Merry Christmas! I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday filled with gifts, and treats, and happiness. As part of the holiday festivities, I thought it would be fun to share one of the greatest and most unassuming gifts I’ve received in my adult life. It might surprise you, so I hope you enjoy!
Hi, my name is Andrea, and I am not a natural athlete. At all. Growing up, I was good at exactly one sport, ballet. Not what people traditionally think of when they talk about “sports.” From the age of about 6 to 12 years old dance, and it’s ugly stepsister competitive cheer, was my life. I was flexible, aware of my body, moderately graceful, and long and thin for my age. When it comes to dance, I had natural athletic ability; I was “built for it.” And as much as I enjoyed dancing for those six years, my passion for it faded rather quickly.
I didn’t pursue any other athletic endeavors until mid-college when I started training for my first half-marathon. To the shock of literally everyone who knew me. I worked out, I was in decent shape, but I did not do anything truly athletic. I played zero sports. Because I wasn’t good at them. I have terrible depth perception, I’ve never been all that interested in them, and I’m more likely to duck away from a ball than I am to catch one.
The beginning of my running career didn’t start off any better than any other sport I’d ever attempted. It was miraculous when I was able to run my first uninterrupted mile. I was fairly amazed that I could get around a track four times without having to stop. My first half-marathon took me well over 2:30 to complete, and my first full marathon (years later) ended up being a 5 and a half hour ordeal. Humble beginnings.
I started CrossFitting in grad school, and quite frankly I was lucky I didn’t kill myself. I was not the person that walked into the box, set up, and then surprised myself by being able to squat 200 lbs. I had one semi-skill. I could run for a decently long time…..and that was it. This isn’t a particularly useful skill in CrossFit, since CrossFit doesn’t typically involve anything further than a one mile run. Nevertheless, I showed up, lifted my baby weights, and VERY slowly I got a little better.
It has taken me a very long to feel like I am a decent runner and CrossFitter. At the ripe age of 32, I can finally say that I feel like a strong, gritty human being. But it took me YEARS to find and own that strength. Years of fumbling, failing, and having to be ok with the fact that I wasn’t all that good at the two things I loved. Coming from a high-achieving background, it wasn’t always easy to accept this reality.
I am refer to myself as a naturally unathletic athlete. I’m trademarking the phrase, so don’t steal it. But being naturally unathletic hasn’t resulted in only unathletic problems.
With the help of about a decade of training, and a little perspective and wisdom, I’ve come to realize that not being a natural runner or lifter might be a big part of the reason that I am still enjoying myself in these spaces after all of this time. As counterintuitive as it may be, I’m beginning to accept that maybe being naturally un-athletic is more of a gift than I ever knew. Here’s why.
Being Naturally Un-Athletic Reduces Performance Anxiety
I already spoke to this point, but I think it’s one of the biggest gifts I’ve received as a healthy person. I was naturally “good” at ballet. When you are naturally talented, people start to notice, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But skill and ability attracts attention.
For me, it attracted attention from dance instructors and my family. Again, not an inherently bad thing. My family never put pressure on me to be good, but they did talk about my future in dance. And my instructors pushed me, hard sometimes. For a kid that is easy going, the attention, encouragement, and focus may not have much of an impact. But for a kid who leaned more towards the type-A, perfectionistic, anxious end of the spectrum, what resulted was internalized pressure. And a whole lot of it.
I knew what I was naturally capable, and I put a lot of energy into getting better. Because of my natural abilities and the external attention, I felt like there was a lot of pressure to succeed. The result? Diagnose-able sports performance anxiety, and zero interest in the sport.
Now, on the other side of the coin, when I started running people were surprised. But I wasn’t drawing any sort of attention to myself, because my race times were incredibly unimpressive. I enjoyed running for all of the intrinsic value it brought to my life. It helped me feel happier, it gave me space to process things, it made me tired enough to get good sleep at night. For a generally anxious person, all of these things were amazing.
I don’t know if I would have even seen these benefits if I had been talented enough to focus on the outcome (faster race results) instead of the process.
Being Naturally Un-Athletic Allows Us to Chase Big Dreams
Now I think it’s important to note that just because I was not a naturally gifted runner or lifter, that does not mean that I had no hopes of improvement. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I have BIG goals in both sports, but there’s no pressure or timeline for when I will accomplish those goals.
I could qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2020, or five years from now. I don’t mind waiting. I’ve been dreaming of running that pace for the past eight years or so. I started wanting to nail a bar muscle up before I was even able to string multiple pull-ups together.
