Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise
Vol. 1, No. 3, November 2009, 210–220
ISSN 1939-8441 print/ISSN 1939-845X online
© 2009 Taylor & Francis
Remembering instructors: play, pain and pedagogy
William B. Strean*
Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, University of Alberta, P-408 Van Vliet Centre,
Edmonton, AB, T6G 2H9, Canada
Taylor and Francis LtdRQRS_A_419402.sgm
(Received 27 April 2009; final version received 17 June 2009)
10.1080/19398440903192290Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise1939-8441 (print)/1939-845X (online)Original Article2009Taylor & Francis130000002009WilliamStreanbilly.firstname.lastname@example.org
This study was undertaken to examine how coaches and teachers can contribute to
making sport and physical education more fun for children. Twenty-four
retrospective accounts resulted in five major themes: (1) personal characteristics
of instructors/coaches, (2) learning environments, (3) peak moments in low-
organised activities, (4) social aspects, and (5) lessons from negative experiences.
Results are discussed in relation to fun, enjoyment and happiness in youth sport
and physical education.
Keywords: instruction; coaching; physical education; fun
Many of us who work in the area of youth sport and physical education are well-aware
that the primary reason for children to participate in sport is ‘to have fun’. Among the
factors associated with fun in physical activity are attributes of instructors. In the quest
for understanding what makes sport and physical education more fun for children, this
study was undertaken to examine instructors’ qualities that provided participants with
a sense of fun, play and enjoyment. It may come as a little surprise that as questions
were asked of prospective participants for this study, some were not immediately
forthcoming with positive examples of teachers and coaches, but were eager to offer
a story about a negative experience. As this study unfolded, the initial intention to find
masterful teachers and coaches who brought joy to learning was meshed with the
emerging, participant-driven, desire to share stories of instructors who left them with
The famous quotation from Haim Ginott (1972) speaks about the dual nature and
influence that instructors can have in classrooms (as well as fields, gymnasia, etc.):
I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It
is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the
weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or
joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor,
hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be
escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.
Instructors do a great deal to shape the learning environment and the experiences of
children. Their influence clearly has an impact on fun (or lack thereof) during the
learning. It may also be the case that the consequences of instructors’ attitudes and
Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise 211
behaviours may linger far beyond the interaction with children. There seems to be a
reasonably widely held view that early life experiences in sport and physical activity
may shape choices about later life participation. It seems that many teachers harbour
a belief similar to, ‘If my students have fun now, they’ll stay active as they get older’
(O’Reilly et al. 2001, p. 211).
Because of their central role in the learning process and the potential impact on
children’s developing attraction or repulsion to physical activity, it seemed useful to
seek to understand more about how individuals experienced their instructors. What do
teachers and coaches do to enhance fun and a sense of play? What do people remem-
ber about their instructors and how do they see their earlier experiences shaping their
later participation in physical activity? A retrospective approach was selected to
address these questions.
Overview of emergent design
A secondary contribution of this study may be the degree to which it illustrates a vari-
ety of components of an emergent design. Lincoln and Guba (1985) described emer-
gent design as a fundamental characteristic of naturalistic research. They suggested
that researchers allow their work to emerge rather than to construct it a priori because
it is not possible that enough could be known ahead of time to devise the design
The intent of this section is both to ‘come clean’ about the method and to reveal
important features of how qualitative research can unfold. When I began this study, I
wanted to find participants who could talk about wonderful teachers and coaches who
were masters at bringing play and fun to learning. I originally thought that I would
gather all the data for the study using one-on-one semi-structured interviews. Two
things centrally altered my plan. First, as I began to speak to people about my study
and share with them how I was seeking reflections and recollections about physical
education and sport experiences – wanting to hear the stories about instructors who
had used games and created very positive environments – I had a few people say
something like (with pained tone): ‘I can tell you a story about my phys ed experi-
ences.’ Or perhaps: ‘I can tell you about a gym teacher I had – what a jerk.’ Rather
than eschew the negative, my intuition was that I could learn about my fundamental
curiosity, about optimal teaching and learning experiences by talking to these people.
