"I'm not good at sports." This was the email reply I sent my friend Fran this past January when she invited me to join her women's basketball team for a league here in LA. Bless her heart, I thought to myself, for thinking I could somehow get a giant orange ball into a net. Doesn’t she know who I am?
I am the girl who was never good at sports. This has been my narrative for as long as I can remember, and I’ve said it for so long it’s essentially become fact, falling in line after “I have brown hair” and I am very tall.” It’s something I’ve always believed about myself from the earliest age. It is my truth. I am not athletic. I am uncoordinated, awkward, and not good at sports. This is what I tell everyone.
When I was nine I ignored that truth for a moment and asked my dad to sign me up for a soccer team. One’s social status in my affluent, competitive town was heavily based on your skill level on the athletic field, and I desperately wanted to fit in. Plus it seemed like fun. But then I found out that Bailey, an older, popular girl with a perfect 80’s name, was also on the team. She was a jock to be reckoned with, one who wore Adidas Sambas for sport, not because they were cool. I panicked, anxious over how terrible I would be flailing my legs toward a soccer ball. At the last minute I begged my dad to get me dropped from the team, and from then on I avoided sports at all costs. Never again.
In middle school I was required to participate in a team sport and found myself back on the soccer field, where I was elected captain of the team. My nomination was not entirely out of left field. I was outgoing and sociable, a natural leader. Still, it infuriated the girls who actually knew how to play the game. “But she’s not good at soccer,” they told the coach right in front of me after I was elected. “She doesn’t even know how to play.”
Their words sent me shame spiraling - not because they hurt, but because I knew they were right.
Because I believed I was terrible at sports I stopped trying. In high school I failed gym simply by not going to class. Not being good at sports became my calling card through out life. I said it so much that other people believed it too. In college I hung out with a lot of ski racers (that’s Maine for you) and participated in their banter by self-deprecating and mocking my own lack of athletic ability. I put myself down first before anyone even thought to do so. Looking back I doubt that anyone would have even noticed my terrible sports skills, much less mocked me for them, had I not brought it up. My friends were all kind people. But I made it part of my own reputation, and it stuck. I believed it, and so did others. And it kept me from joining in, from trying new things, from seeing what it felt like to exert any physical energy - all because I was terrified of embarrassing myself, afraid of revealing this horrible, shameful thing.
So in my twenties, when I told an ex-boyfriend that I’d started attending yoga classes, he laughed at me. “You? Doing yoga?” he sneered. “That I’d like to see.”
The part of me that so readily put myself down agreed with him, but I kept going. And a couple years later I started jogging - very, very slowly. Later, when my mom was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, I ran two half marathons to raise money in her honor. After she died I turned to yoga again, and went on to get my yoga teacher certification. Maybe, I thought to myself, I might be athletic after all.
Part of it was discovering that being athletic is not just about playing the sports available to you as a young kid. It’s about finding what feels best for your body and brain and going with it at your own pace. But it’s also about changing your belief in yourself and your abilities. And man, that is f*cking harder than any physical challenge.
This summer I was asked once again to join a basketball team in the league. I thought about that 9-year-old girl who wanted to be on the soccer team but quit before she even learned how to play because she believed that she couldn’t. And I thought about my daughters, ages 3 and 1, and what I want them to believe about themselves. I want them to know they can do anything, that being good at something isn’t as important as just showing up and trying. I want them to be active and feel strong in their bodies and I want them to learn this from a role model they see every day: me.
So, I said yes. And at 35, I am learning to play basketball for the first time. I own a ball, mesh shorts, and giant, size 11 b-ball sneakers. I sneak out early on the weekends to practice layups at the park and watching training videos on YouTube. My team - the Kimmy Dribblers - had their first game last week; we lost 7-25. But can you believe it? I SCORED A BASKET. I watched it go in and then ran down the court with my arms spread open like wings. I am out there learning, trying and having so much fun in the process. Maybe I am good at sports, and maybe I'm not. It doesn't matter to me anymore. When my daughters come to see me play I simply want them to see me as someone who is good enough, and know that they are too.
(Aspen Photo / Shutterstock.com)