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Confessions of a Nonathletic, Very Uncoordinated Sports Unenthusiast

By Melissa McQuarrie

My sister and I once took a ballet class together at BYU. A couple of weeks into the class, after we’d memorized all the positions and practiced our plies and tendues and arabesques, the teacher asked us to dance one at a time across the room so she could evaluate our progress. I watched as, one by one, the other students—including my sister—deftly moved across the floor, arms and legs moving in perfect form, all grace and poise. The teacher would make comments of encouragement and approval after each student finished: “Lovely chasse!” “Beautiful pas de chat!” “Yes, you’ve got it.” Then it was my turn. When I was finished, the teacher studied me for a moment, looking puzzled, then finally said, “It’s as if there’s a block somewhere and the messages from your brain just aren’t getting through to your feet.”

If you haven’t guessed already, athletic skill is not my forte (the title of this post probably gave that away). As a young girl growing up in Australia, I was picked last for every cricket match, softball game, and hockey team in our PE classes, after which I was always sent outfield where I could do the least harm. I moaned, suffered, and stumbled through the long jumps and high jumps and hurdles required during the track and field unit. I dreaded the volleyball clinics, the gymnastics primers, the warm-up calisthenics. I hated, hated, hated PE—until I got to high school, when, in lieu of having PE classes every other day, we could pick a sport to play every Wednesday afternoon. I chose golf, because we got to ride a bus to the local golf course, and my friend Narelle’s house was on the third hole. Narelle and I would play a couple of holes, lagging behind our classmates until they were out of sight, then we’d sneak to Narelle’s house and watch The Young and the Restless and As the World Turns while Narelle’s mum, who never cared much for PE herself, served us crumpets and jam. Then we’d return to the bus two hours later with our scorecards filled out. It was the best time I ever had playing a sport.

My lack of athletic ability and disinterest in sports didn’t change when we moved to the States or when I later attended BYU. I suffered through Fitness for Life, the above-mentioned ballet class, and a couple of other PE classes, and I had my share of “athletic” dates: occasional games of tennis (always humiliating), cross-country skiing (to date, my one attempt at any type of skiing), snowshoeing, sledding, bowling, and water skiing. I turned down the blind date with the extreme sports enthusiast who wanted to take me four wheeling and rock climbing: it was obvious that relationship was going nowhere. Luckily I eventually married a man who, while he’s athletic and enjoys biking and pilates and the occasional round of golf, isn’t glued to the TV during Monday Night Football and doesn’t care that I don’t have an ounce of coordination. And so I settled, at last, into my nonathletic, sports-free life.

Except that we had children, and some of those children actually play sports. And I have to say, I’ve felt a thrill of pride and awe and a tiny twinge of envy as I’ve watched my daughter charge down the soccer field, my son throw himself into a lacrosse game or race down the ski slope (after he suddenly decided, at around age thirteen, that he could do sports, after all). And I’ve wondered, is being athletic often more a matter of decision and practice rather than talent or skill? Was I really as uncoordinated as I believed myself to be when I was growing up? Or was it more a matter of not really trying, of being held back by my own insecurities and preconceived notions of what I couldn’t do? Would my younger life have been richer if I’d learned early on to enjoy participating in sports, if I’d felt the confidence and strength my peers seemed to feel when they moved their bodies skillfully, gracefully across the tennis court or dance floor?

Now that I’ve turned fifty, and my body is starting to creak in odd places, I’m thinking about these things more. Eight months ago my husband talked me into doing the P90X Insanity DVD workout series with him every morning, and I reluctantly agreed. Six mornings a week, I follow along while a handsome, muscular man named Shaun T. (no, I don’t mean my husband, although my husband is handsome and muscular as well) and his flat-tummied and toned workout team sprint in place and do jumping jacks and push ups and ski hops. And you know what? I’m feeling stronger and more confident in my body than I ever have before. It’s not ballet, by any means, but I think my brain is finally starting to communicate with my feet.

Did you dislike PE when you were in school? Do you consider yourself to be athletic? Coordinated? If you do, has being athletic come naturally to you or was it more a matter of choice and practice? If you don’t, and you’re a sports unenthusiast like me, have you felt that you’ve missed out? What is your favorite sport to play?

About Melissa McQuarrie

(Advisory Board) grew up in Australia and California and now lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, four children, and their dog, Daisy. She served a mission in Peru and has a BA and MA in English from BYU. She loves reading, writing, and quiet afternoons. She does not love grocery shopping. Now that two of her children attend BYU and her youngest children are in high school and junior high, she is trying to adjust to this "emptying nest" stage and still wondering how it snuck up on her so fast.

30 thoughts on “Confessions of a Nonathletic, Very Uncoordinated Sports Unenthusiast”

  1. I think you have athletic ability or you don't. Certainly you can practice and develop and improve your abilities, but I really think we are at the mercy of what came out of the gene pool.

    We can all do what you are doing and do the best with what we have. A shout out to you for working out so diligently! We can have strong, fit bodies and feel good about ourselves whether or not we are super athletic.

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  2. I took gymnastics classes from our neighborhood rec center for years and years growing up and never really excelled, so I've always thought of myself as non-athletic. But then one day it dawned on me that perhaps I'm not good at basketball or volleyball or other sports because I've never taken any time to acquire skill in those sports. True, I'm definitely not naturally athletic, but I bet if I were willing to put in time and effort, I could become good enough at a given sport. Really, I just don't enjoy sports all that much so I don't put in the effort to become good at them.

