Hating Gym: Volleyball Edition

So. I wrote a couple of times over at Fit and Feminist about my experiences with my lovely, charming — ahem! — ninth grade gym teacher. Basically, as evidenced by her handling of public weigh-ins and menarche, Mrs. D was approximately third last person on the planet who should have been teaching adolescents how to support their physical health.

Today, I move on to the PE volleyball unit, which was its own special blend of hell.

Volleyball serve

Because, you see, Mrs. D was also the junior varsity volleyball coach for the school. She took her volleyball seriously — so seriously, in fact, that she expected her gym students to be as skilled and competitive as the players on her team.

“No underhand serves here! Overhand, OVERHAND!”

“I can’t believe you missed that! There’s no excuse.”

Enter me.

It’s not that I’m not a good student. It’s not that I don’t try hard. It’s not even that I’m particularly uncoordinated or unathletic. It’s that volleyball is not my thing.

It’s true, at this time, books are my number one thing. Horses are second. In terms of PE-approved mainstream sports, though, basketball is the closest I have to a thing. That is, when I see a ball hurtling through space at my head, my instinctive action is to put my hands up and catch the fucker — not to hit it with extended arms or spike it down with fists. I maintain that this is not a terrible instinct to have though it does make me ill-suited for most of the main actions in volleyball.

As it turns out, though, I am not such a bad setter, perhaps because the spider-fingered action of setting is not so very different from creating sticky fingers to catch a basketball pass or rebound.

If I were teaching me — in a ninth grade PE class, mind you, not a competitive team — I like to think I would have noticed that. I like to think I would have said something supportive. I sure as hell would not have told me that my body was wrong for behaving as it did.

“You’re too big. You’re wasted as a setter. You have guy muscles, so you should use them to work on your overhand serves and spikes.”

I am already self-conscious about my body being too big, so being told as much and that I have “guy muscles” is not something I can take as a compliment. It is especially frustrating to be told these guy muscles mean I cannot try to do the thing I am good at and instead should spend more time doing the things I am not good at.

But this is gym class, and she is the teacher. In drills, I dutifully focus on the skills she’s set out for me. I am terrible at these things, so I try really, really hard to get better. I remain terrible. I spike the ball into the net. I toss the ball up for a serve and fail to make contact with it again, even a little bit. I spike the ball dangerously close to my classmate’s head; she is on the same side of the net as I am. During a serve where I actually make contact with the ball, I send it spinning twenty feet to the left, where it knocks Mrs. D’s clipboard out of her hand. I’d feel self-satisfied, except that it was completely and utterly an accident.

I never get any better, nor do I get any specific instruction in how to get better. I do, however, get a lot of disparaging remarks about how I’m “too scared of the ball” and “just not trying.” The former may well be true — see point about no specific instruction — but the latter is not.

The end of the unit: We break up into teams for two weeks of tournament play. Our test grade, yes, is based on how well our team ranks in the tournament.

On my team is W, a girl with whom I used to play middle school basketball. Given our respective strengths and positions, we had a fairly comfortable routine of me catching a rebound and sending it to her for shooting or dribbling downcourt. W also now plays JV volleyball for Mrs. D.

“I don’t care what she told you,” W says, glaring over at the teacher, whose nose is buried in her clipboard. “Serve underhand, bump when you need to to keep the ball in play, and when you can, set it up for someone who can spike.”

So I do, deciding that using less flashy skills competently is better than attempting showier feats with spectacular fail. Not only is our team more likely to score points and win games, but I am less likely to cause concussions. And until sending Mrs. D’s clipboard into her nose is an “accidentally on purpose” kind of thing, concussions are something I want to avoid.

Mrs. D is livid, though, just the same. She scowls every time I send over a predictable, easily returnable underhand serve. And I can actually see her roll her eyes and turn away every time I neatly float the ball for W or another teammate to spike. Lest you think Mrs. D is picking on me, I should point out that she has similar visible reactions anytime a student makes a move that might be considered mistimed, uncertain, timid, or careful.

At the beginning of the unit, we as students came to her with a wide range of volleyball skills and aptitude. By the end, very few had improved. Very few had fun.


I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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15 comments on “Hating Gym: Volleyball Edition
  1. I hated volleyball, too. My gym teacher wasn’t terrible; at least he didn’t grade us based on ability. I was/am pretty uncoordinated, but I’m not sure why I hated volleyball more than other team sports… a lot of it was probably the balls-flying-at-your-head thing. I think a lot of it, too, was that I’m not good at predicting the motion of the ball, and that’s even harder when the ball is up above your head and you’re relying on your depth perception to keep track of where it’s going.