Second, when I was being interviewed by a reporter from a local newspaper, telling
him, again, about seeking to learn about teachers and coaches who exemplified how
to use play, fun, and games – I happened to mention that I had spoken to some people
who had very negative experiences. His ears perked up. We discussed various aspects
of the study and he agreed to put my office phone number and e-mail address in the
article, so that potential participants could contact me. When the article appeared on
the front page of the Sunday paper, the headline read, ‘Too many rules, not enough
fun: Bad experiences in sport last long after the game is over.’ Subsequently many of
the people who contacted me were those who had negative experiences in physical
education and sport. Their recollections are part of the story to be told here. In addi-
tion, I received several extended written accounts as a result of the article and the call
for comments and participants. Some of the poignant vignettes from those accounts
are important contributions to the data. One of the participants who wrote to me
suggested that some of her family and friends also would have useful accounts to
212 W.B. Strean
share with me; this led to a focus group (or group interview) which was an unintended,
but serendipitous way to collect data. From the interplay of the participants around a
table, came rich information and questions among participants that had me wonder
why I had not used this data collection procedure previously.
In summary, many of the putative advantages of an emergent design that I had
heard about years ago in graduate school (and have taught about in research methods
classes), came to pass in this study. The scope of retrospections and the results of this
study are more varied and valuable because of how the study unfolded.
Twenty-four participants provided data for this study. Seven of the participants were
recruited directly by the investigator using purposeful sampling (Lincoln and Guba
1985). Other participants were volunteers who responded to a request advertised in a
major newspaper as part of the above-mentioned article. The geographic range of
participants was a variety of locations in Canada and the USA (e.g. Ontario, British
Columbia, Alberta, California, Oregon). Males (n = 12) and females (n = 12) were
equally represented and the age range was 21–64.
Data were collected through semi-structured interviews (Smith 1995, Seidman 1998),
a focus group and written accounts. Specifically, 11 participants in this study took part
in one semi-structured interview; three of those participants also provided written
accounts; six participants took part in a focus group, one of them also provided a
written account and seven participants solely provided written accounts.
Smith (1995) noted that semi-structured interviews are mainly helpful to gain a
detailed picture of the respondents’ beliefs about, or perceptions or accounts of, a
particular topic. Smith (1995) suggested the advantages of semi-structured interviews
are that they facilitate rapport/empathy, allow greater flexibility of coverage and
enable interviewers to enter novel areas, and they tend to produce rich data.
All the interviews were conducted by the author and lasted 90 minutes on an aver-
age. All the interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Depth-probe
questions were asked and follow-up questions were used to ask for clarification, to
seek concrete details and to request more information on what the participant was
saying (Seidman 1998).
Profiles of the participants (Seidman 1998) were developed that contained the most
relevant topics and ideas discussed in each interview. This process follows an idio-
graphic approach to analysis, beginning with particulars and slowly moving up to
generalisations (Smith 1995). In this way, it was possible to maintain a sense of
uniqueness and diversity of each case even when progressively emphasising common
elements in the participants’ experiences (Polkinghorne 1995). Profiles also made it
easier for the investigator to retrieve and compare meaningful data from different
participants at different stages of the analysis. There was a recursive movement
between similar instances in the data and the emerging conceptual categories during
the process of organising data according to commonalities (Polkinghorne 1995).
Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise 213
The final step in reducing and shaping the interview material involved the actual
write-up in the form of a report for publication. Results are reported in the form of my
interpretive analysis interspersed with verbatim extracts to illustrate my conclusions
(see Smith 1995). This strategy was chosen because of its potential to help the readers
‘see’ how the researcher drew conclusions about the data and how such conclusions
were grounded in the participants’ perceptions and experiences (Charmaz 1995, Ellis
The results will be presented to highlight five major themes: (1) personal characteristics
of instructors/coaches, (2) learning environments, (3) peak moments in low-organised
activities, (4) social aspects, and (5) lessons from negative experiences.
