Help me to get into a sport - any sport! - as a completely un-sporty adult male.
March 20, 2011 6:28 AM   Subscribe

As a 38 year old guy with no significant experience AT ALL of playing sports, it is very hard to see how I might start to get into them. Please help.

I'm male, 38 years old. I'm a little overweight (about 15st - sadly not all muscle! - at 6ft 2in) but don't suffer from any particular health / physical problems at all, thankfully.

I have never really played any sport; my life just worked out that way. Neither of my parents were sporting, and so I wasn't motivated or encouraged by them. Sure, I kicked a ball around a bit as a child, played with a tennis racket occasionally, but never anything sustained or at any significant skill level. Perhaps the most I did was some cross country running, which I found hard but relatively rewarding at the time - 12 or 13 - but then I quickly became far more interested in girls, music and bars.

The problem, then, is that I just don't get any regular intensive exercise - and that's clearly not good for my health. As I say, my health is OK right now - but I have young kids, and now really is time for me to start working on this! I also recognise that the right physical exercise can be a pleasure - and a good social activity, too. (For reasons too complicated to list here I could really do with some more good friends; recent house moves and life events mean I have a sadly small circle of friends).

Over the last four or five years I have joined a gym - several times - and even on the most recent occasion getting a personal trainer. But after much hard work I've finally figured out that I just really, really don't like doing gym work. I find it exhausting, unsurprisingly - but also just not at all a pleasure. Thus: I just can't keep it up. Similarly, over the last seven or eight years I've tried to take up jogging - several times. I even did a 10k about 4 years ago. But once again: I just don't like it. I wish I did: but I don't. I've tried cycling and similarly it doesn't work for me.

What I'd really like to do is take a physical activity that I might find *fun*. The sorts of things in my mind would be something like squash; tennis; maybe football (soccer); badminton, although frankly I'm open to anything, and I don't really know as I've never done anything! When I was younger I did love playing pool - not a sport that provides exercise, I know, but I loved the competition, skill and social aspects of that, so I know I enjoy those aspects of an activity. But here we come to the nub of my challenge, and my question to Ask Mefi: as a 38 year old guy with no significant experience AT ALL of sports, it is very very hard to see how I might start to get into them.

There are two or three main problems.

Firstly, it seems very much to me that the culture of people playing sport in my country (UK, btw), is that you're simply expected to be able to do this - and if you don't, you're just not part of that scene. Even if I could just 'turn up' and try and take part, I'd feel so out of my depth and uncomfortable. Imagine trying to turn up to an amateur five a side football match with people who've done it all their lives, and trying to join in without knowing any skill, tactics, positions, rules… etc. etc. It just aint going to work. (Please don't tell me I have self confidence issues here. Believe me, away from sports, I'm a perfectly happy and confident person. I'm being pragmatic about the skill levels that my peers are at, and the problem that you just get very few 'beginners' in this field at this age. It also really doesn't help that I have no interest in watching football - which again, is a great passion for many people).

Secondly, five a side football teams for adults who have never played just don't exist: just the same as tournaments for adults who've never played tennis, squash, etc. (I live in Oxford, a small city - so don't have the extensive resources you might get in e.g. London).

And even if I got a coach (for say, tennis or squash - although I'm not sure how easy that is or how expensive), all I really want to do is get some exercise and have fun, remember. If I'm going to have to put in 200 hours of coaching and practice to be able to play even the poorest other adult at my level, that's not going to be much fun, either.

So how on earth is one supposed to actually start?

I'd really love to change this part of my life, so any suggestions, tips or experience would be hugely appreciated. Thanks so much.
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, my first thought was, you should find an American football "league" to play in; here in the states, rugby and cricket are popular with adults taking up sports for the first time ever because NOBODY KNOWS HOW TO PLAY, so everyone's at the same level of cluelessness and skill-lessness. American football might be the same over there and I'm sure there's tons of ex-pats in Oxford who like a friendly scrimmage. (In fact, I've seen them in the parks when I studied in London.) They'd probably think it was great fun to teach you the basics. Baseball or softball might be similar; softball is very popular for "adult recreation" leagues in the U.S. (Indeed, a quick googling turns up multiple actual organized American football team in Oxford, some of which welcome beginners.)