    • Tori says:

      Agreed on the depth perception thing. I’m pretty okay with it when all I have to do is catch the ball in my hand(s), as in basketball or fielding a baseball or a softball. But when I have to also then move a part of my body in a particular arc to make contact at a certain point in time… well, that’s twice as complicated for me. 😀

  2. Shauna says:

    My strongest memory of gym volleyball was when my middle school had us split up by class (homeroom? I don’t remember what division they used). One guy in particular ended up in the back row when I was at the front. I could hit the ball reasonably well, except that every time it came my way, he raced to get in front of me and hit it. I don’t recall any teacher correcting him about positioning, either. I just know it annoyed me that I couldn’t get near the ball when it should have been mine.

    I like it better now that I’m big enough and strong enough to serve the volleyball reliably over the net, and it’s always casual games with classmates or friends.

    • Kyra says:

      Ugh. I had a girl that did that—every time the ball came near me, she’d go for it, either stealing it or scaring me away from it, and whenever we both missed she’d complain that I should’ve gotten it.

      Then there was field hockey, in which my whole team teamed up to force me into playing goalie all the time, and when called on it, told the teacher that “she wants to be goalie!”

      Classmates can be the worst thing about gym class when the teacher doesn’t have that position covered.

  3. RachelB says:

    “She took her volleyball seriously — so seriously, in fact, that she expected her gym students to be as skilled and competitive as the players on her team.”

    That mindset is infuriating. I had ninth grade gym with the coach of the synchronized swimming team, and she “taught” a synchronized swim unit. (I’m guessing this was so that she could make ninth grade girls who were on the team have double practices for a month without contravening league rules.) Which meant that those of us who were just learning were trying to keep up with people who had spent years learning to tread water and smile at the same time.

    • Tori says:

      Yeah. I mean, I push my students to work hard in my class, but: 1) I don’t expect them to be experts as they’re walking in the door; 2) I believe there’s a lot of good — not only emotionally, either — to be had from supporting students and highlighting what they do well; 3) in teaching, it’s essential to offer focused, constructive feedback — which this one definitely did not.

  4. Tapetum says:

    Volleyball was infuriating for me in gym for completely different reasons. I was in general pretty lousy at ball sports (baseball and basketball were particularly hopeless), but I actually had some volleyball skills, due to my father hauling out volleyball for every department picnic (he was chair, so if he liked volleyball, we played volleyball).

    Except at school, where I already had a reputation as a hopeless athlete, no one would let me near the ball. My fellow players would elbow me aside or even knock me down to get to the ball even when I was already set up to receive. The behavior was encouraged by our teacher, who like yours was very competitive. So I looked like a klutz, always falling over myself instead of hitting the ball, but only because I was getting beat up by my own teammates.

  5. Caitlin says:

    Stories like this make me wish I’d gone a different route in my life and maybe become a gym teacher, because seriously, way to take something fun and turn it into a horror show.

  6. I found volleyball to really be one of the few things that I enjoyed as a high school sport (other than long distance running, but that’s just not focused on). Reading how terrible your teacher made it made me stomach clench. I think competitive sports should be removed from HS PE if we want to get people happy about moving.d

  7. Lauren says:

    This is so interesting. See, my bad PE experiences were all in elementary school. I had it drilled in to me that I was an intrinsic failure as an athlete. I loathed gym. Then, in jr high, I just stopped trying to be good and started to have fun, and 8th grade volleyball was instrumental in changing my attitude about sports and my own ability. My teacher was totally cool and really encouraged teamwork and support, and I ended up getting a sportmanship award!

    It really goes to show how crucial the attitude of the teacher is to making or breaking students’ experiences.

    • Tori says:

      Yup. I think I talked about it in the very first installment of this one, but this was the first time I had a PE class where very little of our grade came from participation and improvement. Before that, I’d spent a lot of time with PE teachers who portrayed PE as “trying out” different activities and — where one already had some baseline knowledge — “getting better.”

  8. Angie unduplicated says:

    I was the asthmatic in coke-bottle glasses who was a liability in any team sport. The PE teachers detested me almost as much as the teams, and I reciprocated with insubordinate arrogance. Since no rational PE options existed for me, I exercised at home and routinely walked 2 miles home from school.
    Please, please teach PE inclusively and humanely.

  9. Louie Grinner says:

    [This comment has been removed by the blog author because it contained, in its entirety, body policing and fat shaming.]

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