Skip

I don't know how to be athletic.
October 11, 2012 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I was never an athlete. But now I might be? Help me actually be.

As a kid, I broke my arm playing AYSO soccer and was "asked to leave" of rhythmic gymnastics at age 8. I sat on the bench the one year of lacrosse, and sat out every gym class I could manage. I lack depth perception and have wonderful exercise-induced asthma.

I stayed far away from all gyms and any team sports or classes for years. But: now. I am 24. I ran my first 10k last month, and am training for a 10-miler as well as a 50k hike. I lift heavy weights, do yoga, try CrossFit, etc. And in about the past month or two, I've realized that I love rock climbing.

The people I climb - or run, or do yoga, or take a class - with are great, and make doing these things a lot more fun. But I am bad at these things. In that I fall off walls constantly - ones that should be easy. I fall over on Warrior 3. I was 274/284 in my age and gender group in my last race. Not only am I bad, these people are good - in that they have been climbing for twelve years, can do handstand push-ups, run six-minute miles...you get the picture.

I want to be better at the things that I do, not just in speed or difficulty or grace, but in getting back up when I've fallen, sticking to training plans, and enjoying moving my body. I have no illusions or intention to be the best at my activities. I just like doing them.

But I have this naggling feeling that there was something about sports as a kid or high schooler that gave these people physical and mental confidence, stick-to-it-iveness, flexibility, determination - some combination of mental fortitude and routine to continue with activities, as well as a stronger base physical fitness, neither of which I can match. These people who engaged in sports early are confident in moving themselves, interested to try new things, able to pick up new things easily (and also understand them - like, I know I'm not supposed to have my arms like that, but what else am I supposed to do, and how do I know if I"m doing it?!), and take for granted that they'll be able to continue working out or climbing or whatever. (I'm concerned that I will never be any good and just top out at some point.)

I'm certainly not about to go join a soccer team now, but I'd like to feel more at home moving my body and as "an athlete". I'm now excited when I know I'm going climbing - and nothing athletic has given me joy before. I am not quite sure how I feel about feeling like this. I feel like someone's going to call me out as not belonging at the gym any moment now. People at work see me with my gym bag and assume I'm "sporty" and "athletic" - I have to hurry to reassure them that I am not, in the slightest.

So: how can I become a "regular athlete"? How do I get more comfortable training, failing, and running my own race (literally and figuratively)? How do I move from feeling like the girl who's going to be picked last to the girl who's comfortable carrying her gym clothes around?
posted by quadrilaterals to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

It's cliche, but there is truth to it. Not only does practice make you better at a given act. Practice makes you better at practice. Motivation follows action.

These people have learned this lesson earlier in life but that doesn't mean you can't learn it as well. Have patience and practice, practice, practice.
posted by French Fry at 12:47 PM on October 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


And specific to rock climbing. It uses muscles even seasoned athletes have not trained. It is a very long learning curve. The nice thing about climbing is crazy athleticism and handstand push-ups and 6 minute miles are not required to be an excellent climber.

Your hand strength and balance will improve and you will stop falling off the wall. You may want to get some coaching from a coach who is used to working with beginners. High level climbers don't necessarily know all that much about how to help a beginner.
posted by French Fry at 12:55 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Time and practice. Repetitions.

My former sister in law is a terrible team sport athlete. She never knows when to pass, when to shoot, when and where to play defense etc. But, through shear perseverance she has become a great tri-athlete. She simply practices regularly and continually sets new goals. She just moved into a new age bracket (she is 50 in her 25th year competing) and will win her bracket at smaller races. She is clumsy and can't throw a ball.

I think there is a big difference between team sports and individual sports like you are trying.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:57 PM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I couldn't balance in Warrior 3 when I started yoga and now - three years later - I can. Not much more to it. Side note: one of my teachers can do eka pada Koundiyanasana on a whim and I'll simply never be able to.

It's not quite what you asked but you are an athlete already, and this is really about confidence, not ability. When I tell people I have a triathlon this weekend, they are generally flabbergasted, yet my tri-nerd friends know it's just a sprint-distance race and we're doing it for a fun training event. Perspective! I met Jenson Button at a race in Hawaii last year and if there was anyone to feel humble next to, it's the world-champion Formula 1 driver with his insanely hot girlfriend, a few hours before he almost WINS the tri - for fun. But I had fun, and he had fun, and really, we both had that choice just as equally.

