Training can be Better than Competing

When I was a littlie I hated PE1 with every fibre of my being. I hated the way the PE teachers yelled at us and made us do things we mostly didn’t want to do. I hated being made to compete against the other kids in my class. In PE I would almost always come last the second anything was turned into a race or a competition. I would make no effort because competing stressed me out. I would get out of PE as much as I could. I would conveniently have my period or a note from home explaining why I couldn’t take part.

I was also made to feel from a very early age that I was not good at sport. The kids who showed talent were immediately fallen upon with glee: “A future Aussie Olympic medalist! Let us get them to the Australian Institute of Sport, stat!”2 Those of us who did not show instant aptitude for throwing, kicking, catching or thwacking balls, for running or jumping, or lifting heavy things, or moving through the water quickly, learned that there was little point in us trying because we were crap.

It wasn’t until I left high school that I discovered I, in fact, love many different sports.3 And that while I would never have been professional or Olympic level at anything I was not, in fact, crap. I have decent hand eye co-ordination and I am quite good at picking up physical instruction.

I started with fencing, then there was rowing (briefly), climbing, swimming, tennis, and most recently, boxing, and through all of it weight training and working out in gyms. I discovered that I really enjoy learning how to do physical things and that I particularly enjoy learning technique. I love that I can progress from rubbish to competent with practice.

Dear Readers, I love practising, I love training. My first day on the speed ball I was total rubbish. Have you seen Girlfight?4 They do an excellent learning-the-speed ball montage. Like Michelle at first I could not get it to do anything I wanted it to do. The speed ball annoyed and frustrated me. I wanted to kill the speed ball. STUPID SPEED BALL. But then, lo and behold, with a little bit of practice I got better. I got so I could do it really, really fast in an I AM A FEARSOME WARRIOR kind of way. At which point my trainer taught me a different technique and I was back to square one—maybe square two—and had to learn all over again. Every time I get decent at a particular way of thwacking the speed ball she teaches me a different way and I go back to being arhythmic and rubbish. LOVE IT!

I became fit. I discovered that being fit not only feels physically fantastic but helps my mental health as well. I am a much happier person when I’m exercising regularly. It’s also the only time that I can turn my brain off. When I’m intensely focussed on learning and perfecting (ha!) a new technique that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m not angsting about fixing my book or anything else I’m. Just. Boxing. It’s AWESOME.

I really hope that PE is taught differently these days. That kids are not made to feel like failures if they cannot instantly throw a ball accurately or run fast. That they are no longer taught that competing and winning are the be all and all. That the emphasis is now on being fit and enjoying various different sports and physical activities and not just one competing and winning.

I hope that PE teachers around the world have finally abandoned the idea that only the naturally gifted will excel at sport.

Here’s why: There’s a town in the UK where they keep producing Olympic level badminton players.5 This happened because a top badminton coach lived there and taught at the local school and opened a badminton centre that was available to interested locals 24/7. Those keen kids played there A LOT. The town developed a badminton culture and lo and behold many badminton champions. Few of whom, if tested in childhood, would have demonstrated any particular aptitude for badminton.

Talent helps, obviously. Usain Bolt would not be where he is today were he not a naturally fast runner. But he would also not be where he is today if he was too lazy to practise and train, which he has done relentlessly since he was knee high to a grasshopper. There is no world class athlete in the world today who hasn’t spent the vast majority of their life training until they puked.6

We spend way too much time obsessing about talent and not nearly enough time about hard work, practice, and training. Talent is nothing without hard work.

And, yes, all of this applies to writing too. It applies to pretty much everything. I have known many talented writers who have never gotten around to finishing a book. And many less talented writers with successful careers.7

  1. Physical Education. []
  2. I may possibly be exaggerating. A little bit. []
  3. Doing them, I mean. I learned at a very early age that I loved watching other people doing them. []
  4. If not, why not? Oh, how I adore Michelle Rodriguez. It’s a truly wonderful film. Go see it! []
  5. I think it was badminton. Google is failing me right now. There’s a whole book about this. []
  6. I may be exaggerating about the puking thing. []
  7. I totally concede that “talent” is a much more nebulous thing when it comes to the arts. []


  1. Fade Manley on #

    Yes, this exactly! I learned early on as a kid that there was no point in trying at all at physical things, because I wasn’t good at it already. I’d try to play soccer or baseball with other kids, and get yelled at for not understanding the rules, when no one had ever explained the rules to me. Or get yelled at in PE class for “not trying” because I was doing some exercise I’d never tried before and wasn’t any good at it.