Personal characteristics of instructors/coaches
When participants explored factors that were related to positive experiences in sports
and physical education, a dominant theme was the personal characteristics of the indi-
viduals who served as instructors and coaches. Keeping in mind that the investigator
began with an interest in pedagogy and learning environments, it might be said that
this theme emerged in spite of the biases and subjectivities that may have been
present. Although the elements of how situations were structured were important, it
was the qualities of the leaders that seemed most salient. In a sense, the results were
consistent with the phrase: ‘I can’t hear what you are saying, because who you are
being is so loud.’ That is to say that the ‘personhood’ of the instructors and coaches
was more memorable than was the way in which learning was structured.
Many of the respondents’ comments suggested that they most enjoyed physical-
activity learning when the instructors were caring, involved, present, fair and
He was energetic, funny, he really enjoyed teaching, he interacted well with students and
he was active himself … it was an exciting, fun environment.
What I remember most was her enthusiasm for teaching …she was able to connect with
I think Mr. Swanson [note: name is a pseudonym] and his enthusiasm and love for what
he was doing … but the fact that I enjoy movement; I would tie that almost directly to
him. …This is a guy that was involved and invested in the process of teaching … the
smile on the face, interaction with students and just the feeling that this is a person that
really wanted to be there.
Personal contact from the adult, coach or teacher with each student or kid, always in an
encouraging manner. By encouragement I don’t mean, you can win, you can win! I mean
encouraging the student to enjoy themselves.
Very positive … never embarrassed kids, someone that we could relate to.
Her involvement. She would not hesitate to get into the drill. When she was in the drill
she was having fun. She would be diving in the ground, but she would be having fun.
She would smile at the same time. Little competitive games that she would jump in on
214 W.B. Strean
you could see her desire or her passion about the game and that almost like transferred
over to us.
Other personal aspects that participants reported were, ‘always a sense of playfulness’,
‘always available, always caring’, ‘everybody was treated equally’, ‘innately fair …
Equal playing time’ and that the teacher was ‘always positive … Laughed and smiled’.
One participant captured the spirit of how pedagogical structures may have been
forgotten, yet the interpersonal impression remained, ‘but I don’t remember any of his
techniques, he was just a nice fellow’.
Although the salience of personal characteristics of teachers and coaches was promi-
nent, the participants offered many reflections that are indicative of what makes learn-
ing environments positive and attractive. With respect to structuring the learning,
three key themes that emerged were (1) providing variety, fun, games and novelty; (2)
providing adequate rules and strategy; and (3) fostering flow.
Providing variety, fun, games and novelty
There is a wealth of information showing that children’s primary reason for partici-
pation in sports is ‘to have fun’ and a primary motivator for disengaging from
sports is because ‘it’s not fun’ (e.g. Gould and Petlichkoff 1988, Ewing and
Seefeldt 1990, Weiss and Chaumeton 1992). Certainly fun was a major consider-
ation in describing positive learning environments. For example: ‘The bottom line
for me was that I always knew I was going to have a good time – he made it fun to
come to class.’
Other similar factors that were addressed were the importance of both variety and
novelty. Participants commented: ‘There were a multitude of different exercises.’,
‘There was a lot of movement and activity … I learned how to do new things.’, ‘I was
able to participate in … new games that were exciting.’
Previous research (e.g. Strean and Holt 2000) and the core of the Teaching Games
for Understanding perspective (TGfU, Bunker and Thorpe 1982, Holt et al. 2002)
support the relation of games and game-like activities being associated with fun and
enjoyment. Several comments in the present data align with this view. Positive aspects
of instructors who provided fun and enjoyment included, ‘He made a game out of
learning.’, and ‘She always seemed to find a way to have us play games to learn what-
ever it was we were doing.’. In contrast, teachers and coaches who were remembered
negatively were more likely to incorporate technical drills outside of game contexts.
‘I think the guy had stock in pylons. Yeah, I learned a lot – how to stand in a line, how
to dribble through cones with different kinds of balls. If I ever face an orange cone in
the middle of a game, I’m going to be prepared.’
Providing adequate rules and strategy
Although the experience of freedom or autonomy is often associated with fun and
enjoyment, various commentators (e.g. Huizinga 1950, Schmitz 1979) have explored
that the structure of games provides for the freedom and pleasure within the bound-
aries. Participants described that enjoyable learning environments included giving
Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise 215
adequate structure and directly instructing or attending to strategy, which is also
consistent with the suggestions from TGfU.