Personally I adore badminton because it's easy to play socially and casually even if you're pretty awful, and as you improve, there's a lot of strategy and skill. But I've never gotten very fit doing it because I like the social/casual game so much. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:45 AM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've never played any sport either so can't advise on that, but I wonder if you've considered other forms of exercise. For instance, you and your wife -you mentioned young children so I'm assuming you have a wife- could get serious about dancing, take classes together, go dancing a couple of times a week. Or you could do yoga.
posted by mareli at 6:46 AM on March 20, 2011

I was going to say dance classes also. In most cities/towns you can find plenty of classes on different types of dance for adult beginners, and there won't be any of that superior attitude that sporty people have. It's really fun, can be very social if that's what you're looking for, and contrary to what some people think who have never done it, a very good workout.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:55 AM on March 20, 2011

Not strictly a team sport but how about rock climbing! Loads of people begin as adults, most walls have beginner sessions, courses and social events, and it's loads of fun when you start because everyone's in the same boat. You also don't have to be at all good to really enjoy it and no-one is dependant on your ability to 'win' so it's very sociable.

I had a quick google and the Rock Solid wall at Oxford Brookes is open to all.
posted by freya_lamb at 6:58 AM on March 20, 2011

I love Rock Climbing, so I'll suggest that. I'm not sure how easy it is to get into on your own, but it's a great physical and mental challenge. See if there's a group in your area that you can join.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:59 AM on March 20, 2011

Schools and towns, at least where I live in the US, often have adult recreational programs that include lessons and sports teams for beginners. The YMCA has similar programs that often make it possible to play sports with others who are at same skill level as you, or with teammates who would accept and help a newbie.

Tennis and racquet clubs also often have leagues and instruction for players of all abilities.

And finally, do they have bowling in the UK?
posted by someonesomewhere at 7:08 AM on March 20, 2011

Any martial art would fit the bill too. You are expected to be a beginner when you first join. It provides a regular, consistent schedule so it's much harder to flake out. There is a great social component as you're interacting with other people during class to practice what you're learning. It works out everything, flexibility, strength, coordination, speed, including a significant mental component as you're constantly learning new ideas and techniques.
posted by blueyellow at 7:11 AM on March 20, 2011

Although I played sports in high school and undergrad I didn't like them enough to persist. (Thirding) rock climbing: whether inside or outside the climbers I have been around are an encouraging bunch, they want you to finish the pitch. It's pretty much age-independent. There are seventy-year-old 5.12 (about 6b) climbers.

A variant, bouldering, is available nearly anywhere big rocks are sold. For "real" climbing, the UK's Peak District is well regarded.
posted by jet_silver at 7:12 AM on March 20, 2011

What about Martial Arts? My kids were in Tae Kwon Do for years and kids and adults all started as beginners mixed in classes with people of all different levels being taught by higher level students alongside the instructor. I didn't, but I could've joined right along with my five year old and learned right along with her. I have a few friends who got into Martial arts in their late 30s and 40s and love it. My friends are now taking Kung Fu right along with their two little kids and post regularly on facebook how much they love it, how worn out they are and how awesome they feel and how many boards they broke.
posted by artychoke at 7:16 AM on March 20, 2011

If you want a team sport, Eyebrows McGee has the right idea in suggesting sports that are not as popular as association football yet, like Ultimate Frisbee.

You don't have the resources of London, but you probably have a fair number of ex-uni people who are interested in playing strange sports.
posted by grouse at 7:19 AM on March 20, 2011

Also, Dodgeball is my sport of choice as a person-who-is-not-great-at-team-sports.
posted by grouse at 7:22 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Martial Arts.
You need no equipment.
A partner is not required.
Everyone starts at the same level.
You can practice it your entire life.
The activity is rewarding unto itself.
The only person you have to compare yourself with is 'you' from yesterday.
posted by jack.tinker at 7:51 AM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

+1 on badminton and rock climbing in this exact context!

Rock climbing is like yoga, weightlifting, and chess, rolled into one. The atmosphere at climbing gyms is friendly in my experience, and all age groups participate.

Badminton is lots of fun even if you're no good at playing, and I find it to be great fun to play against someone who is 'worse' than me. Badminton can also be a quite intense sport, focus-wise, which is great if you get bored with things like running.

