I was the last kid picked in gym class.
Literally, that happened.
You hear that expression all the time, and I even heard it a lot before it happened, and then one day when I was in the sixth or seventh grade, it actually DID happen. I was stunned, but not surprised. Gym class was the bane of my existence because I was a terrible athlete and had been one my whole life. I couldn’t run so much as a lap around the gym without my entire chest closing up. I don’t remember ever working up a sweat from physical activity. I had no hand-eye coordination whatsoever. If any remotely physical activity presented itself, I was immediately certain of two things: 1) that I would be the worst person in the room at it, and 2) that I would not enjoy it. There are few things in my life that have ever been as utterly humilitating and demoralizing as the daily nightmare that was gym class for my nerdy, chunky, oft-ridiculed adolescent self – the culmination of a childhood spent loathing anything involving participation in organized athletics.
At age five, my mother signed me up for soccer. I’d wander around the field until I got bored and then I’d sit down and pick grass until halftime, at which point the coach would let me sit on the sidelines. At eight, my gym teacher introduced the class to the president’s physical fitness challenge, which included running a mile. I wasted at least as much time complaining about it afterward as I did actually running it (i.e. at least 18:38…okay, fine, I didn’t literally run any of it). The list goes on, but this much should paint enough of a picture. There was nothing actually physically wrong with me beyond mild asthma – I was perfectly able-bodied, I just had no ability or desire to do anything physical apart from convey myself from one point to another when mandated.
All of that, obviously, is a far cry from where I am and how I choose to define myself now. Eight to nine hours in the gym every week, getting up at the crack of dawn just to exercise, running just for fun – somewhere along the way I’ve become somewhat athletic. I can run more than a mile in 18:38 – I can actually run two! And after that I can keep running! We could belabor the whys and hows again, or we could go back a little bit to that kid who found any sort of physical fitness endeavor to be a demoralizing chore.
There are kids who dig sports and kids who don’t, and kids with a lot of natural athletic ability and kids with less natural athletic ability. Unfortunately, when it comes to most kids’ organized sports, the ones with the natural ability are generally the ones who are encouraged to stick with it and employ that spirit of perseverance that graces motivational posters and Nike ads. It’s very, very hard to convey to a kid that the more you work on something, the better you get at it, even if you’re not at all good at it in the first place. You can’t exactly sit a six-year-old down with Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter from Outliers about 10,000 hours of practice. At that point in your life, all you’re relying on is natural aptitude. Assuming a world where everyone has access to the appropriate equipment, programs, and support, the kids who dig sports keep on playing sports. The kids who have fun in soccer keep on playing soccer after that first season, and eventually the kids who sit in the field picking grass are released by their parents to go take piano lessons or pull the wings off of flies or what have you. And as you get older, it’s harder to pick up a new sport, especially as kids’ sports get more and more competitive. In a lot of circles, adults have stopped telling kids they can just do it for fun.
I often lament the fact that I didn’t pick up boxing much earlier in life, because I coulda been a contender and now I’m just a thirty-year-old with some impressive guns and a workout schedule that scares most people, but I don’t even necessarily think I should have been doing this all along. Stuff I was immediately good at (or at least better at than sports) back in the 80s included reading books, playing music, and drawing pictures. So that’s how I spent my childhood. I don’t consider it wasted, exactly, but in light of how great this boxing training makes me feel (both physically and psychologically), I do sort of wish I’d spent a little more time playing outside at least. As an adult, I’ve found a great balance for my life. I just wish I’d discovered a something to get me working hard at being active sometime before my mid-twenties. I’m definitely healthier and happier than I was before. I might NOT have gotten picked last in gym class if I’d ever been able to devote time to finding an activity and steadily improving at it without fear of ridicule or unconstructive feedback from adults or peers. (Yet another reason I love boxing – nobody gets to pick me last for their team because we don’t HAVE teams. I’M the team.)
As an adult, I had the luxury of developing ability with an athletic pastime away from the prying eyes of my peers, and the funds to hire a trainer who worked with me one-on-one and helped me develop it more efficiently. But even with all of that, I still have moments where I feel like that kid who was picked last. Last week, my trainer and I were doing drills for agility – not my strong suit. I could hear the rhythm in my head and intellectually, I knew which feet needed to move when, but my body was just not catching up at the same rate. The difference now is that I know eventually I’ll be more agile than I am now, and there will be a point where these drills will feel like the most natural thing in the world.
If only we could find an effective way to make those poor kids understand that. They don’t have to all turn into world-class athletes, but if gym just stopped being the enemy for some of them, it’d be enough.