Similarly, strategy can be a real part of the joy of the game.
It was absolutely even and the reason that I really, really, really enjoyed football was
because there was always all these little conspiracies going on. And it is when you talk
about strategy, like that is how I really liked football because it was a strategising game.
In contrast, experiences where rules and strategies were not taught were remembered
as being painful and the lesson of what is important to do may be learned by noting
what it was like when not enough tactical instruction was provided.
One of the things that I remember about phys ed: I don’t remember the actual rules of
any of the sports ever really being clearly explained to us. I remember that it was
assumed that we all knew the rules of baseball, that we all knew rules and I did not know
rules, I would not know how to play the different positions, no one, I don’t have any
memory of any teacher saying, you know, for example in a soccer game if you play
defense this is what you should be thinking about, if you play forward this, I don’t
remember, it was all just assumed and then the way that you learned the rules was by
trial and error. That you would make a mistake and someone would blow the whistle and
then you know your team mates would scowl at you, your ignorance was exposed, and
that is why you learned the rules, no one actually ever explained what it was, maybe they
do explain them now, but I don’t remember ever having learned the rules.
Or as another participant wrote: ‘The rules were never taught to us – it was assumed
that everyone knew. The girls had to play with the boys whose superior strength made
it impossible for all but the most robust of the girls to succeed.’
Also supporting the importance of games and the context of strategy:
I can’t remember a single drill that we did and I think that in itself speaks volumes
because obviously I not only did I not learn them but I almost anti-learned them. It is you
know to just kind of block them out – activity out of your, but they must have taught
drills. But that is all about technique, and what good is technique if you don’t understand
the underlining strategies in playing the game? What good is technique?
In a simple sense, we might find that participants enjoy learning environments that are
designed to accommodate a balance of skills and challenges, or a basic sense of flow
(Csikszentmihalyi 1975, cf. Mandigo and Couture 1996). The sense of ‘creating and
being free to do what you want to do’ might also support autonomy and selection of
tasks that create a skill-challenge balance. An example of that feeling that would
enable more flow experiences is when a participant described that the activities in a
physical education class ‘were fast paced … appropriate for my skill level’.
One participant captured a common sentiment:
There were some classes that you would think were designed to show you what an inept
klutz you were. The best classes and the best practices that I remember – you could tell
the teacher or the coach was clued in to where we were at. They would have us do things
that weren’t too easy, but also didn’t have us look like a spaz … there was a nice balance.
The importance of the learning environments and how instruction is situated is worthy
of greater consideration in our understanding of optimal contexts (cf. Kirk and
216 W.B. Strean
Peak moments in low-organised games
In seeking to understand participants’ best experiences in physical education and
sport, they were asked to recall a time when they were really having fun and experi-
encing a sense of play. With one exception of a competitive wrestling experience, all
the participants described situations that were relatively low-organised such as a
‘wiffle ball game whether it is maybe with one buddy or with two or three buddies
where you are making up the rules’ or when ‘you invent some game and you start fool-
ing around and you do it until you, and you refuse to come in to eat. It is a powerful
thing which shows how fantastically joyful it is’.
Other examples of this kind of experience were:
We used to just play. He would play goalie and I played out and we used to just play and
play and play until it got too dark to see.
Football with my brother after school … Because it was orchestrated by us, we actually
took it really seriously.
The freedom of it, just being outside, … even when we played shinny hockey inside the
arena with the lines painted and stuff it wasn’t as playful as I remember just being on the
outdoor rink with no lines, wood boards and you shoot the puck over the boards and you
have to walk in the snow and go and get it. I think that, it was playful because it was free
and we played until we got tired and then we switched teams.
I adored playing football/street-hockey with my brother and his friends; we went at it
with gusto almost every night on the front lawn/road.