I'll be in the pool in an hour. There will probably be an older lady in the lane next to me, barely moving, and maybe someone else will show up that's still able to do fly distances that I haven't done since school. I'll have my motorcycle on the track in the next few weeks and while I'll be passed repeatedly by the liter bikes with lifelong racers on them, I'll be pushing my setup faster than I ever have. So it goes.
posted by kcm at 12:59 PM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's hard to reconcile this:

I ran my first 10k last month, and am training for a 10-miler as well as a 50k hike. I lift heavy weights, do yoga, try CrossFit, etc. And in about the past month or two, I've realized that I love rock climbing.

with this:

I feel like someone's going to call me out as not belonging at the gym any moment now. People at work see me with my gym bag and assume I'm "sporty" and "athletic" - I have to hurry to reassure them that I am not, in the slightest.


You finished a 10k! That's amazing! And now you're training for a 10 mile race! You are training to propel your body over 10 miles of terrain, by your own power. Take and savor the joy you get from climbing. Allow yourself to be excited and to embrace that feeling. Have confidence in yourself. You do, in fact, belong in your gym, and on the road, and in the race, and on those cliffs. Do you have a rock climbing group to help encourage you and to practice/go climbing with you? When you see yourself kitted out in your gear, don't tear yourself down. It's your gear, and you have every right to see yourself as in the right place.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:02 PM on October 11, 2012 [13 favorites]


People at work see me with my gym bag and assume I'm "sporty" and "athletic" - I have to hurry to reassure them that I am not, in the slightest.

That's weird because you just said this:

I ran my first 10k last month, and am training for a 10-miler as well as a 50k hike. I lift heavy weights, do yoga, try CrossFit, etc. And in about the past month or two, I've realized that I love rock climbing.


You are an athlete! Most people will never come close to running 10 miles. The people you're comparing yourself to have been doing athletic things for years. They're used to it, they know their bodies and they know that they can push themselves to get better. You can get there too but you need to own it and get used to it: you are sporty.
posted by ghharr at 1:03 PM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know any non-athletes who run 10 miles, kilometers, or feet unless something is chasing them.

You are an athlete. You don't have to deny it or downplay it.

A dance class might give you a better sense of "when I move like *this*, various parts of my body are doing *that*."
posted by rtha at 1:13 PM on October 11, 2012


A little more perspective: I can run a 1:35-1:45 half marathon without really training much, and consider myself lucky to be able to do so. It's not a record time but it's fairly respectable. I have much more respect for the Team in Training folks I see out training every morning, really working towards their goals, than I do for myself. I'd bet everyone at your gym, running courses, and climbing walls feels the same, and if they don't, it's because THEIR self-confidence is the terriblest.

NB. Echoing the above, climbing DOES take completely different muscles and tendon work than almost any other sport or exercise. Stick with it. There's is no real substitute but the aching forearms and quarter-size ripped off pieces of your palms (then fingers.. then fingertips..) you lamely try to avoid in the shower the next morning.
posted by kcm at 1:14 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


How do I get more comfortable training, failing, and running my own race (literally and figuratively)? How do I move from feeling like the girl who's going to be picked last to the girl who's comfortable carrying her gym clothes around?

One thing that may help is to set realistic micro-goals for yourself. In fact, it sounds like you're already doing some of that (e.g., upping your race distance from 10K to a 10-miler). But really, really focus on that, and less on what people around you are doing who have been doing that activity for 10+ years. Because if you take that 10-year perspective (if I keep up my running program for 10 years, I'll be able to run a sub-45min 10K) it all seems so overwhelming and impossible. If you focus on the 3-6 month horizon, it's all much more doable.
posted by drlith at 1:20 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rock climbing is the best. And almost everyone is bad at it in the beginning (except the exceptional, but you can't use them as your yardstick).

As a new climber, you will make the biggest gains not by training to get stronger, but by improving your technique. This will happen naturally as you climb more, but you can get better faster by watching good climbers carefully. How do they use their feet? When and how do they turn their body when doing certain moves? How do they stay balanced by re-positioning their bodies?