When I started working towards these goals, they were so far off on the horizon that I knew it would be a long journey. And that far off carrot means that I can keep chasing the goal without putting pressure on myself. What’s so interesting with athletics is that the biggest improvements are made when you are newer to the sport or less talented in general. The learning curve is steeper. The leaps in skill are greater.
The goals that I set early on were HUGE goals for me at the time. I needed to take two hours off first marathon time! Once I finally cross a finish line under 3:30, my next goal will certainly be a big one (those are the only ones I set), but it will not be taking two hours off my time.
And there’s lots of mini-victories along the way. It spent years dreaming of running a sub 4-hour marathon. It wasn’t until April of 2018 that I saw a marathon finish time with a 3 in front of it. And let me tell you, I was pumped about it for weeks after.
Not having natural running abilities meant that I was able to set and chase a big goal for a long time, and it’s been a really fun ride, for the most part.
Being Naturally Un-Athletic Makes Us Grittier
When I first started running, I had so many limits on what I thought I was capable of. Initially, I thought the half-marathon was the absolute furthest my legs would be able to take me. And honestly I doubted if I was capable of even that. I felt weak in all honesty.
But instead of allowing that to reduce my marathon motivation, I decided I would just train and hope and see what would happen. And surprisingly, running 13.1 miles did not result in the end of my life. I had to put so much effort into that race, and that work and effort made me a stronger person. Even if I was still running slow. I was slow, but tough.
I’m innately stubborn, and I am not someone who accepts hurdles. I’m always ready to argue my point and try to get what I am focused on getting. Running and CrossFit became the same for me. It gave me a space to keep pushing the limits and boundaries further. And anyone who’s tasted the victory of a hard-won battle knows that ish is ADDICTIVE.
For me, this opened up something bigger internally. It taught me that the only limitations in life are the ones that we believe in. If I believe that I can back squat 200# without breaking my legs, at some point, I will lift that weight. If I think my limit is 199lbs, it’s more likely that I’ll train according to that limit and the limit will become “real.”
So at this point, when it comes to limitations, I just do not subscribe. I trust that I am tough enough to endure the struggle of whatever I want to do. And refusing to believe in limits has some interesting results. I may not physically ever be able to run a 2:20 marathon, but refusing to accept that might mean that I keep improving to the point of a sub 3 hour marathon. Who knows!
I may never be the CEO of a multi-billion dollar business, but refusing to accept that as true might mean that I’ll keep doing my best work and find myself in a very lucrative, fulfilling position later on. The world truly opens up in this amazing way when you just decide that you will not accept that anything is impossible.
It Makes the Victories Even Sweeter
So what happens when you stop believing in limits and set big, giant, insane goals that take decades to achieve? When you finally do achieve them, IT IS THE BEST FREAKING THING IN THE WORLD.
I cannot tell you my level of surprise and excitement the first time I pulled my entire body up and over the CrossFit rig. I was so thankful my husband had recorded it, because I watched that muscle up at least 40x. It was horrendously ugly. I spent a good 12 seconds in chicken-wing limbo, fighting to pull my left arm up and over.
Despite knowing and seeing this, I gave absolutely zero shits about how bad my form was. I was just so happy that I had FINALLY achieved this thing that had taken me YEARS of work. All of the proudest moments come after the hardest fights. It’s why we love an underdog story.
Graduating from high school was nice, because I was happy to be done with that period of my life. But high school wasn’t particularly challenging for me. As much as I am naturally unathletic, I am naturally gifted when it comes to learning things, usually. Physics not so much, but the rest was pretty easy.
While my college classes didn’t cover concepts that were more difficult for me to learn, getting through the workload while working and trying to be an adult was so hard. There were so many times that I truly thought that while I might not flunk out, I might just walk out of class one day and never return. When I finally finished, it was the biggest relief, and one of the proudest moments I had experienced at that time.
It felt amazing. And it felt amazing because it was such a struggle.
Finishing my first marathon was painful. It took FOREVER to get to that finish line. But I was on top of the world. Because I did something I didn’t think my body was capable of. It didn’t come easy to me. I fought the whole five and a half hours. I wanted to quit about 30 min in. So when I finally did finish, it was amazing.
Being naturally unathletic has meant that I’ve worked really hard to get to a place that some people reach after a couple of months. And that can honestly be a little frustrating. I was just slightly salty when my husband nailed a bar muscle up after approximately two weeks in the box.
But it’s also meant that I’ve learned a lot of amazing lessons. I’ve learned that I don’t have to believe in limits. I’ve learned that my body is capable of so much more than I ever knew. I also learned the depths of just how hard I am willing to work. And I’ve been able to enjoy the process in a way that I never have when I’ve been naturally good at something.
And those are the reasons that being naturally un-athletic is one of the greatest gifts I have ever experienced.