Break Records, Not Hearts

If you have ever taught physical education, coached young athletes, supervised recess, or been around young people engaging in a game long enough, you have witnessed competition turn into strife. Arguments about rules, score, and fairness can completely derail the activity. While it can be developmentally appropriate to let students communicate their feelings and work together to find a solution, it can be frustrating to the PE teacher working within time constraints. Teachable moments that involve compromise and sportsmanship should not be ignored. However, if every PE class is devolving into chaos, lessons should be altered to help avoid these conflicts.


Focus on task completion instead of direct competition

Whenever we are introducing a new sport to our students, we will need them to practice the fundamental skills of that sport. However, game based drills are far more effective and fun for the students. As the students are playing the games, some will naturally want to compare their effort (and score) to someone else. If they begin comparing themselves to their friends (especially those not interested in comparison), arguments usually abound. To avoid this, we are going to use two different ways for students to assess their progress without insulting anyone else.

#1 Give them Benchmarks

For students to know how well they are doing without direct comparison, they will need objective benchmarks. For example, I recently was working with my students on skills needed for Australian Rules Football. One of the more unique skills to this sport is having to dribble the large rugby like football. This is more difficult than a sphere shaped ball because, if it is not dropped correctly, the ball takes radical bounces that are hard to predict. I broke the students into lines and their job was to make it from one side of the gym to the other without losing the ball after each bounce. A successful trip was worth one point. I set the first benchmark at 5 points, which was something I knew every student could accomplish with enough time. After breaking them up into small relay teams, in increments of five, I increased the benchmarks, so 10 was very good, 15 was excellent, 20 was awesome, etc. This let the teams know how well they did without direct comparison. I also made sure that each group had at least one first, second, and third grader.

#2 Give them Records

If you have a class full of very competitive students, having benchmarks may not be enough to keep them from constantly comparing themselves to each other. In this case, you will need a record for the whole group to work towards beating. The record could come from the performance of another class, it could be the performance of a previous class years ago, or it could be a made up number that would be difficult to beat. Either way, by redirecting the students towards the goal or task, they are using teamwork to fuel their competitive drives towards breaking this record. Students will be invested in each other’s performance, and may give tips, tricks, and cheer on their classmates. If the students break the record, they will be happy and proud of their hard work. If they don’t break the record, they may be disappointed, but this could serve as motivation for next time. Either way, discussing their performance (what went well, what did not go well) is important so they can make necessary adjustments.

Taking competition and comparison away from a specific person and redirecting it towards a task enhances teamwork without dampening the competitive spirit of some of your students. Students will concretely see how their work contributes to the team effort, and if they are successful, they will feel proud of their accomplishment. For students who do not enjoy the direct competition of sport, achieving tasks can be helpful in building self-esteem. As the word suggests, self-esteem is built by the individual, not by anyone else, and is hard to do authentically. When people make goals and achieve them, they boost their self-esteem, which is what we hope happens when the students work together to achieve a task.