Don't worry about not climbing as hard as your friends. They will be psyched to watch you try hard, learn, and improve. I promise. It's super cool to see folks get better and their excitement is infectious and inspiring. Keep at it.

And nthing all the good advice about resetting your self-image around being a "real athlete." Anyone out doing the things you talk about is an athlete, whether they liked gym class or not.
posted by that's candlepin at 1:23 PM on October 11, 2012


Practice. Have a coach. Practice more.

...and don't give up on soccer. There are a number of adult informal/pick-up leagues in my town for all ages and skill levels. Fourty-year olds with bad skills are welcome, as long as they come to play and work hard.

But competence in sport is persistence and decent coaching. Nothing can replace either of those factors.
posted by bonehead at 1:27 PM on October 11, 2012


Joining the reverse pile-on, you are already an athlete! That you can run a 10k shows you have perseverance and demonstrated ability to do athletic things.

What you may not be is an experienced athlete, or perhaps as good as the people around you who you aspire to be competitive with. That comes with time and practice.

Which you are already capable of, because you can run a 10k!

With training and time, you will improve. You're already ahead of 95% of the population. Continue to persevere, train appropriately for the sports you want to do, and you're good to go.
posted by zippy at 1:29 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Agreeing with everyone else: you're an athlete. I asked a very fit-looking guy recently if he was an athlete, and he hesitated, and said, "not really... I mean, I run about 15 miles a week and try to kayak on the alternate days, but...". Yeah, athlete! Know that you're not alone in feeling like you do (I'm a fat lady who took a long time to get comfortable at the gym), but you do belong.

Folks are emphasizing practicing the one thing, but crosstraining can also be great. Yoga and tai chi got me much better at determining where my body is in space. Being a newbie at running/boxing/spinning/jump rope/zumba/swimming all helped me to get a little more comfortable with learning new things, looking like the new kid, and pushing on to try that new athletic thing Anyway. So: cross train!
posted by ldthomps at 1:34 PM on October 11, 2012


The nice thing about sports is that you often get better at them just by doing them regularly. After a while, you start to figure out how to make your chosen form of movement more efficient. And at the same time, your body gets stronger and more flexible, and that allows you to run, or climb, or swim better and more easily. This also helps you improve, because it's easier to notice things you could do better when you're not just gasping for breath. Simple repetition is going to get you where you want to be if you just keep at it.

For what it's worth, I have been a fairly athletic person my whole life, and I find it takes me (as an adult) about two years of regular practice (as in, at least 1 a week) to start getting decent at a brand new sport, and another year to start figuring out how to do that sport gracefully and/or efficiently. Bodies learn things on their own time, so it might take you longer or shorter to figure something out. But if you haven't been super athletic in the past, your sense of how long it should be taking you to get good at something might not be well-calibrated yet. Try and be patient with yourself.

As for the people you see who are better at these things already: cut yourself some slack. If they've been climbing for 12 years already, of course they're better than you. But everyone comes to things on their own time and at their own pace, and that doesn't make you any less of an athlete. It just makes you an athlete at a different part of your journey. So just hang in there and keep doing what makes you happy.
posted by colfax at 1:44 PM on October 11, 2012


Oh, I would also recommend cross-training, especially with a dance-based kind of class. I took belly dancing after fourteen years of classical ballet, and while I was not especially good at ballet, I was terrifically bad at belly dancing. But it was incredibly fun, taught me about muscles I never knew existed, and it's actually helped my spatial awareness in a different sense than ballet. There are some really great adult dance classes out there in DC, if you're interested in picking up an inside hobby for the winter months!