Other components of the most positively recalled experiences were the ‘motion, speed
… a little bit of risk’, ‘I love the novelty and challenge’, and physical sensations:
The fun I had was riding my bike by myself. That is the fun I had. Physical fun, I had a
bike and we lived in a hilly area and I used to just love to ride my bike, but it was always
by myself. [So what was fun about that?] Speed, wind going through my hair, freedom
What is most striking is that virtually all participants selected an experience outside
of a formal physical education class or youth sport experience when identifying their
most enjoyable memories, when they were having fun and experiencing play.
A fourth positive aspect of instructors and the good environments they created was
recognition of the importance of social aspects of sport and physical activity. One
participant noted that:
It is important to have more awareness on the part of the adult about the social interac-
tions going on during the play time … but when you are working with kids, what you
are working with is a little person. So learning the game needs to be in service of the total
development of that little person.
Another comment was that ‘the social issues … are more important I can tell you that
right now than the game’.
Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise 217
Consistent with previous findings (e.g. Allen 2003), being with friends is a major
factor associated with the fun of sport and physical activity.
So there is some greater bond of friendship, which obviously makes playing the game …
more fun than if you are out there on your own just playing for the sake of playing. You
may enjoy the game, as a kid you always enjoy playing with friends and people you
know. This is part of the enjoyment.
As one participant put it simply, ‘as a kid you always enjoy playing with friends and
people you know. This is part of the enjoyment’.
Lessons from negative experiences
As an investigator, the most intriguing and poignant information emerged from indi-
viduals who had negative experiences in sport and physical education. These results
are striking in that participants frequently related experiences from many years ago,
but did so with strong emotions. These quotations may provide some important
considerations for professional practice:
To this day I feel totally inadequate in team-related activities and have a natural reflex
to AVOID THEM AT ALL COSTS … largely because of humiliating experiences in
So, my major beef with the so-called physical education that I received as a kid is that it
robbed me of the joy of physical activity for many years. It did nothing whatever to
establish habits of balance in life between the cerebral and the physical. It did not
promote habits of physical and mental health that can be derived from participation in
physical play. Instead, the focus seemed to be on achieving excellence in a competitive
setting. It destroyed my physical confidence.
The exception to otherwise pleasant childhood play: those fucking gym classes. Drill,
verbal abuse, elitism, a sense of futility, and occasionally fear. Yuck.
I probably would have grown healthier if I had been left completely alone by adults in
terms of physical play.
I desperately wanted both of them [teachers] to spend more time with me and neither one
of them did.
I am a 51-year-old woman whose childhood experiences with sports, particularly as
handled in school, were so negative that even as I write this, my hands are sweating and
I feel on the verge of tears. I have never experienced the humiliation nor felt the antipathy
toward any other aspect of life as I do toward sports.
What should we conclude from these distressing quotations? The potential virtues of
physical-activity instruction are well-documented. Yet, the possible damage we can
cause as physical educators needs to be kept in mind. One might assume that the
teachers and coaches who instructed the participants who made these comments were
probably well-intentioned and believed in the value of what they were doing. The best
intentions can still lead to very negative outcomes. We need to keep looking, both as
individuals and at the structures of our learning environments, as we seek to raise the
ethical standards of our profession and seek to reduce or eliminate the heartrending
experiences some have had.
218 W.B. Strean
In some respects, the findings may be useful to highlight or to remind practitioners of
some key factors associated with creating positive and enjoyable learning experiences.
It may be constructive to contextualise these results and to offer some potential
linkages to theory to help to understand and apply the information.
Youth sport and physical education today
Now, as much as ever, it may be crucial to look at what it takes to create positive phys-
ical-activity learning experiences. The current context of youth sport and physical
education can lead us to raise serious questions about what children are experiencing.
U.S. News & World Report had a cover story on ‘Fixing kids’ sport: Why the fun is
gone and the players are quitting; What you can do’ (Cary 2004). Some of the disturb-
ing statistics include that 45% of youngsters have been called names, yelled at or
insulted while playing; 22% of children had been pressured to play while injured, and
an additional 18% said they had been hit, kicked or slapped while participating. ‘Not
surprisingly, the dropout rate of all children from organized sports is said to be 70
percent’ (p. 46). Furthermore, 44% of parents said that their child ‘had dropped out of
a sport because it made him or her unhappy’ (p. 50).
