How do I gain physical confidence?
July 23, 2010 10:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I gain more confidence in my physical abilities? I never learned the basic athletic skills kids learn, and then I grew up avoiding them, and now I'm ready to learn. How do I start?

At some point when I was young, I really internalized a belief that I was not, in some essential way, capable of doing things that normal people seem to be capable of doing. Rationally, I know this is ludicrous. All of my limbs work perfectly fine. But nonetheless, my self-consciousness has kept me from trying anything athletic. I never learned to ride a bike. I did learn how to swim, but only barely (I can doggy paddle, essentially). I can't play tennis. I never played any sort of sport in high school. The only thing I can do pretty well is pitch, and only because my brother taught me, because he needed help with batting practice. Which proves to me that at least I have the capacity to learn.

I'm now in my early 40s, and I've spent the last couple of years working on getting in shape. I've always been thin, but weak. Now I'm getting my strength up, but I still feel uncoordinated. Underlying this feeling is a real fear that if I try at something and fail, I'm going to get really emotional. I have a deep sense of shame at my inabilities, which is no doubt due to my (very strong and athletic) mom calling me names and mocking me for my lack of athletic prowess. I also have a lot of anger about why she never helped me out on any of these issues. (And yes, I have been to therapy. For years and years.)

I guess my question is: have any of you faced challenges like these, and did you get past them? And if you did, how? In an ideal world I'd find some sort of personal trainer/therapist/gym coach, a person who could help me learn how to do these various things while at least being aware of the feelings behind them. I realize this is sort of a tall order.

I also realize that there are worse problems to have, and as I said, I know I am at heart a capable and strong person, but I'm wondering if anyone has had similar experiences.
posted by brooklynlady to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Take some dance lessons which are good for overall muscle tone. You can go couples--ballroom or square dancing, or individual--Zumba or ballet. The psychological part you will need to work out yourself but the more physical activiies you do, the more confidence/ability you will have. Good luck!
posted by MsKim at 10:47 PM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was never very athletic either, though it turned out that I was good at learning actual techniques if someone bothered to teach me.

What upped my physical confidence and coordination tremendously was learning a martial art--a very small beginner class, where "failure" doesn't apply because it wasn't competitive at all and the only thing the teacher wanted was a lot of persistence in practice, even if I sucked (at first). You might try something more basic than that, however, like a women's defense course (where you can expect the students to be varying and not super athletic), which will get you to feel your whole body motions more naturally. A course like this is not competitive, so there is no concept of failure; it is practical first, with psychological effects second.

Good luck.
posted by Ky at 10:49 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Find someone supportive to these activities with.

Play catch with your kids. Go to the park and shoot hoops with a friend. Take adult beginner tennis lessons offered by your local USTA. Get a bike and push off, try balancing, then start pedalling.

If you have kids, perhaps the next time you're over at your mother's, you could show her how encouraging a parent you are (without explicitly voicing your hurt) by doing some activity together that you and your child(ren) enjoy.

But if all your limbs work perfectly fine, just do it!
posted by pinside at 10:55 PM on July 23, 2010

Failure is an option. Failure is unavoidable. Failure is how we get good at doing things - studies have shown there are very few "naturals." Success is the result of sticking with it, even when it sucks for a while. Your mom was wrong, and if she were supportive, she would have had an athletic daughter. We'll be supportive for you.

I would recommend adult swimming lessons, as it's a skill that can save your life, and lead you to interesting and fun things like canoeing and snorkeling, which will also get you into shape.

I would also recommend learning to ride a bike. Get a bike, lower the seat all the way, and take the pedals off, and just scoot around on it until you understand how to balance and steer and stop. It will be a hoot. You'll love it.

Long walks through interesting places, like nature trails, history trails, walking tours of famous parks or cities... fun and interesting! Take lots of breaks when you begin, and you'll find you'll need to take less and less as you go on more walks.

There's a repeating theme here - fun. Going out and doing active things is fun, not a chore. And don't worry about the competitive aspect - there's no competitive walking tour league, nobody is going to time your laps at the pool's free swim, and unless your name is Lance, leisurely bike rides along the local bike path are just fine.

Just stick with it when the going gets rough - it will smooth out sooner than later, and then it will be even more fun once you're safely on the other side of the rough patch.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:08 PM on July 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

I would suggest personal training. I didn't have the same problems you did, but I was not an athletic person by nature. It really took some one on one training before I felt like I had any idea what I was doing in a gym and felt confident enough to start going to classes at the gym and not worrying that I'd look like an idiot.

If you're already going to a gym pay attention to other people's personal training and try to pick out someone whose personality/style of training you like. Seriously, people who do that work want you to feel good about yourself, and having your own personal cheerleader/coach will probably make you feel more at ease. There's no failure involved, it's just slowly learning new things.
posted by grapesaresour at 11:15 PM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Repeating what others have said, failure is how you learn. Don't be ashamed of it.

With that said, one of the things that was a big, life-changing thing for me was yoga. Prior to yoga, my balance was terrible, and it made everything--roller skating, bike riding, walking ina straight line--more difficult. Consider taking something like yoga or martial arts class just to improve that sort of thing to learn how to move in your body, and then move on to biking and other, more active things.
posted by MeghanC at 11:20 PM on July 23, 2010

I spent 34 years thnking I didn't know how to ride a bike (although I must have ridden a little as a kid). I moved to Alaska last year, and this summer decided---because the summer is incredible and all you want to do after the long winter is be outside and do stuff---that I wanted to get a bike, especially since we're teaching my 5 Galway old to ride too.

And it turns out---golly, riding a bike is totally, incredibly fun. I absolutely understand your description of not being athletic. I'm right there with you. But at least for me, the bike-riding isn't an "athletic" thing. I don't have to accomplish anything except maybe try not to fall off. I dnt have to be as good as anyone else. I can just get on the bike and ride around abs feel the wind going by. It's really great.

Like I said, I guess I must have been on a bike once or twice as a kid, because I kind of knew how to get on and pedal (once the seat was lowered so I could comfortably touch the ground). But clearly I never had shifted or anything.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:21 PM on July 23, 2010

Unlike you, I was pretty physically active. I loved my bike, and swimming, and running, skiing, etc. But in my late teens, I started rock climbing and bouldering (rock climbing near the ground, basically) and found that it really gave me an awareness of movement and balance that I hadn't had previously.
posted by Good Brain at 11:38 PM on July 23, 2010

Personally I just decided to accept the fact that I'm not very coordinated. Not everyone is graceful. Not everyone has the balance of a gymnast, or even semi-decent balance. Not everyone can do everything, and that's okay. It's how the world works. We're all different.

I would strongly recommend AGAINST taking any kind of dance or group exercise class. It only made me feel ridiculously self-conscious, and frustrated, and constantly on the verge of tears for not being able to figure out the step, or follow along, or confusing my left with my right AGAIN.

That being said, you can definitely train your body to be more coordinated. Look for things that are done solo, ideally with a trainer. Find a kind person, someone with compassion and empathy. Avoid anyone who gets that boot camp gleam in their eye.

A personal trainer at a gym is probably a good place to start. I couldn't afford a trainer, so I bought a $50 bike at Target and taught myself how to ride. In the parking lot of my apartment complex of the time, by myself, after dark so that no one would see.

I ended up very bruised about the calf area, but triumphant. It felt good! I still get a warm feeling from that accomplishment, so many years later, even though I barely went on to ride after that - and haven't ridden in years.
posted by ErikaB at 11:39 PM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding Good Brain's comment on rock climbing and bouldering. After I'd been doing it a few months, I discovered that I was suddenly better at seemingly unrelated things like throwing a dog toy across the room and having it land in the toy box -- developing the coordination in one area naturally bled over into others I hadn't even thought about. (It also has the advantage that most people *don't* grow up doing it, so no one will expect you to automagically know how to do it at first.)
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:01 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I definitely feel your pain. I was always the youngest, smallest kid in my elementary school class. I was also the kid who finished last every year in the government-mandated endurance runs ("do X number of laps around the field and the teacher will record your time")--I'd be crying as I ran the last few laps while the teacher waited for me and all my classmates went inside to eat their lunch. I developed a total hatred of PE class and physical activity in general that lasted until I graduated from high school.

So in first year university, wanting to be healthy but NOT wanting further humiliation, I decided to learn to run--by myself. I figured it didn't matter if I sucked at it as long as no one else could see. I started off doing that thing where you run for 30 seconds then walk for a few minutes and gradually build up from there. Before long I was doing just fine, and I was surprised to learn I wasn't really as bad at it as I had thought.

A few things that really helped me:

-realizing that it wasn't that I had no innate athletic ability; I had just never been taught how to develop my endurance skills in any kind of systematic way. Just that realization meant a world of difference to my self-perception.
-at first, only running by myself or with a very supportive friend (as someone mentioned above, no motivational boot-camp types!)
-if I had a bad run, forcing myself to think, "I need to build up my ability slowly--today wasn't so great but tomorrow will be better" rather than "I suck at this right now and am a total failure--I QUIT!" as was my previous habit
-after gaining enough confidence and skill, setting a concrete goal for myself to complete a 5 km fun run

I got some friends to meet me at the finish line of the 5 K run and it was wonderful--very emotionally cathartic. I felt like I had finally exorcised the demons of all those tearful elementary school endurance runs.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:12 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am the world's least graceful person, and so what I do is play golf. Without a cart. It turned out to be the best gift I could have ever been given. Golf doesn't involve any running, leaping, or diving. It's at your own pace, and it will teach you a whole lot about precision and endurance (You carry all your clubs over 9 holes, let alone 18, in 98-degree heat, and you will be a better person for it). It's a different kind of precision, too. I used to play volleyball, and was never very good at it, but golf turned me back into an athlete.

Also, I weigh 115 pounds and am no one's idea of a sports super-star. Golf is the one game I can play and hold my own against these really sporty-type people. You don't have to be strong, or graceful - you just have to have patience.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 2:40 AM on July 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Three components. Strength, speed, coordination. For strength and speed all you need are reps. Time and effort spent.

Coordination and balance are a little trickier. It can be easy to do it wrong. The dance recommendation is not bad, but you will probably require competent instruction which may not be easy to find. I recommend something with a ball. The ball can seem like it has a mind of its own and you have to react to it and you have to do it right or it won't work, unlike incompetently taught dance or martial art. Soccer, table tennis, tennis, golf, volleyball, and others have beginner groups all over.

Table tennis and volleyball have small slopes on the beginners' learning curves. And the world's best at these sports are great athletes.

I would go for table tennis in your situation!
posted by bukvich at 4:47 AM on July 24, 2010

There are many paths to your desired goal, but I will second MeghanC's advice to try yoga. There are many varieties of hatha yoga but the Iyengar approach emphasizes gentle movement and using aids like straps and blocks to help beginners adapt to poses. With a good teacher, Iyengar yoga will gradually build the balance, strength, coordination, and confidence that you need to do well in any athletic activity.

It's tempting to get a DVD and try yourself, but it's good to have a teacher who can correct your moves and help you avoid injury. And in a beginner's class, everyone else will probably be just as self-conscious as you if not more so.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:50 AM on July 24, 2010

[For coordination] I recommend something with a ball. The ball can seem like it has a mind of its own and you have to react to it and you have to do it right or it won't work, unlike incompetently taught dance or martial art.


- It's totally fun to play by yourself.
- Enclosed space, few (if any) windows, means you can be as ungraceful as you want. Also that the ball can't go rolling/soaring off when you swing funny.
- You will learn coordination FAST, if only to avoid smashing into walls at top speed.
- It's way incredibly fun to play with someone else.
- Great workout!
posted by carsonb at 5:21 AM on July 24, 2010

I'd second the yoga/pilates/martial arts stuff but only because physiotherapy made a MASSIVE difference in how I approach the world. Prior to (A LOT OF) physio I couldn't balance. I wobbled and would trip EVERY time I went up or down stairs without staring at each step. I would be in agony after long walks. I could not run at all without pain. I had constant aches and pains and this odd patch of numbness. I went to physio because I still had some problems with my pelvis after pregnancy and it turned out my lower back was a whole lot of fucked and it was in turn fucking up my hip and my groin and my legs.

Now? Now I can run up stairs. I can walk for HOURS with my child on my back. I can balance on one foot to tie my shoe. That's all led to a lot more physical confidence which mean I'm much more likely to do something challenging.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:24 AM on July 24, 2010

Tons of great recommendations here, and I want to give a strong second to swimming and biking. Adding: teach yourself to juggle. The eye-hand coordination you'll develop will stand you in good stead in any physical endeavor. And it's a great party trick.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:47 AM on July 24, 2010

I echo the yoga suggestion. I always wanted to try it, so I went to a beginners class. The instructor is very clear about practicing "truth" as you do poses - you need to be honest about what your body is capable of, and you need to accept that. What I have found striking is that every pose is different for me - I have a pretty limited range of motion, but some poses I find myself doing a lot better than I thought I could. That's a mental benefit that I'm applying to other areas of physical activity. (I also recommend going to a yoga studio rather than getting a DVD - shop around for a studio that makes you feel comfortable and welcome.)

I also had a similar experience with running to what hurdy gurdy girl suggested. I used to get terrible shin pain when trying to run in high school, despite being able to play tennis. So I thought I'd never be able to run. I picked it up last summer very slowly, just as hgg described, and I've built up strength and endurance. It's definitely gratifying to know that I am doing something now that I had long given up on. So with that, if there's a particular activity you've ever really wanted to do (whether that's tennis or bike riding), find an introductory way to get into it and do it all at your own pace.
posted by Terriniski at 6:50 AM on July 24, 2010

I was uninterested in sports as a kid, though I could run fast -- my only athletic skill. By the time I got into my 30s I started trying to upgrade my skills and began by learning how to hit a baseball. The satisfaction I got after hitting my first home-run still makes me glow. I can catch one now, too!

I also agree that running and yoga are very good for you, and fun!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:01 AM on July 24, 2010

All for biking. Exercise and transportation all in one. You will feel better about yourself immediately.
posted by mbx at 7:44 AM on July 24, 2010

Thank you, everyone! So many good ideas. It chokes me up a little just knowing that there are other people out there with the same issues, although of course I could have guessed as much.

I really want to learn to swim, because I have some serious phobia issues around the water, and with a super gung-ho 7-yr-old son who loves to swim, I need to gain confidence there.

Yoga is also a great, great suggestion. I was minorly traumatized by a yoga instructor who once singled me out in a class, but I can try again.
posted by brooklynlady at 8:01 AM on July 24, 2010

I'm pretty uncoordinated by nature myself, and found taking up cycling to be extremely rewarding in terms of general fitness. I even ended up working as a bike messenger for a couple of months, is how much I enjoyed it.

Contrary to an earlier poster, I'd really suggest leaving the pedals on and having the seat adjusted at more or less the right height for you though. I don't think learning how to balance on your groin is the a good first step towards self-confidence.
posted by chmmr at 8:06 AM on July 24, 2010

I was in your position for quite awhile, and my answer would be running. It can be a solitary activity, which seems fine for you because it limits the amount of singling out that can happen to you, and it feels great.

My BMI is 16, and I have no idea if I look good, but I feel great. I can run a 5K in under 20 minutes, and I can run over 10 miles in a single setting at the age of 18. I may still look like a Holocaust survivor, meaning I then have an inflated body perception, but I do know for a fact that regardless of my appearance, I am more athletic than them.

For me, I love running. The philosophy and history and importance of it; this is why I dedicated myself to it. Maybe try finding something you enjoy and find a passion for: take some tennis lessons maybe, or just try racquetball or jogging for fun, or even some lesser known physical activity.

The way I say it, there is a difference between strong and athletic. I don't even think there's an issue of balance. I'm not strong, I didn't really care for lifting at school as I always felt it just slowed me down. I really wouldn't worry about lifting unless that's something you want, don't feel pressured to do it. My father always chided me on my strength and weight despite my running ability, though he was never athletic in his life.

TL;DR: Find a physical activity that you enjoy and that makes you sweat. Being physical isn't about objective numbers, but about the confidence and good feeling you get by doing it. Exercise is truly addictive because it makes you feel good with it, but bad without it.
posted by SollosQ at 10:04 AM on July 24, 2010

Nthing yoga. I think because it isn't "athletic" in the Western sense, and because it came out of new age and self help movements, there isn't that sense of Scary Athletics precedent. For instance it's easy in most places to find beginner level classes where the assumption is that nobody has ever done this before and that it should be geared to all ability levels (rather than setting the bar pretty high and expecting that people who don't "get it" naturally will go home). It's fundamentally non-competitive, as well, and the setting is usually extremely relaxing and encouraging.