PS: jangly skirts! The little tinkling coins are the best positive reinforcement!
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:44 PM on October 11, 2012


I think excelling at any sport involves a combination of innate athletic ability, body type appropriateness for a given sport, practice, and mental tenacity or focus. There are probably various combinations of these components that can all lead to the same performance outcome. If you have a deficit in athletic ability and body type appropriateness, you can make up for it to some extent with practice and mental power. I know people who were not good athletes in the typical sense as kids (couldn't run fast or jump high, weren't particularly strong, didn't have good hand-eye coordination, didn't have good throwing form, or couldn't catch a ball) but excelled in a certain sport as an adult (not at a professional level but at an amateur/recreational level).
posted by Dansaman at 1:49 PM on October 11, 2012


Get the right contacts. I lost my depth perception slowly over the years as my eyesight declined and just got it back a few years ago with new toric soft contacts and omg, its night and day. Glasses are not the same, nor are regular contacts.
posted by fshgrl at 2:01 PM on October 11, 2012


I finished my first sprint triathlon this year, age 55. I was slow. I will always be slow. Here is my credo for everything I do, including crossfit, swimming, running, biking, yoga:

1) Try hard, every time. I can accept minimal skill, but I won't accept no heart.
2) Finish unless finishing endangers your health
3) Maintain excellent form- bad form gets you injured & this will set you back too far.

My first coach told me the following, and it is trite, but it is true:

You know what they call the last person to finish in a triathlon?
A triathlete.

Have some fun!
posted by jcworth at 2:45 PM on October 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


The people I climb - or run, or do yoga, or take a class - with are great, and make doing these things a lot more fun. But I am bad at these things. In that I fall off walls constantly - ones that should be easy. I fall over on Warrior 3. I was 274/284 in my age and gender group in my last race. Not only am I bad, these people are good - in that they have been climbing for twelve years, can do handstand push-ups, run six-minute miles...you get the picture.

Girl listen, the last 10K I ran I came in last. LAST. Actually LAST. I was last by about the 1.5-mile mark and spent the next hour (HOUR.) plodding along while the three hot young male volunteer firefighters in the trail car drove behind me at an actual fucking speed of five miles per hour. THAT HAPPENED. And also they report the results in the newspaper so the following lines appeared in print:

"1. Usain Bolt, 32 minutes.
2. Elle MacFasterson, 33 minutes.
3. Robert Run-y Jr, 33 minutes.
.
.
.
79. Snarl Furillo, 4 hours, 32 minutes."
all figures approximate

Yeah, it wasn't, like, my greatest achievement of all time or whatever, except in the way it kind of was? My favorite sports blogger, Amy Moritz, wrote, "There are plenty of people who would love to be here, but won't try." I love that. I tried, you and I are trying. I came in last, except for all of the people who were at home in bed, who were scared, who didn't know if they could do it and couldn't bear to find out. There are plenty of people who would love to be here, but won't try. That is my mantra when I feel like shit about my athletic abilities.

But I have this naggling feeling that there was something about sports as a kid or high schooler that gave these people physical and mental confidence, stick-to-it-iveness, flexibility, determination - some combination of mental fortitude and routine to continue with activities, as well as a stronger base physical fitness, neither of which I can match. These people who engaged in sports early are confident in moving themselves, interested to try new things, able to pick up new things easily (and also understand them - like, I know I'm not supposed to have my arms like that, but what else am I supposed to do, and how do I know if I"m doing it?!), and take for granted that they'll be able to continue working out or climbing or whatever. (I'm concerned that I will never be any good and just top out at some point.)

So, a really cool thing is that you are right about sports helping you develop self-discipline, determination and stick-to-it-iveness, and that they are also helping you to develop those things right now, as an adult. That window doesn't close. Every time you run, your heart and lungs get stronger. Your risk of heart disease decreases. Your muscles learn how to exert themselves and then repair themselves to make you stronger for the next run. You can develop as an athlete for a long, long time.

On a practical level, you might benefit from some sessions with an athletic trainer (NOT a personal trainer) to improve your balance and coordination. It sounds like you might have trouble with balance (did you break your arm in a fall?) and maybe "crossing the midline," ie, getting your right arm and left leg to work together. You can learn those skills through simple exercises and drills. (For the record, I am also the slowest agility ladder participant in every athletic performance class I take). You can google "athletic performance training [your city]" to find people. Again, you do NOT want a personal trainer. You want an athletic trainer.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:38 PM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


But I have this naggling feeling that there was something about sports as a kid or high schooler that gave these people physical and mental confidence, stick-to-it-iveness, flexibility, determination - some combination of mental fortitude and routine to continue with activities, as well as a stronger base physical fitness, neither of which I can match.

