Track and field day is a rite of passage with one special gym teacher

Track and field day becomes an opportunity for learning to try your best with no trophies allowed under one gym teacher's rules.

Todd R. Nelson
Track and field day is a rite of passage for many at The School in Rose Valley. Here, a second grader practices hurdles just for fun during recess.

Imagine if you had gone to a school where a teacher sent home the explanation below for the impending track and field days. 

It’s a rite of passage, an annual sporting event that kids at my school look forward to, and also an example of a core teaching philosophy – kind of like the way we do woodshop, and art, and music, or journal writing, social studies, and algebra. So imagine if your teachers had looked at your intellectual and social development with the following point of view. 

And if there is a difference between what you experienced from your teachers or parents, imagine who you might be today had you experienced sports with Mike. 

Mike is my school’s sports and P.E. teacher. He has 30 years of experience inspiring kids to play and strive in all manner of games and athletics. Today, Mike sent an e-mail to the parents of third- through 6th-grade graders. He was preparing them for next week’s track and field days. After hearing from Mike, you’ll know exactly how to prepare for your track events; how it will feel to run around the school field; how to cheer your classmates; how to feel accomplishment and process your new times, heights, and other physical data. 

But according to the law of transitive operations in education, you’ll also be learning how to think on your next writing assignment. How to handle the ins and outs of recess. How to adapt to middle school, high school, maybe even college classes and career tracks. You’ll have a standard that isn’t standards-based, but all the more effective because of that. You’ll know how to answer the question, “Who am I?” You’ll be a terrific partner, spouse, parent, and community member. 

Ready? Here’s what Mike wrote:

“Dear Parents: 

“Next week’s annual Track and Field Days give 3rd-6th graders the opportunity to take stock of their own physical development by posting their personal bests in seven events over the course of four years. In the 31 years that I have documented this event, the overwhelming majority of children have posted across the board gains each year. Those that don’t, have generally put on weight just prior to a growth spurt, or have just experienced a growth spurt that has found their coordinative skills still adjusting to their larger bodies. 

“The cumulative goal of the event is for all of the children to recognize that they are not in physical stasis, that they are capable of physical improvement regardless of their current level of participation in any organized sports or other routinized physical activities and that no doors to physical activities have been closed to them as they enter the next phases of their lives.    

“There will be no ribbons, trophies, cash or new cars handed out after the events because the goal is simply to give each child the opportunity to take note of his/her own development and because it would be akin to bestowing an award upon a child for being the tallest or shortest, having the lightest or darkest hair, etc. (Think about it).

“I present this opportunity to the children in this manner:

“‘If you choose to take part in any of the Track and Field events, know that I don’t expect your best efforts to be the same as anyone else’s. You are the only you and neither I nor anyone else expects you to be able to do more than your body can currently do. The only expectation you should have for yourself is that you’ll try your hardest.

“‘Be prepared to be supportive of everyone who chooses to take part in the events. As in Sports class, our goals are to recognize and support everyone’s best efforts and to give them the support they need to improve.’”

Okay, you’re not in third- through 6th-grade at my school. Your elementary experience feels back a ways in time. Or does it?

Sometimes we live in a kind of simultaneity with our present and past selves; our inner third grader co-exists with our outer career professional. Which means that Mike could be talking to you, about you, in the here and now. Mike’s message applies to more than sports! You still need the voice of Mike in your life! And it’s not too late to give yourself a break and understand your performance with a realism that will help you to be great at something you aspire to be great at. Or to forgive yourself your shortcomings based on inappropriate or typical comparisons with other people’s bodies, growth rate, dexterity, endurance and performance. 

Whatever your high jump, distance run, sprint or long jump might be today, consider applying “Sports with Mike” to your event. Here’s what I learned from Mike. 

Your development is unique and we all make progress at our own unique rate. 

You own your improvements! How “Jeffersonian”!

You are in motion – not stuck or standing still – and always adapting and growing. 

Possibilities abound. 

Real rewards – lasting rewards – are intrinsic rewards.

Do your best, not someone else’s best. 

Help your teammates – and everyone’s a teammate. 

Now consider how close Sports with Mike is to the way professional athletes talk about themselves. Would a major league pitcher, talking to the media after the game, have anything in common with a third- through 6th-grader at my school, under Mike’s tutelage? 

“I did pretty well in the high jump this year—better than my last season. So I’m pretty happy with my performance. I think I can do a little better as the season (aka Life) goes on. I just need to work a little harder at my take-off; the landings went pretty well this year. In the off-season, I’m planning on doing a little more strength training and we’ll see what happens. I also want to say what a great job my teammates did in the other events. All in all, I think we’re all progressing; the practice is paying off. We’ll just have to see how the next meet goes. But I think we’re on a good pace for competing well at the nationals.” 

“What about the Olympic trials?”

“Well, that’s a long way off. We’ll just take it one meet at a time and keep up our training and positive attitude. Gold medals will take care of themselves, if we focus on the one real competition – the one with ourselves.” 

Play on, everybody!

Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley.

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