exercise science lesson plan



The Kinesiology class is also known as Grade 12 Exercise Science and my visit there was in the midst of their unit on the impact of stress and anxiety on athletic performance.

I began by dividing the students into two groups. Each group elected one member to participate in a small performance task on behalf of the group.

The task was to race against the other team’s elected student to the other end of the gym, step over a bench, grab a ball, step back over the bench and race back to the starting line. It was a simple task.

The students were ramped up by the ease of the task and ready to ace the race when I interrupted their early celebration with an additional last-minute requirement.

Each team was given five pieces of paper each having a “thought” written on it that might come into any mind in preparation for any performance. Before the race was allowed to begin, a team member had to read out each thought and the whole team had to determine whether or not it was a heavy thought or a light thought.

If the thought was heavy, their racer had to carry or put on a piece of equipment to represent the weight of the thought. The equipment included goalie pads, a medicine ball, glasses that obscured vision and a chest pad that restricted movement.


The heavy thoughts were:

Absolutely everything is on the line here!

 Messing up right now, especially in front of all these people, will be the worst thing
  that will ever happen to me!

I won’t be the least bit surprised if I fail at this. Things like this always happen to me!

I just need to be so much better than anyone else here or I will look like a total loser!

Nothing ever changes. I always mess up eventually!


One team intentionally got all the heavy thoughts and the other, the light.  This meant that one racer was eventually decked out in all the weighty equipment while the other had encouraging notes randomly taped to his body. It was clear by the facial reactions to the notes being read out that these were all-too recognizable thought patterns in this age group.


The light thoughts were:

What a great chance to play and participate! How cool is it that I can grow my skill set      and also learn from failure?

 How can I mess up too badly if the result I want is to make a real difference in the world by participating whole-heartedly in whatever I do?

 I’m incredibly grateful for some of the amazing things I’ve been able to accomplish so far.

Comparing myself to others is a losing proposition. As soon as I compare myself to someone else, I eliminate the joy of whatever I’m doing.

When I take the idea of “messing up” out of the equation, the only way to fail is to continue to choose to focus on how others see me instead of being true to myself.
Oddly, there was less recognition and even some eye-rolling when the light notes were read out.  Patterns run deep.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out how this experiment turned out. The racer who was weighted down and had movements restricted struggled to perform even a simple task while the racer easily completed the task with his notes blowing lightly in the breeze he created as he ran.


The demonstration led into a discussion about how our thoughts impact our ability to perform even if that performance is not an athletic task.

It came down to:

1. Your body does not know that your mind is having distorted thoughts.
2. So your body assumes your mind is right on the mark and reacts with anxiety.
3. Distorted thoughts need to be noticed then addressed.
4. This is a skill.
5. A skill that needs to be developed with practice.


Athletes practice for performances all the time. They have body conditioning programs, run drills and work hard to develop important key skills related to their sport through repeated repetition.

But are the physical practices enough because when we are made up of more than just the physical? What about mind training? What about developing that mastery over thoughts that wreak havoc on self-confidence and undermine the developed physical skills during performance. Mind training is crucial for challenging distorted thinking patterns and can be helpful for any type of performance.

I then instructed the students to remove their shoes and socks and led them through a walking meditation in the gym. To introduce the idea of practicing meditation to notice their mind’s compulsion to run off on some distorted tangent was the goal of the exercise.  And even if this was only a seed planted for most of the students, it was an incredible thing to see a whole class of senior students walking silently, paying attention to their feet touching the ground and beginning the process of recognizing distorted thoughts, one step at a time.









the sharpest tool


“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a sharp pencil.”

(shamelessly modified Chinese proverb)


Tucked into a corner classroom, far away from the hum of row-upon-row of high school exam-takers in the large auditorium, two dozen other students, with extra time and separate space testing accommodations, are hunched over math exams, graph paper,  unsolved x’s and y’s, calculators, word problems and flecks of eraser residue.

The discomfort in the room is palpable. Compulsive glances at the clock, nail-biting, deep sighs and the occasional frustrated forehead dropping down onto a desk in a moment of utter math despair. Ugh. Excuse me for a moment as I have a personal, quasi-traumatic math exam flashback.




Okay, I’m back.

As a proctor for accommodated exams for intelligent students who struggle to show what they know, my intention is to anchor the room with a calm presence so I arrive early, greet them, then stroll around the room during the exam, breathing deeply, smiling at them if they glance up at me and trying to relay with my eyes that I’m not judging them or their work since the equations all looks like Greek to me.  βοηθήστε με!

