My personal journey into physical education scholarship

This is an excerpt from my thesis in which I explain my journey towards and through the PhD process. As an “intruder” in the PE field – I am not a trained teacher nor did I study PE before my PhD – I often reflect on my position and would argue that outsider views can be valuable in education especially when working for diversity, inclusion and equity.

Both the academic background and personal life experiences of the ethnographer influence the multiple processes of interaction, analysis and interpretation. Personal narratives have been identified as sensitising researchers to the consequences of their doing and writing research (Ellis and Bochner, 2000; Richardson and St Pierre, 2005). I conclude this introduction with reflections on my relation to sport.

In early 2007 I turned on the television to find a girl of 12, a keen and talented footballer, appearing in a children’s Q and A or press conference with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. She had been playing, up until that age, with a boys’ football club. However, the Football Association (FA) disallowed mixed football from age 12 and upwards, meaning that this girl had to leave her club – with no local replacement girls’ club to join. The FA reasoned that the physical changes undergone by boys in puberty are such that they are a risk to the safety on the pitch of smaller girl players of the same age. As a video clip played of her running rings around her team mates, the girl appealed to Mr Brown to influence the FA to reconsider, but he was unable or unwilling to understand her predicament. Watching this, although I was personally not involved in sports like football, I was amazed that assumptions about gender and physiology informed an institutional barrier to the progression and enjoyment of girls in football. I began to learn more, writing my MA dissertation on women and gendered habitus in football (Hill, 2008). This became just one of many stories I heard of the impact of dominant narratives concerning who can legitimately participate within sports as they are socially constructed. As I progressed into my PhD and turned my attention to PE and school sport, I saw that constructions of legitimate or marginalised players are closely tied to embodied self, or how one could have an active identity (Hastie, 2010).

My position in this ethnography is linked to my own school and sport experiences and also my relations to the wider social context. The stories I have about my own PE experiences demonstrate my particular positions in relation to sport, exercise and recreation. The female PE teacher at my primary school played football and rugby every day with the boys but not once with the girls. Halfway through my 800 metre swimming badge endeavour I was ordered out of the pool because, the teacher said, I was going too slowly and would never finish before it was time to return to school. I have danced alone on a stage while singing, but being left without a partner during a PE dance lesson when all around me were paired up left me frightened to perform choreographed modern dance. Hearing others laugh at the way a girl ran during a bleep test made me worry that my running style was also funny. My friends would often hide in a cupboard, hang at the back or claim injury to avoid PE participation. My alienation from my once-favourite school sport, netball, helps to frame many of my feelings. In Year 5 and 6 at my primary school I was on the first team for netball. I always felt I was quite good at netball, although I knew I wasn’t the best on my team. At age 13 I moved to a girls’ grammar school in the South-East. PE had a low status at the school overall compared to academic pursuits, but the academic competitiveness in the school extended into extra-curricular sport. It was a semi-rural area where many girls owned horses, regularly went skiing or participated in other activities with their families, but these were not my experiences. I went to lunch time netball practice but being new and not knowing any of the girls I felt instantly at a disadvantage in a setting defined by social status and popularity. Other players laughed at my inability to remember who I was marking. I lost all confidence to get involved, for fear of making mistakes again. I resented the teacher ignoring me, despite knowing I was the new girl. I never played netball again, nor any other team sport, and did not even own a pair of trainers for a long time.

However, I am a sportswoman, although not according to the definition of sport common in schools and universities. I first went tenpin bowling at age 11, scored terribly compared with my friends, and I went home upset. My dad found out about a weekly coaching session for children and asked me if I wanted to go along so that next time I could save face. I went back every week. From there I went on to play in junior and student national competitions. Between 2009 and 2011 I was captain of the Loughborough Students Tenpin Bowling Club. I was chosen for the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) representative squad in 2011 and have won multiple national student tournaments. Yet this sport is one that, at a decent level, can be played by fat, unfit, old people.

Our active identities are always under development. When I first reflected on these memories, beginning my time at Loughborough, I was a sedentary desk-worker, involved in no physical activity. I have tried to become better at “having a go,” even though I inevitably lose, now that I can reflect on the experiences I have had. I find that the driving force behind my research interests is a desire to understand how my schooling did not offer me an active identity, or if this was ever a part of who I am. My experiences taught me that team sports are designated only for top class, very fit, confident students. I have come through a journey of my own in undertaking this investigation into active identities and bodies. This has all affected both how I have carried out research and the interpretations I have made. My motivation in researching and writing this PhD is in reimagining what PE can mean and finding a way for safe and empowering education about bodies to contribute to all young people’s learning.

Ellis, C. and Bochner, A.P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: researcher as subject. In N.K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
Hastie, P. (2010). Scholar lecture at BERA PESP SIG Invisible College, August 2010, University of Warwick.
Richardson, L. and St Pierre, E.A. (2005). Writing: a method of enquiry. In N.K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.). London: Sage.

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