Remember that kid in school who was always the last one picked to be on a team in gym class? The one who would hear groans from the team that ended up with her and cheers from the team that did not?
Well, I’m that kid. In my family, sports were not emphasized and so I never learned the skills or had the confidence to catch a ball, throw a Frisbee or kick a goal. Gym class would fill me with dread whenever the phys ed teacher instructed captains to choose classmates for yet another game of softball or dodge ball or some ball that was like an alien object to me. (To paraphrase John Bingham, I’m not sure who invented dodge ball, but I can guarantee you it wasn’t the kid in the class who couldn’t play sports well.) Seeing a football sailing in the air would cause a paralysis of limbs, even as my teammates would shout at me to raise my arms and CATCH. THAT. BALL!
My idea to get around this embarrassment was to make friends with the jocks, the athletes most likely to be chosen as captains of these teams. The strategy was that they would be more likely to choose me out of a sense of loyalty rather than let me languish in the land of the athletically unwanted. But competitiveness and the desire to win seemed to beat out friendship every time back then. That’s OK. I didn’t take it personally.
I couldn’t wait to graduate high school so that I would never have to subject myself to the embarrassment of being picked last for a team or, worse, not being picked at all.
In one episode of The Simpsons, Bart tries to teach Santa’s Little Helper how to fetch and catch and do things that come naturally to other dogs and, in one scene, Santa’s Little Helper gets hit in the eyes with a Frisbee, garnering groans and great disappointment from the little boy who just wants to play. It’s like the writers witnessed my childhood and wrote my humiliation into a scene. I can relate to Santa’s Little Helper. I am Santa’s Little Helper.
Or, should I say, I was Santa’s Little Helper.
In university, a friend forced me outside for a quick lesson on how to catch and throw a baseball. Within an hour, I was, well, if not great at it, at least able to hold my own during an intramural game later that afternoon. A few years later, I was introduced to indoor rock climbing by another friend. Scrambling up those walls made me feel strong and powerful in ways I’d never experienced in high school. A casual invitation to play badminton one afternoon led to 4 years of league play. Not long after that, I started running, working my way up to distances that took me through dozens of 10K races and 3 half marathons. Suddenly, I was athletic. Suddenly, I was an athlete. Who knew?! If only my classmates could see me now!
In thinking back to my earlier, uncoordinated years, I realized I’ve learned some important lessons:
1. Athleticism, like artistic abilities, comes in many forms. I can’t catch a ball like Calvin Johnson but I can run and jump and climb and skip and dance and turn cartwheels and swing a racket. All of that counts. I just had to find the right sort of athleticism that suited me.
2. The only person who set limits on my ability was me. My friends all believed I could do it and didn’t give up on me as I tried again and again to get it right. They were patient and willing to take their time with me. If I focused on the fun of it, I could usually do it, at least in a way that didn’t embarrass anyone too much.
3. I have great friends! Throughout the years, even as I believed I couldn’t, they knew I could. If your friends are not encouraging your heart, it’s time to find new friends.
So after years of avoiding any sport in order to avoid embarrassment, I now can’t wait to get out there and try new things. In fact, the sun is shining and my runners are calling my name; time to go for a run.