What do we say to the god of death?

Not today.

This more or less summarizes my approach to injuries in P.E. Injuries are an unavoidable aspect of life, physical activity, and athletic competition, but they don’t have to happen in my class, on my watch.

As a teacher and coach, I strive to be in total control of the environment. There are few things that make me feel as powerless and impotent as watching a someone in my care get injured before my eyes.

When something does go wrong, I obsess over every aspect, trying to identify what I can do to make sure nothing ever goes wrong again.

The best possible outcome of this analysis is “there was nothing I could have done differently or would do differently next time”, and that outcome sucks. It’s immeasurably frustrating to be in a never-ending battle against human frailty—entropy itself is rooting against you.

When it comes to eliminating injuries, P.E. teachers are hunting a white whale.

Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

I enjoy identifying and pointing out paradoxes, and in this case, it’s the correlation between serious effort and serious injuries. The best P.E. classes are intense, high effort, competitive settings, and that is also the sort of environment where injuries tend to occur.

This is the point where I could write at length about how this risk/reward incentive structure is similar to the one we’ve been facing for the past six months with locking down versus reopening. It’s always going to appear *safer* to do nothing than do something, but “safer” doesn’t always mean “better”, and looks can be deceiving. That is so obvious to me I don’t have the energy to spell it out; I can only hope it’s just as obvious to you.

Eliminating injuries may be impossible, but good P.E. teachers can drastically reduce the opportunity for injuries to occur. How?

One approach I use is treating situations that could have resulted in injury the same as situations that did result in injury. If someone acts recklessly, you need to generate the same level of emotion (and consequences) that you would have if an injury had actually occurred. One common example, for me, is students running up to a random ball and kicking it as hard as they can with no regard for what happens next. I have seen things ranging from the ball hitting a nail on the ceiling and popping, to sailing across the field to hit an unsuspecting classmate in the back of the head, to absolutely nothing of note. Most times, with things like this, nothing *bad* happens. Every time, I try to give them the same speech and the same punishment.

If that example sounds incomprehensibly thoughtless, you haven’t spent much time around a P.E. class. I have seen a high school boy pick up a volleyball and punt it literally full strength directly into the ceiling. Upon being questioned, his response was “I didn’t know I was that strong”. Sounds like something to reflect on in detention, He-man.

One time in high school, I was eating an apple and I decided to see how high I could throw it, hoping to see it explode on the pavement upon landing. It landed directly on a classmate’s head. It never occurred to me that was a possibility, but once it did I thought it was hilarious. He was fine, but he charged me and tried to start a fight, thinking I had hit him on purpose (it didn’t help I was laughing and we had a bit of a history). There was a near-zero chance of that incident happening, but we were fortunate it didn’t turn out worse.

You also need to get students to visualize, in living color, what could happen if things go wrong, and how they would feel if it happened to them, or if it was their fault. This is something I take particular care to do before I hand them baseball bats. Just before we start batting practice, I tell the entire class to close their eyes and imagine taking some practice swings. Them I tell them to imagine swinging the bat directly into someone else’s teeth.

Yes, I know it’s an awful image, and certainly not something you would ever want to picture. That’s why I would much rather have you imagine it than for it to ever actually happen! The lesson? Never swing the bat unless you are 100% certain of your surroundings, and never get within swinging range of someone who has a bat.

Other rules are occasionally added to incentivize safe habits, such as “if you hit the ball and throw the bat, you’re out”. It’s unlikely taking a bat to the ankle is going to maim or disable your teammate standing behind you, but bats flying through the air is something we must have zero tolerance for.

So far, *knock on wood*, the worst injury I’ve seen on the diamond was a kid trying to do a somersault as he crossed home plate, and breaking his shoulder. I was monitoring the other field, but I was the lead teacher that day, so it’s on my tally. Personal responsibility, in that case, means being responsible for how well your assistant teacher monitors. Instead of “Was there anything I could have done differently to prevent this?”, it’s just one step removed—”Is there anything I could have done differently so my assistant could have prevented this?”

