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We don't want to do our best

"The trouble with ski instructors," she said, limping into the hotel in her orthopaedic-style plastic boots, "is that they're like PE teachers. They're never satisfied when you can just do it, they always want you to progress and go on to the next thing, and achieve (she spat the word out with hatred) excellence."

Whereupon she removed the boots, fell over on the bed with a groan, and became a member of the international league of ski-school dropouts.

I had a certain amount of sympathy. Years ago, I got to the happy stage where I could almost do parallel turns but usually funked it on steep slopes in favour of the semi-snowplough kind, and could scare myself just enough on a moderate blue run to feel a sense of adventure.

But whenever I joined a ski class, the Lycra-clad Werner or Bernhard in charge would simply not be satisfied with leading us down a new and moderately interesting run, with views. Instead, he would head for some ice-face, confiscate our ski-sticks and devote two hours to getting us as bruised as possible.

"Vizzout pain is no gain," he would say, with all the cheerfulness of the permanently upright . "To improve, to reach goals, it iz necessary to push ze boundaries."

You never quite dared to mention that you weren't that bothered about improving, actually, or at least not until you had spent three or four years getting over your cleverness at actually being able to turn corners without falling over. Eventually I learned to call this "consolidation", and went off on my own to do it in decent privacy.

As the holiday progressed, we discussed this theory of PE teachers and their compulsion to press onwards and upwards.

"Take netball," said one thinker. "The warm-up, I find, is more than enough. It burns up calories, gets your blood racing and you feel nice and energised. But then they have to go and spoil it by making you play an actual game, with scores."

"Swimming," said another. "Same thing. Now, I love swimming, do it every day on holiday. I can do a mile, easily. But PE teachers get worked up about stroke improvement and eradicating twists in your kick, and they're forever attaching bits of polystyrene to you and making you tow them around. Mystifying."

A man in his forties shook his head in wonderment about athletics. P> "I quite liked high-jumping," he said. "I could jump three foot three. But this Welsh gorilla who took PE was always at me to challenge my limits and do three foot six, and I knew I couldn't possibly, so I caught my foot and hurt my arm. After that I used to forge sick-notes."

"I liked hockey," said a girl, "when I played in the third team, which quite often lost something like 32-nil to the fourth team of the other school in town. We had a blast, and when we actually scored a goal it was like Christmas. But then this new games mistress came and decided to improve our wind by taking us for long runs and doing star-jumps in the mud. So two of the team went up to a better one, and the rest of us put our names down for library duty."

You have to see the PE teachers' and the ski instructors' point. In the world of sport, excellence, improvement and competitiveness are all. It must be agony to watch the rest of us lumbering around contentedly, uttering little cries of joyful surprise when we catch the ball.

It would be as bad as being a geography teacher and having a pupil turn up term after term tremendously pleased with himself for still knowing the shapes of the continents. ("Wow! Africa! Can't fool me!") Or a maths teacher, whose pupils beam fatuously at him, saying: "Guess what, I can still do seven-times-eight without thinking! Fifty-four, no, I tell a lie, 56." The teacher would sink into a slough of depression quite quickly.

But the PE teacher in a sedentary society has a double duty. Going for excellence and medals is not enough. The central duty is to get the blood running round in a more lively fashion, and to bring a healthy flush to the skin. So the deplorable muppets are doing themselves just as much good, physically, as the finely-tuned athletes of whom the school is so proud. Probably more, actually: good players use their muscles with efficient economy, so you probably get more exercise lunging hopelessly for the ball, or running the wrong way because your glasses fell off .

Good PE teachers, at all stages, know this. Ruefully, they accept that a clumsy, lumbering team shrieking with gleeful enjoyment is probably a better tribute to their skill than a superbly-oiled winning-machine. But it must be galling nonetheless. Salute them.

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