Do physical education and sports classes consist only of doing sports?


“More sport at school” is one of the priorities announced by the government in the run-up to the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in a context where the health crisis has highlighted the urgent need to “move” young people. Only half of boys and a third of girls reach the WHO recommendations and the increase in time spent in front of screens accentuates this propensity for a sedentary lifestyle.

The Ministry of National Education and Youth seeks to generalize various measures to encourage physical activity among children and adolescents: 30 minutes of daily physical activity in primary school , or two hours of additional physical and sports activities in middle school for volunteer students , in addition to the compulsory physical and sports education (EPS) hours.

Physical inactivity is thus seen as a public health problem whose logical response would be to set bodies in motion. However, the promotion of health through physical activity is only one objective among others of the teaching of physical education and sports (EPS) at school.

This current orientation seems to reveal a shift towards an exclusively sanitary EPS to the detriment of its other dimensions, raising fears of an already very present confusion between “EPS” and “physical activity”, reducing these courses to a moment of release for the student.

Democratizing sports culture

Physical education, as a discipline, responds to educational issues. It constitutes one of the last spaces where the body is put into play, common to a whole generation of pupils and contributes to the transmission of a shared sporting and bodily culture.

Behind the speeches making physical activity a practice intrinsically beneficial for health, the mission assigned to the PE teacher is complex .

To (re) give young people the desire to play sports, it is not simply a question of decreeing it, the involvement of adolescents in an activity is not necessarily self-evident in the school environment. For them to want to engage in physical activity for the long term, beyond classes and in their adult life, they must perceive the pleasure associated with these practices .

The challenge for teachers is therefore to invite them to live and share positive and striking sporting experiences during physical education.

In EPS, students are offered a variety of physical activities (sports, games, artistic activities). They are a way for the teacher to enrich their motor skills – and help them to balance, move, coordinate – to allow them to explore the different potentialities of their body (to express themselves through it, to develop their physical capacities, know their limits), by transmitting to them adapted sports and body techniques.

For example in badminton, they are not only taught the “smash” technique to score the point against the opponent but also to move effectively and coordinate when hitting the shuttlecock.

“Move” and enjoy getting involved in a physical and sporting practice is learned and shared. The challenge for physical education at school is to promote the progress of pupils on the motor level and to enable their socialization through sport.

Issue of autonomy and emancipation

The sedentary lifestyle of young people, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to the renewal and imposition of new active health standards, summarized in particular by the slogan “ For your health, practice regular physical activity” . Michel Foucault ‘s work on biopower has indeed acknowledged the key role of biomedical knowledge in establishing bodily norms.

The use of certain devices whose objective is to set the body in motion, such as “30 minutes of daily physical activity”, can thus be likened to a form of subjection of individuals (in the sense of the imposition of a normative model of “good” behavior).

Communication campaigns – “Moving 30 minutes a day is easy” – are not a direct guarantee of success . The lasting commitment of young people to physical and sporting activity has a better chance of success when it allows a form of autonomy, free will and therefore self-fulfilment.

Emancipation through physical education consists of gradually making the student autonomous in terms of motor skills, giving them the keys to being able to practice a sport alone or with others in their future physical life.

This is the fundamental difference between a coach who repeats the movement (model pedagogy) and a teacher who teaches his students techniques that they will be able to reuse later (more active pedagogy).

Bodybuilding and fitness programs offered in the form of prescriptions through apps and video tutorials most often leave young people on their own, potentially resulting in unsuitable and dangerous postures.

On the contrary, it is a question of providing the pupil, and therefore the future citizen and practitioner, with the knowledge and skills enabling him to exercise, in the more or less long term, an informed control over his physical activity and, in the long term, on the management of his health capital. To return to the example of bodybuilding, he must be able to implement a training plan adapted to his resources, according to a personal objective, from safe and effective postures.

A body education

The organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris in 2024 must not hide social realities and in particular the unequal appropriation of sport by young girls and young boys.

The Paris Games in 2024 will be the first fully equal Games . The illusion of co-education feeds on the universal and meritocratic discourse on the “values ​​of sport” but the fact that a sport is practiced in co-education does not necessarily make it an egalitarian or inclusive sport.

Given its history, sport remains associated with gender stereotypes . At a young age, many girls still want to dance, while their male counterparts tend more towards the football pitches. PE classes are an opportunity for everyone to practice activities together and to fight against beliefs and prejudices .

The profession of PE teacher has evolved in order to make the discipline more inclusive . The performance and the taking into account of the “innate” qualities of the pupil gave way to an evaluation of the level of motor skill, of the “acquired”, and also integrated the participation and the progress.

Adolescence is a delicate period concerning the relationship to the body. In the era of social networks and “Likes”, the body is particularly exposed, young people being influenced by the exhibition of idealized bodies. The search for a “perfect” body entails a duty to be and makes those who deviate from this social norm feel guilty . In this context, PE aims to train citizens who are critical of the potential excesses of sport and the performing body (narcissism or egocentrism).

Thus, physical education is not to be confused with the cultural object on which it is based (sport), nor is it reduced to a simple setting in motion of the body (physical activity). It is a school discipline that allows you to act and reflect on your action. PE teachers teach students to think , not just move.

Author Bio: William Dietsch is Associate Professor of PE, in STAPS, UFR SESS-STAPS at the University of Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC)