A letter from the anti-athlete

Overweight couple eating on sofaI say this to other couch potatoes. I say this as a natural couch potato. No, not those of you who were football players in high school and college and got lazy after your daughter was born, or even those that were karate champions at age 10, but gave up after the priorities of friends and fun took over.

I’m talking to those of you who hate moving and have always hated moving. Those who only moved during P.E. or on Wednesdays when your parents forced you into a ballet class. I’m talking to those of you who were more interested in D&D, WoW, Magic or Pokemon than…tag. Yes. I’m speaking mostly to my nerdish and bookish brethren.

We have many reasons for disliking movement. Maybe you’re like me and were set against outside play from birth because a grass allergy discouraged you from playing on the lawn with other kids. Maybe your parents were overprotective and wouldn’t let you leave the house. Or…again…like me, maybe your knees hurt and your chest burned like fire when you exerted yourself. Maybe you were just clumsy and embarrassed by movement.

When, at age 12, I took the Presidential Physical Fitness Test and couldn’t get my hands past my knees because of tight hamstrings, no one told me that could be changed. No one told me that the fact that I got winded within minutes of running could be remedied. Not even a hint. Teachers focused on the athletically gifted, tolerated the mediocre and the rest of us were expected to survive. One crucial thing they didn’t teach me in P.E. that, for whatever reason, was hammered into students in every other field through homework and writing and repetition…

You can do better.

I had no clue what my body was capable of and no one, from what I could tell, seemed to think it was capable of more. I just assumed that the genes that had my athletic father, uncle, cousins and grandparents on both sides playing college and pro basketball, running track and playing baseball had decided I wasn’t worth their time.

Actually…I take that back. All of it.

When talking to new people in BJJ, I think there can be a draw back in focusing on what a body is capable of. First off, a person has to believe you when you tell them what they “could” do. After the pre-teens, self-perception is pretty much set. Even now, let’s say my body could run a five minute mile. Even if I believe you, so what? Do I need that skill in my daily life? If I don’t have a desire and there’s no use, why should I even try to reach my full potential?

I don’t care what I’m capable of if I don’t need or appreciate those capabilities.

What Brazilian jiu jitsu HAS taught me to care about though, is what I’m NOT capable of. It’s a small twist on perspective, but it’s made a huge difference for me. I know that I’m not capable of squatting with my feet flat on the floor. I’ve learned to notice times in my life when I couldn’t go about my daily business without an increase in heart rate. I’ve learned that I couldn’t handle my own body weight aside from basic walking and jogging and stair climbing. That last one…really disturbed me. Even if a person never becomes an elite athlete, I believe they should be able to handle diverse spectra of movement of their own physical being. I would have known none of these things had I not started practicing.

Learning the not and conquering the not, has made me aware of the could and want the could. 

I believe we are a special and uncommon student. I believe that we have a chasm to cross that most other people in gyms don’t. I can’t name one other person at my gym that isn’t an athlete or former athlete. Breaking the negative association with or dismissal of physical movement is a task unto itself, and one I think BJJ is especially well equipped to complete.


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3 Comments

  1. New Girl
    August 22, 2013 at 5:56 am

    Exactly! I started martial arts when I was 25 and that was the first time I was told that if I kept training I might actually get better! I was always the worst in the class for PE, I hated sports with a passion and being unfit and awful at sports was part of my identity. No one suggested that if I worked at it, I could improve. The thought simply never entered my mind. I was astonished when training, that I started to gradually improve. It’s slow improvement. None of this comes naturally to me and I still have to deal with the mental block of “oh no, I’m no good at sports.” Gradually identifying myself as a “sporty” person felt weird. Even going into a sports shop during that first week to buy some suitable clothing felt alien!

    We are a rare breed – the vast majority of people I’ve ever trained with have been naturally athletic. They didn’t fall down multiple times when they first attempted push-ups (even from the knees!) If someone had told me 3 years ago that lots of exercise would make me really happy, I would have fallen over laughing at them. But here I am and I’m so grateful for that.

    From a former anti-athlete.


    • GroundWork
      December 18, 2013 at 9:46 pm

      ” I still have to deal with the mental block of “oh no, I’m no good at sports.””

      Yep…I don’t think that ever completely goes away, but you can make some serious progress on it. Thanks for commenting!


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