When you are so aware of the worst-case scenarios, it’s hard not to be a fun-sucker. I tell students something to this effect all the time: “I have no problem with behavior X/Y/Z in general, you just can’t do it while I’m responsible for your safety”. Like, hanging upside-down from a pull-up bar and trying to do sit-ups. Yes, it’s a great ab workout, and yes, we’ve had a student get a concussion from attempting it poorly. As a general rule, if I imagine trying to explain to a parent what was happening when the injury occurred, it helps me eliminate any activities near the gray area [I have a similar rule for my adventures abroad—if I die doing this, what will the headline be?]. Literally today, as I was using measuring tape to set up an activity while the class warmed up with dynamic stretching, I looked away for a few seconds and when I looked up, one of the students had tackled his brother and they were wrestling on the floor. Perfectly fine at home, but they had to get (what I think of as) the “Kanye” speech, which more or less goes “none of you punks have seen the carnage that I’ve seen”. That carnage includes someone being blinded permanently, or at least that’s what the lawsuit claimed. I was an assistant in that class.

[Note: I did not say “punks” today, which I only feel obligated to clarify because I’ve had a parent file a verbal harassment case against me for telling a student, and this is a direct quote: “don’t be a punk”.]

Here’s a question I would love other P.E. teachers to weigh in on. If you could spend five minutes with your class twice a week with the primary goal of reducing future injuries, what would you do with that time? My answer? Ankle strengthening/mobility exercises, and increased lower body flexibility in general. For additional context, this is for my “Advanced Personal Fitness” class—the answer could vary significantly based on age group and fitness level.

Every so often, I give the speech which I think of as “the law of large numbers”, but basically boils down to quantum mechanics. “Everything that can happen, will happen to someone, somewhere. Don’t let the bad things happen to you.” The point is this: the risk of something bad happening to you increases when you forget it’s a risk. If you forget bad people exist, maybe you stop locking your car doors, or you start walking down dark alleys staring at your phone. If you forget the corner of the bleachers has sharp edges, maybe you zone out while you’re doing step-ups and slice a hole into your shin that requires a trip to the emergency room and missing two weeks of basketball season. I swear I could see her shin bone.

Speaking of shins, I’ve seen an eighth-grade boy break his shin playing indoor soccer. I’ve seen a junior girl get knocked out cold by the ground while chasing down a frisbee. A pitcher and second baseman run facefirst into each other fielding a pop fly? Seen it firsthand.

Friday, I saw a sophomore girl tear her ACL while running at less than 100% effort in a straight line across a field, and I’ve felt sick about it since. The injury itself wasn’t the worst part either, the worst part is she was roughly 10 months removed from tearing that same ACL in the first game of last basketball season.

She had been nearly fully cleared, certainly clearing for running without hard cuts, and even had participated in everything but live action at basketball camp back in July. In warm-ups, I reminded her to take it easy. She wasn’t pushing it.

That’s why I’m here—I’m trying to make sense of injustice, but it will never make sense. In no imaginable universe did she deserve this. At least when Saquon Barkley or Courtland Sutton or Nick Bosa tears their ACL, you can say they knew the risks (or blame the turf?). It’s part of the game. At least they are grown men. At least it wasn’t my fault.

I moved quickly from sorrow to fury, but I have no one and nothing to direct my rage toward but fate, or myself. I need something to blame, and my choices are the only thing in sight. We were going to stay inside that day, but the weather was so beautiful I changed the plan and took the class outdoors. What if I hadn’t? I’m keenly aware of how quickly we tend to shift blame and blind ourselves to reality when it helps us cope with tragedy, so letting myself off the hook is always my last instinct.

I’m not begging for someone to tell me it’s not my fault, and if you do my response can only be “you don’t know that”. Because you don’t—and because I need to feel responsible, as gut-wrenching as it is. This feeling is what will keep kids safe in my next class, what drives me to strike at the sun for insulting me.

The god of death won this round.

Not tomorrow.

One thought on “What do we say to the god of death?

Add yours

  1. As much as I appreciate your concern for the well-being of your students and empathize with your strong desire to keep everyone safe, I’m leaning toward saying you’re overthinking this. But I know this is what you do so that’s to be expected.

    Injuries will happen. The reward IS greater than the risk. I’m proud to say I only had one broken arm and one busted tooth on my watch. Everything else warranted a “you’re fine” response. BUT! That was because I made safety a non-negotiable, as you seem to be doing. If kids wanted to act like fools (a term I used regularly and, fortunately, er, surprisingly, never received a harassment claim..) then there were harsh consequences. Of course, that was a no-win situation with many parents. Their child “would never do that/didn’t mean to/didn’t understand…” but would certainly be the first to yell when their child came home with a bruise. I can think of more than a few cases. One includes a parent complaining to administration about me for writing up a high-school student for throwing a potato in the air, claiming to “try to hit the electrical wires.” Clearly, I was the one out of line.

    Here’s to hoping you aren’t the subject of the latest headline for local charter schools not having a handle on bullying.

    Keep up the good work!


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