, triathlons and yoga courses, all of which almost always require commitment to a heavy training load involving learning new skills and technique and building stamina. When she signs up to a challenge or sets a goal, her decision is not based on how well or how badly she thinks she might do. Winning is not her motivation. She doesn’t worry about being judged for her abilities or not knowing the training lingo, and she doesn’t care about buying the latest kit.
When training, she is rarely deterred by knock-backs and views a great training session as one where the sun was shining and she enjoyed a big slice of cake afterwards.
Marie engages with sport because she is drawn to the emotional, mental and physical benefits of being outdoors, meeting people, challenging the mind and body, being more than just a mum, a wife or a daughter, and the opportunity to discover that she’s stronger than she thought.
Her attitude to sport means she will always remain fit and healthy, and probably live a long and happy life. When I asked about her memories of sport as a child, she remembers her high school PE teacher. ‘She was so lovely’, Marie recalls. As an ex-England hockey player, she seemed passionate about helping the girls in her year experience sport as something fun, challenging and supportive. She would even pick out the girls with the least aptitude for a sport and spend the time teaching them enough of the skills so that they could enjoy the lesson or the game that little bit more.
When Marie talks about sport as a young girl, she doesn’t talk about how good or how fast she was, or how many trophies she did or didn’t win. Instead she talks about how much she enjoyed it and how inspirational her teacher was.
In contrast, as an adult, I am still nervous about trying new sports. The idea of joining a team terrifies me, and I rarely sign up to events that involve any form of competition. It took over a decade of my adult years to build a healthy relationship with a sport that found me and has helped me engage with it in a way that satisfies my need to stay fit and healthy, be outdoors, geek out on biomechanics, spend time with friends and support my work as a coach.
Before this, sport was a world of binaries: good/bad, fast/slow, strong/weak, picked/not picked, first/last. Between the age of 16 and 25, I didn’t engage with it at all. I occasionally exercised to burn calories but that’s about it. In those years, I really missed sport. I envied friends who were part of a team, talked about training sessions, travelled the country and the world to complete marathons, and seemed to have an inner confidence that I craved.
As a young child growing up in rural Wales, I loved sport. Anything that involved a ball, racquet, water, a bike, a gym mat or mud was my favourite time of the day. I had boundless energy and an ability to turn my hand to anything. I was never a top performer but performance was never on my radar. I wasn’t aware of ‘sports for girls’ and ’sports for boys’. In fact, I found netball with girls so boring that I asked my dad to accompany me to force my headmaster to allow me to play rugby with the boys.
My lust for sport, however, changed when I joined high school.
Here I met someone who changed my relationship with sport until I hit my mid-20s – my PE teacher, Mrs Walters. She terrified me and entered my life at a time when my hormones and self-awareness joined forces to take over my world. Perhaps, had she known the impact she would have on my relationship with sport for years to come, she may have revealed a softer, more empathetic side. But Mrs Walters seemed to be motivated by the desire to weed out the weaker girls so she would be left with a small group of model athletes – girls who had a certain look (pretty), crossed the line in the top three, never dared to complain about period pains or being too cold on outdoor pitches, and could always afford the time and fees to travel and enter races and competitions. These girls were already brilliant athletes. They were fast, skilful and possessed the stamina of strong Welsh rugby players.
If you weren’t one of these girls – which I wasn’t – you could forget about being encouraged or presented with a microgram of empathy. Mrs Walters wouldn’t waste her time on you. Generally I spent most PE lessons trying not to be seen for fear of being on the receiving end of an icy glare or disapproving comment because I had dropped the ball or missed the shot, or had to stop to catch my breath.
I heard the boys had it worse and remember seeing several left in tears outside changing rooms or on the side of pitches. The boys’ PE teacher was Mr Walters, my teacher’s husband.
A vivid memory was the year I had to make subject choices. Generally my decision-making revolved around the teachers I feared the least. PE was not one of them, despite my love of sport.
After high school, sport disappeared from my life unless it involved watching it on TV. But when my mental health took a turn for the worse while living in London in my mid-20s, suddenly I had to do everything I could to feel better. Physical activity became an obvious medicine so I bought a bike for commuting and in time ventured back into the swimming pool.
A close friend and keen triathlete gradually persuaded me to give his sport a go. It appealed because I wouldn’t have to join a club or work with a coach or anyone who might judge me. It became my sport and I’m so grateful I found it, or it found me. Quickly I was reminded of the fun I used to have with sport and the permission it gave me to be myself. Triathlon gave me the autonomy to work hard when I felt able to and take it easy on the days that everything felt like a struggle. It felt like something I could control when sometimes life felt out of control, and it also helped me connect my mind with my body: when my mind wasn’t good, neither was my body, and vice versa.
Finding triathlon helped me change my attitude to sport but I still find myself feeling saddened by the years lost because I avoided it. So impactful were my experiences as a young teen that I genuinely believed sport, any sport, just wasn’t for people like me – quiet, introverted, unpretty, really tall, not exceptional and pretty slow. I’m pleased I’ve had the opportunity to discover sport for the opportunities it brings – not the podium spots and Press headlines but the inner confidence and strength that comes with personal achievements like finishing, trying my best, going beyond my comfort zone and doing everything I can to feel ok.
Of course, PE teachers are not solely responsible for nurturing positive, life-long relationships with sport. Coaches, parents and any person responsible for presenting young people with opportunities to engage with sport can have a profound impact on individuals during their development years. It’s exciting to see so many positive role models involved with coaching young people on the island, from volunteers to professional coaches as well as teachers. My experiences at high school helped me choose a career in coaching where I can do my bit to make sure the next generation can discover the joy of sport, beyond winning, and for that I’m grateful to my PE teacher.
So if you are reading this as someone who believes sport is only enjoyable for the winners, or someone who stops themselves joining in because they fear being the slowest or the last, ask yourself where these ideas come from and whether you can be curious to explore a different version of sport. This island is the perfect place to do it.
GSC's 5-Year Action Plan
Launched at the Sporting Achievement Awards on 9 January, the aim of the plan is to help develop, improve and encourage access to sport for everyone, no matter what their background, age, or level of ability, in a safe and supportive environment.
For more information, visit guernseysports.com.