And what about outdoors or trail running? Jumping over rocks and streams, watching your step, chasing rabbits - it all makes running far more interesting.
posted by krilli at 8:05 AM on March 20, 2011

I think tennis is a good choice IF you have a friend or significant other who'll join you in learning. The equipment is minimal. It's social. You can play it outdoors and when you go on holiday, unlike martial arts. It's the sort of game you can grab a few friends who haven't played since they were kids, and head down to the park for an hour or two to play for a laugh. It's just a great fun sport once you get the basics down.

I'm not in Oxford, but pretty much every city I've lived in has had reasonably cheap lessons available somewhere - think night classes in schools, city-sponsored classes in the summer, that type of thing. They're not one-on-one but you could hire a coach for that if you liked it. Ten or twelve lessons and you're away.

If you have any friends who have never played (or not since school), just send out an emails saying "taking beginner's tennis lessons tuesday nights, anyone interested?"
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:07 AM on March 20, 2011

One of the other sort of different team sports to seek out is kickball. There's an adult kickball league that at least has some kind of presence in different areas of the US, and I would guess it might be easy enough to find others in your area that might want to play. Being so kid-related, it has the benefit of no one taking it extremely seriously, and you don't need an investment of a lot of equipment or space.
posted by bizzyb at 9:15 AM on March 20, 2011

I don't know if Ultimate (aka Ultimate Frisbee) has much of a toehold in the UK, but it's very fun, very casual, and is a lot of exercise. See if there's a league nearby.
posted by dfan at 9:53 AM on March 20, 2011

Oxford seems like it'd be a uniquely good city to be in for this, because the sports societies for the odder sports are constantly trying to attract new people, don't mind taking on townies, and take in a fresh group of never-played-befores every September. Handball is one that comes to mind immediately - there might be Korfball too! Or you could learn to ride a unicycle, or get properly into cycling, or any daft thing you can thing of - just google the relevant society, send an email, and ask if you'd be welcome?
posted by piato at 10:22 AM on March 20, 2011

Here's a link to the Oxford City korfball club - nobody in the photos seems intimidatingly athletic, and I'm sure they'd love to have you!
posted by piato at 10:25 AM on March 20, 2011

Response by poster: Goodness, everybody, so many kind suggestions. Thank you so much to all for taking time to give me advice.

Mareli, if you're still around - or anyone else who has experience - does Yoga really provide a work out? And yes, I have a (wonderful) wife - she's into horse riding though!

I had previously wondered about Martial Arts, but am slightly wary of finding the 'right' course or teacher (and how one makes that assessment).

The rock climbing sounds like a great suggestion; I notice there's a course coming up in April and will definitely consider that.

Korfball sounds like a blast - and very accessible - which is exactly what's important to me, so that's a good candidate too.

Tennis and Badminton - Badminton in particular - sound like they could be enjoyable, but I think perhaps not quite so accessible. I'll look a bit further into Badminton and see if I can find anywhere in the area that is welcoming to *genuinely* complete beginners.

Thanks so much again to all for the ideas and the Googling. I'm going to try (at least) one of these - and I'll post back!
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 11:00 AM on March 20, 2011

Yes, yoga provides a really good workout if it's done right, in part from holding poses for a length of time. It may depend on the teacher, the one we have (free classes at work, yay!) works us hard and sweaty. Some people swear by hot yoga.
posted by mareli at 11:06 AM on March 20, 2011

You didn't say how young your kids are, but what about just playing (hard) with them? Play modified versions of football/dodgeball/softball so you are running around for an hour at a time. Play softball and let them bat - you run after the balls. Make up a game, like hide some things in the park and leave clues so your game is like a knight finding a treasure and rescuing the kingdom, but you are really just running around from place to place, doing jumping jacks or pushups if the clue says to, etc. Or you are the monster and they have to run until you catch them.
posted by CathyG at 12:18 PM on March 20, 2011

On the martial arts front, I'd recommend Capoeira. I'm somebody who was never very sporty and didn't see the appeal of the 'fighting' aspect of martial arts - but I thoroughly enjoyed studying Capoeira, which blends martial arts with music. It's more of a dance or a game with your partner than a battle. And it can get pretty acrobatic, so an hour's class is a serious workout!
posted by ChristopherS at 12:47 PM on March 20, 2011

