Off the Team: A Journey Through Menlo’s PE Program Nightmare

When I started at Menlo in 9th grade, I joined the basketball team, and playing on the team involved more structured hours of competitive sports per week than I had ever had before. That’s not to say I wasn’t active before I came to Menlo. Throughout middle school, I had exercised for about two and a half to three hours a day, but I did so by playing basketball, soccer, kickball or football during break and lunch; rugby, badminton or cricket during PE; spending an hour at basketball, soccer, volleyball or track practice after school; and going for runs and bike rides when I got home. I loved playing sports, and I didn’t want to choose just one. But I knew that Menlo sports were much more competitive than the sports that I had played, and I was very nervous to come into this athletic climate, so I decided to choose one sport to try first. I chose basketball.

I was running at practice one day towards the end of the season when I heard my knee crack and felt it pop slightly. When I stopped running, I felt a shooting pain through my knee, and the next day, I came home barely able to walk. I spent a week on crutches, but according to doctors, nothing was exactly wrong with my knee. Well, except that my hips are set so that my legs face slightly inwards rather than straight forward, and my knees hyperextend so that if I don’t keep my leg muscles strong, my knees are vulnerable to tendon pulls and the like. It was a genetic deformity (for lack of a better word) that I could live with so long as I switched up the variety of sports I was playing, but the repetition of practices for competitive sports and basketball’s hard cuts and turns took their toll on my body.

More than that, though, I wanted to just enjoy sports like I had when I was in middle school. I had (and still have) no intention of playing sports in college, and I spend so much time striving for perfection in the rest of my life, I would have liked athletics to be a relaxing time to enjoy exercise. With the popularity of yoga, kickboxing, and spin classes, I also wanted to try new things beyond traditional sports. I decided to try to get my sports credits in Menlo’s after school classes. However, I found that the yoga classes were almost more easy dance than work out. No one was teaching head stands or variations on crow poses, and the appeal that I later found from the self-regulated challenge of flow yoga just did not materialize in this over-simplified class. There also wasn’t much clear and updated information about this PE program–which confused me to no end– and there weren’t enough yoga classes in one week to get sports credits doing just yoga. As far as I could tell, my option, then, was to work out in the weight room as well.

I hate gyms. I grew up running laps around the beautiful wooded hills by my house, feeling the wind and the silence of a neighborhood that was off the beaten path. Running on a treadmill is not like that at all. You stare straight at the white wall (I can’t read or watch TV while running or I start feeling dizzy) and everything smells like rubber and sweat. That did not motivate me to work out at all.

Finally, I discovered that I could get sports credits through some organization outside of school that was approved by Menlo. I chose Avalon Yoga on California Ave in Palo Alto for its relaxing atmosphere and blatant lack of Menlo patrons. I loved the yoga classes (and I still do), but after a while, doing yoga for three and a half hours a week (which is more hours than you need if you work out in Menlo’s facilities) without having time for other work outs was horribly confining. The weather was nice and I wanted to be outside, playing basketball, running the dish and biking all the way around Portola Road. I wanted to try a class outside of Avalon’s yoga classes. “Sorry. That’s not how our program works,” I was told. There was no room for negotiation.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids who specialize in a sport before puberty ends are at a much higher risk for injury. Kids who spend more than twice as many hours participating in organized sports than free play are also at a higher risk. So why is Menlo’s program set up for specialization? To get students into college sports? Because it’s easier for the school to deal with on an administrative level?

Clearly, Menlo’s PE program beyond its established sports teams is an afterthought for the school. Information about this program is hard to find and often out of date. The rules and procedures for getting PE credits outside of sports teams are difficult and rigid. Coming into the gym to try to find out about these programs, I often felt judged for not being on a sports team, as well.

I also don’t think that Menlo has ever really considered what role they want athletics to play in students’ lives. In this, I mean students beyond the varsity  athletes. Menlo needs to consider how they want all students to be involved in exercise. For many students, it is just not realistic to think that they will achieve a high level of success in any athletic pursuit, and it is also unrealistic to believe that these students truly want to. If Menlo really wants to teach students to live healthy lives in which exercise plays a part, the school needs to create a program that finds a way to allow students to have a healthy variety in their work outs and does not trivialize students for whom athletics is not of the utmost importance. Don’t non-athletic people matter, too?

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