I feel like part of this- that they have a stronger base physical fitness- is certainly true. I was never an athlete in high school; I didn't place any importance on sports, wasn't on any teams, and I think I managed a 14 minute mile when we ran timed miles. I have been running about 7 years, and it took me a long time to feel like my aerobic capacity had even made it into the 'about normal' category. The bad news is that it takes a ton of time. The good news is that it does happen. The other good news is that the confidence side of the equation is something that you're building right now, and every time you go up a wall or line up at a start line, you are building it.

One of the things that's been most helpful to me in terms of sticking to a training plan and completing workouts even when I didn't feel like it has been a way to see my progress in concrete terms. For running I like the VDOT scale, which approximates VO2max based on race times. I am not sure if there is an equivalent for climbing, but if so you could use that instead. It is enormously helpful, when I am having 'not an athlete' feelings, to be able to look at where I was and where I currently am.

Also remember that you know what you've done in the past, but one thing you don't know is your upper limits. Set a goal and knock it down, and write it down, so that you remember when you couldn't do it, and how it felt when you finally could. Run that same 10K next year and try to place higher- it'll give you a clear, apples to apples comparison of your improvement-- and you will improve. The silver lining to having a not-so-good aerobic system (I have been there, and I am still working on it) is that you have a lot of room for improvement to take advantage of. It is much easier for you to knock 5 minutes off your 10K time than it is for someone who's already running 10Ks in under 40 minutes!

Good luck!
posted by matcha action at 4:01 PM on October 11, 2012


You're doing athletics? You're an athlete! The point of athletics is not the winning, it's the trying. Here's your quote:

"It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have don them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms and devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat."--Theodore Roosevelt
posted by HotToddy at 7:53 PM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am good at ice skating. When I go skating I am usually one of the best people on the rink.

Thing is, you have no idea how many times I fell down learning to skate. So many times. My legs would be covered in bruises, I'd be bleeding from scuffs, I'd trip into the boards and bruise myself that way. I broke my kneecap once, got bruises so deep that I could barely walk. Messed up a tendon and couldn't skate for half a year.

When I see someone earnestly trying to learn to skate, I don't look down on them! I remember being at that point in my training, and how hard it was, and I feel happy for them to be learning something as fun as ice skating. I remember people who helped me when I was stuck, and I try to help newer people who are stuck. Anyone who gives you crap for being new or less adept is an asshole. But in my experience, the vast majority of people are rooting for you, and are even willing to help you out if you ask.

Also: I was that kid in high school who would obliviously get hit in the head by the ball in any sport invovling a ball, inevitably picked last for everything, all that stuff. You just never know what you're good at until you try, I think. And sometimes it does take lots of persistence.
posted by ZeroDivides at 1:39 AM on October 12, 2012


I was doing a bike ride with my wife a few days ago and she was lamenting that her average speed was a bit low lately. I reminded her that everyone who didn't ride today has an average speed of zero.

You're an athlete for doing athletic things. As you do more of it you'll acquire as much of the stick-to-it'ness that you need to overcome the goals you want to achieve. You will experience the roller coaster of rapid gains, plateaus, setbacks and subsequent break through performances. Sometimes you will know why you got better and other times you won't, but innately you develop a confidence that keeping on, well... keepin' on, is an end to itself.

Sorry if this reads a bit like a Dr. Seuss explanation. :)
posted by dgran at 5:51 AM on October 12, 2012


You're 23 - I could have written your post before I started playing sports around age 21. Didn't play any sports as a child, hated gym class and high school sports, naturally very uncoordinated, slow learner as far as physical things go, etc etc. I started to play sports with friends in university after being nagged into it. I had never touched a volleyball or soccer ball outside of a few days in high school gym class.

At 26 I've worked my way up from playing with very recreational, unskilled sports teams to playing at intermediate level in both volleyball and soccer. I'll never be competing nation-wide or anything, but I'm skilled enough now to have a lot of fun, to be useful to my team, to play around with strategies, and to get some exercise.

I wouldn't write yourself off just yet. It's just about practice, and about the desire to improve. Improving is far more important than absolute skill. There will always be people better or worse than you in anything you do, including sports - ignore those people, or better yet, learn from them.
posted by randomnity at 8:11 AM on October 12, 2012


« Older Am i destined to get facebook ...   |  Does New York State law allow ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post