In terms of badminton, if you're worried about turning up to a club and looking like a chump, why not play a few games with a similarly inexperienced friend first? You can book a court for an hour and pick it up yourself. The rules are really simple, getting the shuttlecock to the general area of the court that you're aiming at is fairly easy to pick up through trial and error, and the tactics at a beginner's level are pretty obvious (get your opponent to run over there, and then hit it over there). Have some fun knocking a shuttle around for a couple of weeks. Then, when you feel you've got a grasp on things, join a club.
posted by dudekiller at 2:06 PM on March 20, 2011

I was in your position when I was 32, am 37 now. I was invited to play 5-aside with work colleagues - despite protestations I'd not played since high school, and not really exercised for 10 years+. The rules arent really hard, but nothing else works for me - its genuinely hard work (cardio) and you can get away with crap skills if everyones the same (about half of us are pretty crap) but I go 3 times a week now, an hour at time and it's done wonders for me. I too, hate the gym, or just running,on roads and I need the motivation of a team sport. It took me a while to get over that people have right go at you if you mess up but if the people are ok, the grief stays on the pitch and you do get better.

Despite a bad knee, it doesnt impact anything like just running, and I cant recommend it enough. If you can find the right people - why not ask around at work and start your own group, then you'd be fine, I promise! If you were in Manchester, I'd invite you along.
posted by daveyt at 2:47 PM on March 20, 2011

Another good option that you can do WITH your kids is orienteering, which is treasure map hiking. :) You get an elaborate topographical map, you mark the locations of the "controls" (waypoints), and then off you go to find the best route from one control to the next. The easiest course is about a mile (in the US; probably a round kilometer measurement in the UK) and stays pretty close to trails and other easily-identifiable features; as you get better at it, courses get longer and you start whacking through the brush and the controls get trickily hidden and so forth. Beginners mostly mosey along; advanced competitors race.

So you take your kids and set off on a leisurely hike, guided by your map, and you stop every now and again to find an orange-and-white windsock that has a special hole punch hanging from it, and punch your card. You get to the end and get your time and, at least in my local club, there's cookies.

We took our baby in a front carrier when he was tiny, in a backpack when he got bigger, and now that he toddles we're going to try a toddling/backpack combo. He's good at spotting and pointing at the orange-and-white windsocks, too. Bigger kids can start learning map reading and navigation skills and plotting the course you'll follow.

It's fun because the problem-solving aspect of it makes me forget I'm hiking. :) And it's a really nice family outdoor activity.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:16 PM on March 20, 2011

RE: I had previously wondered about Martial Arts, but am slightly wary of finding the 'right' course or teacher (and how one makes that assessment).

I wouldn't get hung up on which martial art is the 'best' [1] . Pick the one that feels right for you. If you are going to do it with your kids, take them with you and watch a class or two.

If you know anyone who takes martial arts, ask them. They will talk probably talk your ear off.

Things I might look for (YMMV):

  • Does the owner teach some of the classes, and is he there when he's not teaching?
  • Does the school teach one style, as opposed to five different styles?
  • Do they let you take a few classes for free?
  • Is it a 'mainstream' martial art as opposed to a super-secret style known only to an elite few?
  • Is the teacher certified/registered with a governing body?
  • Are his instructors certified/registered with a governing body?
  • How long has the school been there?
Google the name of the school and see what people are saying.

[1] - Asking someone what martial art is the best is like asking someone what kind of car is better - Ford, Chevy, Toyota or Honda.
posted by jack.tinker at 4:18 PM on March 20, 2011

I don't know how available it is where you are, but in Seattle they just started a kickball league for adults. If you started one (or found some expats to play with) I think it would be right up your alley. It's a sport a lot of us played decently well (despite extreme clumsiness) as children. So, as an adult we might even be a bit better.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:38 PM on March 20, 2011

Badminton is really excellent for playing with kids & friends of varying skill. I like how it can nicely flow back and forth between serious concentration and casual goofing around within any set match.
posted by ovvl at 4:34 PM on March 21, 2011

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