Saturday, March 2, 2013

How Not To Do PT (part 5)

Yeah, I got tired of all my posts on this topic starting the same, too.

Still, much of what's valuable that I know today, I learned from physical training.

Today's lesson, in fact, has been a cornerstone of my educational philosophy since I got into this field.  It's not really new or earth-shattering, but it does go against the grain of many of today's educational practices.

In a word: pushups.

Yep, you read that right.


No, not in the "two hundred and two pushups a day" sense of the Pirate King on The Pirate Movie (though that flick has long secured a spot in my all-time favorite list).  It's more of a metaphor.  See, there was this time, a long time ago, in a place far, far away....

...okay, it was at West Point.  My cow (junior) year, as I recall.  That would put it sometime around Reagan's last year in office, not that that particular temporal landmark means much to the story--it's just that I liked Ronny.  Anyway, I'd signed up for some pretty cool physical ed classes they were offering, which meant the less cool ones were at the bottom of my list.  The bottom classes were, of course, the ones I had on my schedule that next year--nope, I still hadn't learned that lesson. 

Anyway, one of the classes to which I was assigned sounded spectacularly--meh--before it began.  I can't recall the title, but it was basically a beginner's approach to personal training.  Who wouldn't wanna do that instead of biking, or downhill skiing, or--well, nearly anything else that was cooler?

Besides me, of course.

The class didn't fail to prove itself about as meh as a class can be, to be honest.  The point of it was to learn how to teach soldiers how to get into shape.  See, the Army is a little bit different career than most.  You knew that, right?  Most careers, you don't get the snazzy uniforms to wear.  Most careers, you don't get to spend a day out of the office target-practicing every so often. 

Most careers, you don't have to stay in shape.

The soldier is, after all, a warrior above all other things.  That Infantry soldiers need to be physically fit is obvious, but the other branches can also require just as much physical activity to do their jobs both in combat and out.  Thus it is that in the Army, if you fail a PT test, you're put on warning, and if you fail the next one, you lose your job.

The PT test in question, by the way, was fairly straightforward.  The Army Physical Fitness Test, or APFT, contained just three events: pushups, situps, and a two-mile run.   You did as many pushups as you could for two minutes and then got into line to do as many situps as you could do for two minutes.  Then you got to run as fast as you could for two miles, a task that the PE department at West Point had carefully laid out so as to grant us the opportunity to run by the waste treatment plant multiple times.  To abuse one of my favorite quotes from Apocalypse Now: "Love the smell of crap in the morning.  Smells like--APFT." 

It's always been the leader's job to develop and support the people who report to him.  In the Army, that includes physical development.  It's an area that usually falls within the NCO's purview, granted, but the argument that was made in that class at West Point was that it's also important for the officers to know how to teach people how to get into shape.

And so, we spent hours in scintillating lecture, learning all about exercising.  Some say exercise is 90% mental, and if the assertion is correct then that's the only way we got any in the class.  Still, it was sorta interesting stuff, learning about the different styles of walking/jogging/running and whether to use a particular style for cardio, weight loss, or general conditioning.  We learned about swimming, and about cycling, and we learned about how to safely teach someone how to lift weights.  There's a difference, it turns out, between using free weights (barbells, etc.) and the Nautilus machines (which were, incidentally, the only machines available at the time--it wasn't like the gym these days that has a several brands of machines spread across the floor).  We learned to compare sporting activities in terms of intensity, calorie burn, conditioning, and potential for injury.

I suppose that we learned some good stuff.

It was toward the end of that class that I learned The Big Lesson.  We were listening to one of the wrap-up/review types of lectures and somebody in the back asked a Stupid Question.

(Yes, I know we teachers have been telling students for a long, long time that there are no Stupid Questions.  We lie sometimes.)

In this case, the question wasn't really that stupid, and it also happened to be one that several others of us were wondering.  The cadet asked how we would approach a scenario where a soldier couldn't do enough pushups to pass the test.  How did we pick the best conditioning regimen for him?  Should we have him do free weights?  Or Nautilus?

"Have him do pushups," the simple answer came.

Duh.  Blinding flash of the obvious, right there.

The weight lifting and aerobics classes and all that other stuff are great for overall conditioning and general health.  When there's something specific to work on, though, you should work directly on that.  It's what I did my senior year when I worked on doing enough pull-ups to get into the academy--I did lots of pull-ups.  There are certainly exercises that can develop the muscles involved in doing a pushup, but the best way to become better at doing pushups is to do pushups.

The pushups principle applies in other areas besides physical development, too.  Whenever I plan a lesson, I consider it.  I sometimes teach the college success class, and the lesson that comes to mind is the one on budgeting.  At the end of that lesson, I want students to be able to create a budget.  Period.  Don't care if they can demonstrate the ability to sit through a long, boring lecture about budget creation.  Don't care if they can name the categories of common expenses.  I care that they can create a budget.  Thus, we create budgets, after a short introduction to the topic from yours truly.

I've seen the principle ignored, too.  "Why would you take medical assisting students on a field trip to Denny's?" is a question I've actually, literally, had the opportunity to ask.  It was interesting, it helped students' morale, it helped engage the students in the topic at hand--those are the fluffy answers I get to that question and others like it.  But there are ways to be interesting, to increase morale, to engage students, that don't involve wasting everybody's time ordering a Grand Slam.

You see it in our secondary school system, too.  What their pushups involve, what they're trying to achieve, is a whole bunch of graduates who can answer multiple-choice style questions on topics covered in class.  Used to be that critical thinking and effective writing were the secondary-level pushups, but--well, that's a soapbox for a different day.

"Why can't I wear my hair this color?" I am sometimes asked (by a student with bright red, blue, purple, or green hair, who's usually on her way home after being uninvited from class for the day).  Inside, I want to say pushups, but I know that will just make the situation worse.  Instead I explain it in terms of work environments. There are outliers, to be sure, but most health care offices won't hire you if you come in with bright whatever-color hair.  "This isn't work; this is school," some say.  Sure, but you do what you've practiced.  I can't look employers in the eye and tell them our grads know how to behave if I haven't seen it for myself, right?



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