Phil Lawler walked into Madison Junior High School in Naperville, Illinois, on a bright sunny morning in the spring of 1989. He said hello to several colleagues. Then he began to get ready for the six physical education classes he would teach that day before heading to Naperville Central High School to tutor the pitchers on the school’s baseball team.
For Lawler, a veteran physical education teacher and coach, the day had started like most days. But this day would prove to be very different.
It was “Mile Run Day” in the Madison PE department. Many of the students hated the mile run, but they had learned to tolerate—if not accept—it.
A year earlier, Lawler and his two fellow PE teachers, Mike Crackel and Carol Vermaat, had decided to institute a weekly mile run.
“Mike brought in an article to our staff meeting one day that highlighted the decline in the health of American children,” said Lawler. “We talked about it for a while and discussed how, as physical education teachers, we should be in a position to help do something about it. Then, all of a sudden, Mike said we should institute a mile run to get our kids more fit. Carol and I laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn’t, and the more we talked about it, the more we all thought it was a good idea.”
The trio faced plenty of opposition to their mile run concept. Many students and parents, as well as several Madison teachers, thought that making students run a mile for time wasn’t appropriate. A lot of them voiced their displeasure—formally and informally—with what they saw as a boot-camp-like activity. Running a mile—for time—was a significant departure from the department’s traditional routine of team sports, skill development, and games.
Lawler was the stereotypical PE teacher and coach. He admittedly got into physical education because he thought it was the best path toward a coaching career. In essence, for much of the first half of his career, he was simply a team sport coach who ran PE classes before practices started after school.
On Mile Run Day, he’d grab his whistle and stopwatch, put them around his neck, and head out to the field—just like every other coach and PE instructor you may recall from your school days or may remember seeing in old movies.
As the boys and girls went by his post, about halfway along the course, he would do his best job of “motivating” them by barking out “Pick up the pace!” or “Push it a little! I know you can work harder than that!”
“I thought I could tell by observation which students were working hard and which weren’t,” said Lawler. “I felt it was my job to motivate the students I thought needed motivating.”
A few weeks before this particular day’s mile run, Lawler had picked up a newfangled device called a heart rate monitor. He’d been told that it was a new way to measure the effort of his students. So, on this particular day, he had decided to put the heart rate monitor on a slender girl who seemed to be averse to exercise and consistently finished near the rear during the mile run. She wasn’t overweight and didn’t have asthma or any other apparent health problem. Lawler thought her problem was simply a lack of interest and self-motivation. In short, he thought she was lazy.
“This young lady was not athletic at all, showed no interest in physical education, and acted like the last thing she wanted to do in the world was sweat,” said Lawler. “Whatever we did, she was always walking or jogging very slowly. She appeared to not be pushing herself at all. I thought the heart rate monitor would verify my suspicions about her lack of effort.”
True to form, this 13-year-old girl once again finished the mile in the back of the pack.
“She walked—maybe jogged a little bit—for the entire mile,” explained Lawler. “She finished in 13 1/2 minutes. Most days I would’ve been encouraging her to push herself more, but on this day, I just let her finish. I fully expected that the heart rate monitor would show that she wasn’t putting out any effort.
“Well, after class I downloaded the heart rate monitor on the computer, fully expecting it to confirm my observation that this girl was not expending any energy during the mile,” continued Lawler. “What I discovered, however, was that she had an average heart rate of 187 and that she’d peaked at 207 at the finish line. By my observation she wasn’t doing anything, but in reality, she was working too hard.
“I was sitting at the computer, staring at the screen, and the lightbulb went on like a big flash. I thought to myself, Boy, we’ve screwed this mile run thing up royally. We have no idea how hard these kids are working based on our eyes and stopwatches. I started thinking back to all the kids we must have turned off to exercise because we weren’t able to give them credit for their effort.”
Lawler’s eyes had lied to him. He was convinced this girl was lazy and not pushing herself enough. In reality, she was working harder than the majority of kids in Lawler’s PE class, including the top athletes.
Twenty years later, Lawler leaned back in his chair and reflected on what he learned on that fateful day.
“This girl was at the bottom of the class based on the old criteria, but if I had a heart rate monitor on every kid in class that day, it might’ve turned out that she was at the top of the class in terms of effort,” said Lawler. “She could’ve been the hardest working kid we had in class on that particular day.
“In those days, we basically said, ‘If you can’t run a mile under eight minutes, you’re a failure.’ What our eyes and stopwatches didn’t tell us then was how hard kids were actually working. Heart rate monitors can tell us that. That was an absolutely huge day for us. The old way of evaluation—observation and a stopwatch—was not valid. We were judging—and grading—based on the question ‘How fast did you run it?’ It was based on athletic performance, not a fitness assessment.”
In fact, while staring at the girl’s heart rate numbers on the computer screen that day, Lawler had an epiphany that would change the entire course of his life.
As Lawler drove to baseball practice that afternoon, he realized that he had to completely change his approach to physical education. He knew that he needed to make PE more fitness based and needed to start grading students more on effort than outcomes. His heart told him that he had a moral responsibility to do what he could to change the way physical education was taught.
What he didn’t know while driving to Central’s baseball field that day was just how far his new quest would take him—or the impact he would ultimately have on students, teachers, administrators, parents, doctors, professors, researchers, and business leaders.
What he did know was that he could no longer teach PE the same old way anymore.
Lawler’s life would never again be the same. His passionate quest to change physical education had begun.