Life Lessons Through Sports
Developing Confident, Independent Kids
I've always admired the aura of respect that permeates Steve Meyer's physical education classes. In Steve's world there are no shortcuts. It's the long-term development of his students that matters. A casual observer (me) recounts five examples of events that occurred in his elementary school classes. Steve puts each event into perspective with his dead-on analysis of what motivates both student and teacher.
The sport is lacrosse. Six fifth graders are on each team. On one team, four have stopped playing and are just standing there. Increasingly agitated, the two boys who continue to play run up to the teacher. A brief discussion ensues. The boys call their team together. After a short, animated discussion, play resumes with all students participating.
Teacher's Analysis: The boys, who were both very athletic and game savvy, were hogging the ball. After a while, the other kids engaged in an act of "civil disobedience." The boys thought things had been going well (they had been—for them) and were clueless as to why the other kids stopped. When they came to me, I told them they needed to solve this problem with their team, not with me. They did.
Insight: A lot of problems occur because kids don’t realize how their actions affect others.
Fourth graders are taking turns at a large rope suspended from the ceiling in the gym. One by one they go to the rope, reach as high as they can, grab the rope, then lower themselves down. No one goes up the rope.
Teacher's Analysis: I tell them it's too hard to climb up the rope at first so we're all going to climb down. I don't allow anyone to climb up the rope at the beginning of our unit. The first time someone goes up, many kids give up on trying it, believing they can't do it. So I have them do activities such as pull-ups on the rope to give them confidence. Then, over time, they adjust to new, more demanding, situations.
Insight: Setting up a proper environment can defuse social pressure.
The game is floor hockey. One player, experienced in ice hockey, continues to "check" unsuspecting students into the gym's padded walls. The teacher calls him over. In response to a question, the student utters one word, then looks down at the floor. He stands off to the side for a few minutes while play continues without him.
Teacher's Analysis: I ask students if their play is "helpful" or "harmful" to the game. It becomes a verbal shorthand the better I know the kids. They get it. If they don’t admit their behavior is harmful, I explain why it is. If they do admit it (as this one did), I ask them to let me know when it's likely to improve. If they say they're ready now, I tell them we need to think about it a few minutes—just to be sure.
Insight: This technique is nonjudgmental because it focuses on the game not the kids. And it encourages kids to think about their role in the game and whether or not they need to change.
The teacher gives the signal to begin class. Nothing happens. The students all look at him quizzically.
Teacher's Analysis: It was my own fault. I began using this dumb phrase, "Good morning sports fans," to start every class. It became a signal to them and I didn't even know I was doing it. They said, "Aren’t you going to say it?" and I didn't even know what they meant.
Insight: Students perceive patterns in adult behavior that may not be immediately obvious to the adults.
The teacher looks at his watch and says "go." Two dozen second graders slip on elbow and knee pads, adjust their helmets, put on their inline skates, and tighten them. They are ready to roll in an incredible six minutes—without adult assistance.
Teacher's Analysis: This was new for me and I didn't know if it could be done with second graders. So I asked the kids. I told them frankly that I couldn't dress all of them and still get anything done in a thirty-minute class. Could they do it themselves? They were highly motivated and assured me they could. I had them chant, "I can do it myself." And they did.
Insight: Students who are motivated can do more than you (or they) think they can. Let them help decide whether they are able to do something or not. Give yourself permission to try and fail.
About the Author
Glenn Schmidt, an elementary special education teacher, has taught with Steve Meyer at Northside Elementary, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, since 1977. Schmidt serves on the NEA Board of Directors. Meyer teaches K-5 physical education at Northside and he is a Kohl Fellowship winner, Wisconsin's highest teaching honor.