Mostly I just watch them. Notice their frequent highs and lows. I notice when their anxiety becomes momentarily debilitating over a tricky question or sheer exhaustion and that’s when I’ll quietly intervene with an encouraging word or a suggestion to take a few deep breaths or a short break.

Besides the stress levels radiating from their furrowed brows, I notice an overall level of uneasy unpreparedness in the students. I’m not judging them on how many hours they studied, if they created effective study sheets or whether or not they listened attentively during the instruction portion of class time. What I see are students unconsciously, reactively sabotaging their genuine efforts with a lack of appropriate tools for the task at hand.  Is there a correlation between how the students prepared for an exam with how they prepare for each day, part-time jobs, their relationships or their future?

Concrete Tools

Incredibly, some students enter the exam room with only dull-tipped stubs of once-glorious pencils or with no pencils at all. For a math exam!  Did they not know they would need a pencil for a math exam? Was it due to lack of clear instruction from teachers and parents over the years about how come prepared for a math exam? Doubtful. At some point, during the long years of math classes, tests and previous exams, the concept of coming equipped with multiple decently sharp pencils must have bypassed their general knowledge file and gone missing in a cloud of random, useless facts. Yet, still many come empty-handed and ill-equipped to reluctantly face the greatest challenge of their current day; a high school math exam.

If this is how they arrive, I wonder if they even ate breakfast before the exam, stayed well-hydrated while studying, studied for reasonable periods broken up by breaks and if they got a decent night’s sleep. Often, it is the students who arrive in the nick of time, out of breath and pencil-less to the exam have also forgotten which room they’re writing in, keep most of their notes in the bottom of their back-pack or locker and have years of report card comments like “bright student who needs to work harder at handing in all assignments. And on time”.   Years of short quips chronicling the life of the unprepared.

Abstract Tools

Outside the exam room just before the doors open, the following examples of students’ sabotaging self-talk were heard: “I have to do really well on this exam or I’ll be so angry with myself.  Not only that but my parents will kill me”. Or the other side of the coin: “Who cares? What’s the point, I’m going to fail anyway. I just can’t do math. I don’t even care”.

This barrage of unconscious but vicious, limiting language is an act of verbal self-harm and is likely a daily language patterns that is not just pulled out for exams only. Simple but deflating words paving the path to inevitable suffering. For even if they pass or ace the exam, the language of never being “good enough” is erosive and about as ineffective as their stubby, dull pencils. But ultimately much more harmful.

So what?

I’ve encountered a disturbing attitude from teachers and parents encapsulated in “Suck it up! I made it through high school okay so you should too” or the alternative where teachers and parents overlook the lack of preparedness because the student has reached a certain age when the adults decide that they will need to learn the hard way. Through soul-crushing failure?  Really?  How will the parched grain of their self-acceptance be watered with a concrete, line-in-the-sand, punitive attitude from the adults in their life?  Without parents and teachers seizing teachable moments, how will they ever learn?

Choosing not to engage students in the abundance of teachable moments is doing them a monumental disservice. New brain research is showing new levels of underdevelopment of the adolescent brain until their early 20’s so when a teenager appears lazy, crazy and hazy, they might not actually be. There is no magic age when a student will automatically put all the pieces together and have it all figured out. There are no concrete developmental milestones for well-honed executive functioning skills and the proof of this is the sheer number of adults who still struggle with daily organization, self-management, initiating, performing and completing a task, efficiently and effectively.

Each nano-second in the life of a frustratingly unprepared adolescent is an opportunity to teach, or re-teach a life skill for the first or millionth time.  As understandably tired parents and teachers, it is still our job.  The most important job we will ever have.

No coddling or rescuing is necessary. Simple emotion-free questions about how prepared or unprepared they feel before an exam or test. Asking them what tools, concrete or abstract, would increase their confidence, decrease their stress and remove the limits to their success. Asking them to recall a time when they felt prepared and how it impacted the result.  Plant seeds of critical thinking, asking the big questions, noticing the long term impact of their action or inaction.  Oh, and modelling increasingly developed executive functioning skills is the sail that’ll make that boat float most consistently!

If a student’s level of unpreparedness begins to interfere with daily functioning then it is time to dig deeper into the available support systems able to help maximize the teachable moments.  Explore their unique learning profile, consider a professional therapist to work on strengthening weary stress coping strategies, engage a subject-specific tutor and/or student success coach for on-going academic and learning strategy and study skills development.

Help is available so no student need ever arrive to the math exam of life without having multiple, exquisitely sharp pencils in hand.