    All of which told me that I was just naturally and inherently No Good at physical things, so why bother?

    And then as an adult I was introduced to karate. And rock climbing. And just plain walking places for the heck of it. Physical activities where I wasn’t constantly being compared to other people, and where friends, instructors, or strangers at the rock gym would happily give me advice if I asked for it, and general encouragement. Suddenly physical activity was fun.

    What makes me sad is that those PE teachers were honestly trying to help me become fit and physically active, if not necessarily athletic. They were, as I remember it, good people who wanted all of us kids to try hard and enjoy what we were doing. But their teaching methods didn’t convey any of that, and the way other kids treated physical stuff drove home the idea that you were just Good or Bad at sports, and there was no point in trying to change that.

    (They conveyed about the same thing in academic pursuits, sadly. I was just lucky enough to have some talent there so that it didn’t convince me to not bother with academics either.)

  2. Justine on #

    Fade Manley: They conveyed about the same thing in academic pursuits, sadly. I was just lucky enough to have some talent there so that it didn’t convince me to not bother with academics either.

    So true. I was straight-away-good at English and English-related subjects so I was encouraged. But I wasn’t at maths or science and so wasn’t really encouraged. To this day I am basically innumerate and my scientific knowledge is woeful.

    The you’re-either-good-at-it-or-bad-at-it dichotomy is disastrous for so many reasons. I so hope it’s not like that any more at most schools. But I fear it’s still the same.

  3. Books Before Boys on #

    PE teachers still unfortunately emphasize talent and skill. I’m a senior in high school now (at a different school) and I took PE as a freshman. (I was also supposed to take it again as a sophomore, but I took a nutrition class instead.) There were two PE teachers for the girls: one was the co-coach of the volleyball team and the other was coach of the softball team. My teacher (coach of the volleyball team) made us play a lot of volleyball. And because there were girls in my class who were on the volleyball team, she sometimes used PE as extra practice for the team. Basically, if you were good at sports the teachers loved you and you got a lot of attention because you were gifted. If you weren’t good, you pretty much got ignored. The teachers were still nice to you (my teacher was really nice), but you weren’t anything special. But my health teacher (who was the other coach of the volleyball team) was VERY focused on winning. If her team came in 2nd then she would be upset. She said that there is only winning; there is no trying. You either win or lose. So yes, PE teachers (and coaches) still emphasize talent and skills and winning. I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere, though. I didn’t like PE. That’s why I took the nutrition class sophomore year. (I loved that nutrition class. It was very interesting.) But I agree with you about training and working out; I work out with my dad at the gym sometimes and I always get a feeling of accomplishment when I’m done.

  4. Katie on #

    Yar, I totally hated gym. The couple of things I enjoyed were badminton and volleyball, but I just liked the fun so any competitiveness dulled them for me.

    Sadly, I’m not sure gym is taught any better today. I was in highschool 15 years ago and we had these awful days when our BMI and all that stuff was measured, plus this HORRID thing called the Beep Test, which only a certain kind of person did well at. I know where I live they still do have those measuring days in highschool.

    I know people like to measure things as a way to look at progress, but, honestly, how on Earth can they think it’s a good idea literally measure a teen’s body in class with all their peers around and not realize they are making kids compare themselves to each other. Comparing yourself to others is a fast route to self loathing and low self-esteem whether you’re a writer, an athelete, or anyone else, and teens are already prone to it. It doesn’t encourage the kids who aren’t apparent “naturals.”

    I excelled at art, by the way, and writing. It was only a few years ago through yoga that I realized my body was a physical tool to be used for my enjoyment. All people should be shown the joy of that knowledge.

  5. Laura on #

    PE is definitely still taught badly. I’m a high school junior, and just the other day my gym teacher told me off for not being able to run a mile. On my first attempt. She said it was “sad” that some of us had to walk most of the way.

  6. Justine on #

    Books Before Boys: Ugh. That’s so depressing. I can’t tell you how much I hate all that “there is only winning” crap. Very pleased you’ve discovered that there’s no winning or losing when you work out. It’s one of the things I like about it.

    Katie: So, so true. And I forgot yoga and pilates which are both wonderful ways to discover the joys of our physicality.

    Do not get me started on BMIs. SUCH CRAP. I know super fit people who score as obese on that stupid index. It’s main purpose seems to be giving people complexes. I HATE IT. Thin does not equal fit. I know many thin people who can barely walk up a flight of stairs without passing out from the exertion. And I know fat people who are plenty fit. The BMI is about fatness, not fitness and it’s CRAP.