In addition to all that, the whole point of yoga is to make us more aware of our bodies. So not only do you get to practice in a non-judgmental atmosphere that is meant to be relaxing, the main gist of what you are doing in the class is learning to have an awareness of the physical.
posted by Sara C. at 12:10 PM on July 24, 2010

>Yoga is also a great, great suggestion. I was minorly traumatized by a yoga instructor who once singled me out in a class, but I can try again.

Any yoga teacher who makes a student feel bad needs a little more practice being a yoga teacher. Try another class, especially one that is oriented towards beginners.

Also, I am partial to Tai Chi myself, as if you haven't had enough options thrown at you already!
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 12:19 PM on July 24, 2010

Re "singling out" - agree with mrgoldenbrown. Also, you might want to look specifically for yoga studios that are focused on Hatha or Iyengar varieties, as they tend to be less athletically focused and more like what I described (I've felt a very competitive vibe from some Vinyasa classes I've taken, and even hearing about Bikram is enough to get me back into middle school gym class mode). Looking for a more "hippy dippy" studio as opposed to a class at a gym or a place with a more fitenssey vibe might also help.

I practiced for a long time at Integral Yoga, and at the beginning of each class, while we had our eyes closed for the opening meditation, the instructor would ask anyone who was not comfortable with adjustments, touching, or being singled out in any way to raise their hands. You might find it helpful to seek out a studio which does this (asking over the phone or at the front desk about adjustments and touch should give you a sense of it).

Then again I also practiced for a while at another place, the above-mentioned competitive Vinyasa joint, where instructors would call people out by name. Usually positive "Nice lunge, Kristen!", but ugh. Horribly counterproductive.
posted by Sara C. at 1:16 PM on July 24, 2010

I'm one of those people who grew up totally unathletic and scared of PE classes. (I remember the whole class watching me as I fail to do a handstand... yet again... Brrrr. Gives me chest pains just thinking about it.)

I've been very fit and less fit over time, but I don't have such sport-anxiety any more. What happened is that I gave myself plenty of time to learn how to do things.

At college, I had compulsory PE classes, but I could choose the activity. So I chose aerobics, mostly because it seemed less daunting than basketball or swimming or martial arts. The classes were huge (at least 50 people), so I could always find a place in the back where nobody would see me, and I was free to stumble over my two left feet as much as I wanted. I also got some exercise videos and figured out the complicated moves in the privacy of my room. In the next 3 years of compulsory PE classes, I stumbled less and less and eventually discovered that I liked this moving to music thing.

Then there came running. I decided to try couch-to-5K program, but I was terribly embarrassed to be seen huffing and puffing around... So I ran in the mornings, between 5:30 and 6:30 am, when no sane person was around (except other runners, who were either friendly or were too involved in their own huffing and puffing to notice me). I failed to finish the program one year, then picked it up next year, and one year after that, I was running 10K regularly.

And then the real revelation came - dance classes. I accompanied a friend to a free jazz dance class. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to do it even if I ended up the worst student ever. I signed up together with my friend, and while she flaked out, I kept going. After a couple of times, I was feeling a bit discouraged, but then I met a 60 year old woman going to ballet classes for the first time - she said she's too old for it, but enjoys it too much to worry. I remembered her on many occasions when I felt anxious about my abilities.

- Work with your anxieties, not against them. (Too embarrassed to go to the gym? Work out at home.)
- There is no "failure". You're just not at the level you'd like to be yet. More practice is probably needed, or maybe some expert advice. (Why do you think top athletes hire coaches?)
- Support of friends is likely to help you.
- Give yourself plenty of time. You're not a professional athlete, you're doing this part-time.
- It helps if you can find some physical activity that you really enjoy. The point is to have fun, not to be a pro!

PS. About yoga - yoga teachers are supposed to correct you if you're doing the poses wrong. Maybe you interpreted that in the wrong way? The teacher was probably trying to make sure you're doing the pose correctly to avoid any injury (at least I hope that's what he/she was doing!)
posted by gakiko at 1:54 AM on July 27, 2010

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