Gym teacher uses CrossFit to help with life lessons

| 30 Aug 2018 | 04:12

By JARED PENDAK, Valley News
Pete Driscoll was a freshman in college when a commitment to personal fitness and goal-setting helped reshape his life. Today, the elementary school physical education teacher is committed to helping students discover a similar path much sooner.
Driscoll, known as “Mr. D” on campus, several years ago introduced a curriculum incorporating elements of CrossFit, the popular fitness regimen emphasizing “functional movement,” exercises aiming to enhance the effectiveness of everyday movement patterns.
Utilizing a converted former kindergarten classroom now filled with a wide range of fitness equipment, middle schoolers (grades 6-8) spend half of their allotted P.E. time performing CrossFit routines with Mr. D. Exercises always vary, Driscoll designing daily workouts involving some combination of bodyweight, added weight and aerobic exercises practiced Tabata style — 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest per interval.
Driscoll has also designed a curriculum he calls BrainFit, featuring obstacle courses in the same room and open to all students on the premise that short bursts of physical activity help assist cognitive function and learning. This whole-body, holistic approach is the cornerstone of Driscoll's teaching techniques, in which he strives to help students connect more meaningfully and purposefully with their own bodies as well as their families, peers and the world around them.
“I always played team sports growing up, lacrosse and soccer, and I always snowboarded,” said the 39-year-old Driscoll, a Massachusetts native who is married to fourth grade teacher Jennifer Driscoll. “But I really lacked self-confidence, didn't believe in myself and wasn't kind to myself or others. When I started exercising (as a freshman in college), my whole world changed. I learned how to set goals and have a much more positive outlook.”
Driscoll later ascribed to the methods of CrossFit, built on principles of “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement,” according to company literature. Driscoll attests that the movement patterns it emphasizes — lunges, air squats, and box jumps, to name a few— are applicable to many everyday activities, as well as athletic passions.
“On the first day of school, I ask kids what they love to do. Whether it's snowboarding, horseback riding, or helping your father with wood, the one thing all those activities have in common is that they require functional movement,” Driscoll said.
Importantly, Driscoll underscores proper mechanics above all else. On a white board, “FORM” is scrawled in large, bubble letters. Below it, in increasingly smaller letters, reads “Consistency” and then “Everything Else.” Driscoll is adamant about an individually scaled approach to CrossFit training, where students aren't competing with one another to perform the most repetitions or lift the most weight.
From the beginning, the instructor's mantra has been “Better Than Yesterday,” which represents varying degrees of progress for everyone.
“We don't lift heavy weights in here. Sometimes added weight is a PVC pipe, or maybe (an empty) barbell,” Driscoll said. “It's all about planting the seed for a healthier mindset and establishing these fundamental habits so that our minds and bodies will be better than yesterday.”
As for BrainFit, Driscoll introduced the 10-minute, obstacle-course-style intervals about four years ago with the blessing of then principal Jeff Moreno. About 90 children from all grades will come in and out of the classroom over the 21/2-hour periods BrainFit is available on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It's used to help students expend pent up energy, or as a reward for meeting certain classroom criteria at teachers' discretion.
“The idea is that kids return to class ready to work,” Driscoll said. “Studies show that if we physically move directly after or during a cognitive learning endeavor, retention of information is enhanced.”
Driscoll is a bona fide CrossFit athlete and fan, regularly partaking in regional competitions and even planning to attend as a spectator this summer's CrossFit Games national championships in Madison, Wis.
As an adult training regimen, CrossFit has been the subject of some controversy about whether it encourages participants to push themselves too far, potentially leading to dehydration and risk of injury.
Once again underscoring his emphasis on form and scale, Driscoll draws parallels to other sports for responsible practice methods.
“A good analogy … in Vermont is skiing. If you just started downhill skiing and your instructor takes you down a double black diamond trail on your first day, the risk of injury is going to be increased,” said Driscoll, a former snowboard instructor. “Responsible mentors understand that, whether it's skiing or CrossFit.”
Plus, incremental fitness improvements are only part of Driscoll's aim. He also incorporates lifestyle coaching, encouraging open discussion about what he calls the five pillars of health: positive relationships, gratitude, sleep, exercise and nutrition.
To help drive home those messages, a bulletin board is designated as the classroom's “Inspiration and motivation Station,” where students post anything positive that's on their minds. Phrases such as “From a small seed, a mighty tree will grow!”, “When life gets you down, do a burpee!” and “The only time we stop succeeding is when we stop trying” were pinned to it last week.
The curriculum is popular among both students and Driscoll's colleagues, some of whom attend after-school CrossFit training sessions he leads for staff, faculty and alumni. Social studies teacher Nick Wolfe has followed Driscoll's lead and now is a certified CrossFit trainer himself.
“There isn't anyone here who's done CrossFit with Mr. D who doesn't love it,” said Wolfe. “He has a very unique way of forming bonds and connections with his students, and really has inspired all of us.”
Moreno, now the assistant principal and athletic director at the high school, said Driscoll's curriculum was easy to support from the start.
“Self-confidence is so important for success in school and for developing a healthy learning environment,” Moreno said in a phone interview. “The motivational piece is huge. Even just the simple mantra, Better Than Yesterday. If kids can believe in that concept and move it forward, they're going to be OK in life.”

Pull Quotes: “It's all about planting the seed for a healthier mindset and establishing these fundamental habits so that our minds and bodies will be better than yesterday.” Elementary School Teacher Pete Driscoll
“The idea is that kids return to class ready to work…Studies show that if we physically move directly after or during a cognitive learning endeavor, retention of information is enhanced.”
Elementary School Teacher Pete Driscoll