    Laura: I am repeating your entire comment because it makes me so angry with your PE teacher:

    PE is definitely still taught badly. I’m a high school junior, and just the other day my gym teacher told me off for not being able to run a mile. On my first attempt. She said it was “sad” that some of us had to walk most of the way.

    I don’t even know where to begin. A mile is a long distance. It takes training to build up to running that far for those who’ve never done it before. How a PE teacher could not understand that I can’t even . . . She should be teaching you proper running technique. Making sure your hydrated and properly warmed up. She should be gradually building you all up to that distance. She should be doing her job! Aaaargggh!

  7. Aimee on #

    At my high school, we had to take PE in year 9 and 10. I managed to get an A in PE because I tried so hard and because of the equal weighting of health education. My high school managed to emphasise winning but also encourage social sport – we had 50 netball teams, for instance – and I, a chubby, non-athletic kid, played hockey, netball and waterpolo.

    The school where I now teach seems to have a more competitive focus on sports – kids aren’t encouraged to play socially to the same extent. However, from what I can tell, PE emphasises being responsible, safe and a good team player – so non-athletic kids in my form class are the ones who seem to get the most positive PE reports.

  8. Sarah on #

    I had good and bad experiences in gym. I hated most units that were team sports involving a ball. I am just not good at them. And I’m pretty sure some of the teachers graded you on your skills because I once got a C+ in gym. Ugh.

    But then we would do swimming units and those were fun. We got to practice canoeing in the swimming pool and then go do it on a river. We also had a biking unit which was fun. We would go biking around the track or we would go bike in the surrounding neighborhood. That was fun. To this day, I still really love biking.

  9. Justine on #

    Aimee: So pleased to hear it is done well some places. I, too, adore biking.

    Sarah: You’re so right, the social aspect of sport is so key and so often neglected. I’m very pleased to hear that it is emphasised at some schools.

  10. yy on #

    Ugh PE. I loved it when I was in my first few years of primary school, where we mostly played captain’s ball, catching, beanbag relays and the like, but as we got older it really just became about ‘discovering talent’. In Junior College (two years of it, before Uni), it got even worse. The ones of us who were overweight were made to just run round the track at every PE lesson, while our lighter classmates got to play games like baseball, volleyball, netball etc. 🙁 Plus, almost all our PE teachers were themselves overweight, and would stand around in the shade, watching us run, and shout on their megaphones, “RUN FASTER!” And for the bunch of us who were borderline overweight, we became their little projects–they would try to make us lose enough weight to get us to the official ‘normal weight’ so that they could add us to their statistics to show how well they were doing their jobs. They would weigh us after every PE lesson and try to guilt-trip us for being overweight. Oy.

  11. Justine on #


    See? They’ve got me yelling too. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

  12. wandering-dreamer on #

    Funny enough I kinda broke down earlier today because I realized I was going to have some free time tomorrow since a class got canceled, thought I would have time to go rock climbing but realized that I instead need to run errands and goddammit I haven’t had time to do rock climbing since April, that is something worth sobbing over (and a roommate helped reassure me that yes, you can do all of that and will be happier in the long run for it to). I always loved gym because my gym classes were almost all games. I wasn’t good at all of them (Pitcher’s Poison I am looking at you) but we really did have a lot of fun games and since I’ve always been a bit athletic I had fun at. I did have some nice teachers as well who just wanted us to exercise and enjoy it, although I am noticing a trend here so I’ll admit that I’m fairly thin, ie I never looked like someone who needed to exercise more (and none of my classmates did come to think of it) so none of us were “projects” either, guess I got luckier than I thought.

  13. infinitieh on #

    They still offer PE? For me, it was all just volleyball and basketball with the occasional track & field which I tried really hard to get out of by taking the alternative, if offered, because those hurdles scare me. My memories of PE are all of the various ways I got hurt. At least I had excellent PE teachers, even if none of them could talk me into trying the hurdles.

  14. Cathy on #

    I mostly enjoyed PE, except for when we had to climb the rope up to the ceiling (which cannot have been particularly safe) because I never managed it. I had zero upper arm strength.
    Low point in PE was in second grade when I failed walking. The teacher wanted everyone to “naturally” walk the boundary line for the basketball court by putting one foot directly in front of the other as if on a balance beam. At the time, both my feet stuck out to the side like I was in permanent ballet second position. My parents thought that part of my report card was pretty stupid, since as far as they were concerned, I’d been managing the walking thing just fine since infancy.

  15. Reader on #

    This happened to me. I also dislike how in school, they have this whole “self esteem” thing about not saying who’s good at academics, but it’s fine for the sports kids to be getting an award every. Single. Assembly.

