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Kids' Sports: Time to Rethink PE


In September, we explored some of the problems that plague youth sports, especially the emphasis on competitiveness and specialization at an early age. But how can physicians make a difference? We can encourage parents to keep kids' sports in perspective, and affirm the notion that fun and generalization have primacy, especially for the youngest kids. We can unwaveringly represent health over competition. We can also educate kids and their parents about recognizing and preventing overuse injuries and help parents focus on the goal of their child's health (and character) far down the road. If lifetime participation in physical activity is the goal, how do we get there? What steps should we take when children are young? What do we lose by de-emphasizing the competitive model?

Perhaps the most important issue is the current state of physical education (PE). According to the CDC, only half of US schools require PE in elementary school, and only 5% by grade 12. That tells me that we also need to:

  • Emphasize to school boards and legislatures the vital role of PE through the 12th grade for Americans' health.
  • Press for school PE that promotes lifetime fitness. A model program is that of the Naperville (Illinois) Community Unit School District 203, which now calls its PE program the P.E.4LIFE Institute.
  • Encourage high qualifications for PE K-12 teachers. According to John M. Dunn, the editor of Quest, the journal of the National Association for Physical Education in Higher Education, the standards that many schools now accept for PE teachers have declined.
  • Consider supporting federal and state legislation like the PEP (Physical Education for Progress) bill, which was passed earlier this year and provides $70 million in 2001—and possibly $400 million over 5 years—to improve K-12 PE in the US.

Finally, there is the crucial role of PE in higher education. Long before we were aware of the powerful health benefits of exercise, PE departments in colleges and universities were common. Their curricula covered the full range of physical activities, including those unrelated to competitive sport. These departments, from which K-12 programs were modeled, have either declined in number or changed their missions substantially.

In the past two decades, PE programs have been renamed exercise physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, human performance, biodynamics, sports science, and kinesiology. This has stemmed in part from the debate on the role of traditional PE (sports pedagogy) versus the scientific paradigm essential to generating new knowledge. As William Morgan (1) points out, faculty have moved to distance themselves from PE to "achieve academic respectability." At research universities, PE programs that have not come up to speed with the scientific paradigm have suffered.

Basic science alone is not the answer to the broad array of complex problems that affect our nation's health. Although PE departments have not uniformly positioned themselves to be leaders in the scientific study of exercise and health, they are at least poised to teach this new knowledge. In fact, they are in a better position than medical schools, whose curricula are already under intense pressure to include new information.

Sports leagues that borrow from the adult, professional, and competitive models are not the ideal venue for teaching children about physical activity and health. The PE field needs to be restored to its time-honored role of fostering physical activity and health. Yes, PE schools need to focus on training good PE teachers—but they are also in a unique position to apply important health information.

Gordon O. Matheson, MD, PhD


  1. Morgan WP: Restructuring departments: to merge or not to merge? Quest 1998;50(2):134-148