Theoretical and applied perspectives
It may be useful to consider what we have learned about fun and enjoyment and shift
our perspective slightly: What does it take to be happy in youth sport and physical
education? Ryan and Deci (2001), in their exploration of happiness, provided a useful
distinction between the hedonic perspective (which defines well-being in terms of
pleasure attainment and pain avoidance) and the eudamonic perspective (which
focuses on meaning and self-realisation). The concept of eudemonia may provide a
key to understanding the overall sense of enjoyment or fun that young athletes often
derive from sports and physical education, despite some unpleasant and painful times
they experience. In its best sense, physical-activity instruction can go beyond momen-
tary pleasure and it can provide long-term development and memories that provide
greater meaning for one’s life.
Another perspective that is both helpful in interpreting the data and in considering
their application, comes from Alfred North Whitehead (1929), who made one of the
few famous attempts to describe the development of learning over time. The first
stage he identified was ‘romance’, and he wrote about the importance of beginning all
learning with romance, with seeing the big picture, with understanding how whatever
it is that you are learning fits with your life. It is the time in which children see the
novelty of an activity. There is an emphasis on freedom, allowing children to see and
act for themselves. Romance, according to Whitehead, is an awakening or arousing
It is a time in the learning process when the learner does not care about rules and
details but is overcome with awe. There is playing, dabbling, experimenting – without
worry or concern about exactness. After this time of romance, the learner has a desire
to learn more, and begins paying attention to the details, is interested in exactly how
one accomplishes the task to become an expert. Now learners enter the stage of ‘preci-
sion’ which is a time when they pay attention to important details and rules and want
Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise 219
‘to make a good job of it’ (p. 35). Most importantly, Whitehead wrote, if one moves
into the stage of precision without the stage of romance, the learning is empty and
meaningless: ‘Without the adventure of romance, at the best you get inert knowledge
without initiative, and at the worst you get contempt of ideas – without knowledge’
(p. 33). We might add, ‘or contempt of physical activity or movement, without
Participants’ comments about low-organised experiences and the sense of freedom
they felt fit with Whitehead’s view. One of the major implications that might be taken
from this study is that reducing the organisation and structure of physical activity may
result in greater fun and happiness. A great deal of the very significant problems that
seem rampant in children’s sports presently could be reduced or eliminated by creat-
ing the structures and atmosphere of activities that are low-organised and directed by
The work of Deci and Ryan (1985) might be of further use in considering the
participants’ reports. The factors associated with positive memories of sport and phys-
ical education follow closely the three organismic needs that Deci and Ryan (1985)
identified. The need for interpersonal relatedness can be seen in participants’ recogni-
tion of the importance of social aspects. The need for freedom or autonomy is
addressed by participants’ many comments about most enjoying those situations
where they were doing activities of their own choosing and under their own control.
The need for competence is perhaps most central in the experience of fun in the
achievement-oriented arena of physical-activity instruction. Participants’ notions and
comments above about the importance of a skill-challenge balance support the role of
competence. Other factors that have been noted as important (Alderman and Wood
1976), such as novelty and vertigo, were also reported.
Learning from mistakes
It would be difficult for a caring instructor, or anyone concerned about the status of
children’s physical-activity instruction, to read participants’ deeply emotional
comments and their negative experiences, and not take pause. Going back to Ginott’s
(1972) quotation, misery – if not torture – is a result that some instructors produced.
Any reminder of the tremendous power we hold as physical educators and youth sport
coaches is worthwhile. The participants’ words are powerful in this regard.
There is something beautiful, if not astonishing, about the joy and fulfilment that can
come from wonderful instruction in physical activity. One of the chief findings is that
‘who we are’ is often more important, and certainly more memorable, than what we
do. As Schmier (1995; paraphrasing Carl Jung) puts it, ‘If you want to be a teacher,
you have to put aside your formal theories, intellectual constructs, axioms, statistics,
and charts when you reach out to touch that miracle called the individual human
The preparation of this manuscript was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada, grant #410-99-0351.
220 W.B. Strean
Notes on contributor
Billy Strean is an associate professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at
the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. One of his primary research interests
is fun and enjoyment in physical education, sport and leisure.
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