    In other news, I have a friend who trains seriously at athletics. You’re not exagerrating about the till-you-puke thing.

  16. Justine on #

    Reader: In other news, I have a friend who trains seriously at athletics. You’re not exagerrating about the till-you-puke thing.

    Shhh! I was trying not to scare them.

  17. c on #

    As another disliker of PE, but lover of sport, I just wanted to add that at my school there was a difference between the PE teachers/ sports coaches who had been professional athletes and those who had only trained as PE teachers.
    My school was sports obsessed to the point of being scary- it had been an all boys school till the 70s, and still had some of 19th century ‘public’ school ideas, so hired ex professionals to help the sports teams get the best results. However, these were the nicest, most patient teachers for those of us with less than stellar abilities.

  18. Fade Manley on #

    My PE classes weren’t all horrible, for me. I distinctly remember enjoying badminton and lacrosse. But… I enjoyed them specifically because they didn’t think anyone would know how to play, so they explained all the rules, and had us practice the basics in pairs a lot before letting us run around and actually play it as a game. And there was no pressure on winning or not, since they mostly wanted us to prove we’d learned the rules. That was fun!

    And then it would come around to the Standards days again, and I’d have teachers yelling at me for “not trying” because I was a horribly unathletic kid, but I was skinny, so they figured I must be fit. Skinny kids are in good shape, right? So if a fat kid doesn’t do well, it’s because they can’t, but if a skinny kid doesn’t do well, it’s because they’re deliberately disobeying the teacher… Sigh.

    I actually want to take up jogging and running. I love walking, and I’d like more stamina. But I can’t quite get over the lingering feeling that if I try to run for more than a sprint to the bus stop, I’m going to be judged for not doing it faster/for longer/properly. Ugh.

  19. Fiona on #

    Like a lot of people have already said, things definitely haven’t changed (at least here in Britain they haven’t). PE teachers are so competitive. Basically if you aren’t good at sport, in my experience, you were ignored. The PE teachers and the more athletic students had a great rapport and banter with the PE department, whereas me and my friends weren’t really spoken to. But the thing is, that attitude from the PE teachers then reflects onto the athletic students. They thought it was OK to shout at me and my friends for not helping them win, or being rubbish at whatever sport we were playing.

    The most fun I ever had in PE was in my final year of high school. They split our PE classes up by ability, so all the ‘rubbish’ people went in one group and all the atheletic, sporty people in another. Being in a group of people who didn’t care who won or lost was fantastic. We could all have a lot of fun, without the constant pressure of needing to win and be good.

    The thing I think is most important is the enviroment and atmosphere which you’re doing the sport in. I’ve been doing Karate for eight years – I’m a black belt. Clearly, I can do well in sport. But it’s only because my Karate training was separate from that horrible school PE atmosphere that I could get to that stage. Otherwise, I doubt I would have gotten very far at all.

    Great post, Justine!

  20. Eliza on #

    I was actually extremely fortunate to have had a fantastic PE teacher in high school. She had pushed for the department to offer different types of PE classes so that students could choose what suited them best. There was a team sports class, an individual sports class, a lifetime fitness class, and one or two others that I can’t remember. I took the lifetime fitness class and was shocked to find that she was actually concerned about us wanting to be fit our entire lives. She had stationary bikes, encouraged walking, golf, and even had Dance Dance Revolution, and many other things, and encouraged us to try everything to try and find something that we enjoyed and might be willing to commit to long term. She taught us about heart rate, about pacing yourself, about setting short and long term health goals, and was always enthusiastic about us finding a path to fitness that made us happy.

    She was also an excellent health and Drivers Ed teacher. I heard this year that she received the National PE Teacher of the Year award here in the US, which thrills me. Everyone should have a PE teacher like her.

  21. Emmaco on #

    When I was at (an Aus) high school in the 90s we all did PE together the first year, then we got a choice between proper PE (it was a board subject) and once a week sport. The latter was pretty good, we had lots of different sports each term, including non-competitive options. It was generally a good system because I don’t think most of us ended up thinking we were bad at sport. But I think they could have done more to encourage a life long love of being fit – I love the class you described, Eliza!

  22. O.G.N on #

    Until you recall the detail of the English badminton town, there is the small (pop 14,000) Norwegian town of Voss that keeps producing Olympic level winter athletes. Over the last half century athletes from Voss have won no less than 18 medals in the winter Olympics.

    From what I hear this is less a case of one super-coach and more a general culture of encouraging everyone. Alternatively, Vossinger may just be genetically superior to us ordinary mortals.

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