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  3. Love the ballet teacher's response to your turn across the floor: “It’s as if there’s a block somewhere and the messages from your brain just aren’t getting through to your feet.”

    And good for you for doing P90X! I bow to your superiority.

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  4. My sons seem to have the same athletic handicap I have, thankfully my husband doesn't blame me.
    My younger sister (12 months is all) was always the athletic one, so I wonder if I really was terrible or if there could have been a chance for me if we didn't settle on identities so early–I was smart, she was athletic. But we'll never know. 🙂

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  5. Athletic abilities are not a talent that the Lord has given me or any other member of my family. We manage to walk, ride a bike, hike in the mountains and do a bit of running. It seems to be passed down to my children as well. My husband likes to play basketball but because of his build it is difficult for him to play well. So we focus on what we can do, not what we can't.

    However I do have the ability to appreciate others gifts of athleticism. I enjoy watching Jimmer Fredette play. He instinctively knows where the ball is on the court at all times. I also enjoy the watching the Olympics. I'm glued to the TV for days when it is on.

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  6. I truly believe athleticism is a talent, but like piano, we can all learn, although we may never excel. But like music, not everyone enjoys or wants to pursue that particular talent. I loved
    PE and sports…I wasn't great at all of it(I've yet to break 100 in bowling)but for me it's fun.

    My brothers who couldn't catch or throw a ball, are great skiers and cyclists. What they lacked in hand eye coordination, they made up for in guts. I am self proclaimed WIMP! So if your doing P90x, hats off to you, because now at our age it's more about doing than how well we do.

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  7. I hated sports and PE with a passion as a kid and a teenager. I did love ballet though and wished that my mother would have enrolled me in classes. She put me in piano, which I loved and excelled at, so it was all good. I attended BYU and only did the minimum requirements for pe requirements. During the summers, when I went home, I attended a student ward where all the activities revolved around volleyball, a sport I loathe, despise and abominate. Needless to say, I didn't attend any of the activities.
    My husband loves playing sports and played everything in high school. Fortunately, he doesn't like watching sports on t.v. I like swimming and biking. My kids play soccer and my daughter has a ballet class. If my kids want to continue playing soccer, that's fine. But if they don't like it, I won't be pushing them. I see no reason to torture any of us in the name of possible and ambiguous benefits of team sports.

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  8. As a kid I hated atheletics because I was not naturally gifted and also not disciplined enough to overcome the lack of a gift. And kids were pretty cruel. So there's a great deal of self reinforcement as a kid that you are wherever you are and you can't change.

    One of my sons taught me differently. He was not naturally gifted (as in, make every team gifted), but he loved to play. So he played, even when he was just average. And over time he got better, and he played more — just for the fun of it.

    Only as an adult (a nearly-forty adult) did I take up tennis and swimming again. I'm still not gifted, but at least I began to catch the idea that I could enjoy myself even if I wasn't great.

    Now at over 50 my "athletic" efforts are limited to my near daily exercise to keep me moving. But at least I have that. 🙂

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  9. I agree with Janet that athletic ability is a talent. If you have gobs of natural gifts in a particular sport, high interest in it, a easy understanding of the technique involved in that sport and exacting discipline, you might end up as an elite athlete like an Olympian. Conversely, if you lack any of these four components or say, have a low amount of interest in being a speed skater, then you might not become an athlete.
    Me, I'm a swimmer. I competed as a child (I don't think I was particularly gifted), but I do seem to be more coordinated in water than on land. Sports that involve throwing, hitting, or catching objects and/or running don't really happen for me.
    I also find it interesting how much our experiences during formative years may affect our perceptions of our talents. In Pennsylvania where I grew up, Phys Ed. is mandatory for all the grade school years. I didn't mind it and may have even liked during middle school because we did a lot of different activities. But when I got to high school, we were separated by gender for most of the time and it felt like all I did was step aerobics for 4 years and those self-esteem destroying Presidential Fitness tests, thanks to what I perceive as a complete lack of creativity on the part of my gym teacher. It wasn't until I got into college that I recaptured some of my interest in physical activity by getting certified as a swim instructor and a lifeguard and learning how to fence. Then it was fun again.

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  10. I think some can learn certain sports, others seem to be naturally gifted at it, and I think some are stubborn enough to keep at it even when they don't have an ounce of coordination. I'm not any of those. I've been on a t-ball team, in a bowling league, attempted skiing, snowboarding, tried running 5ks as a kid….never to much success and as soon as there was an injury I was done. It all looks like fun, but when other people are running circles around me, that isn't much fun.

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  11. I think there are different talents. We can develop talents to a certain extent, but unless we have a natural gift for something, there's only so far we can go. I also think with sports there is something for everyone. I can't catch a ball to save my life, but I am better than anyone in the family when we play "Just Dance" on wii and enjoy aerobics and dancing.

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  12. In school and in music, things came pretty easily for me, and I didn't have to work hard. I am a competitive person, so sports appealed to me. I tried everything when I was young, and always quit after a year, because it didn't come easily. When I got to High School, I decided I wanted to be on the swim team, and that I didn't care how good I was, I just wanted to improve. My first year on the team, my goal was to beat just one person in any race, which eventually I did. I stuck with it for the next two years, and by my Senior year I was a competitive member of the team. I was far from the best swimmer, but I was able to score some points for my team, and most importantly, reach a very aggressive personal goal I had set. It felt so good, better than any "A" I had ever received because I had to work HARD for it. Sticking with something that I wasn't good at right off the bat taught me a lot about myself and about life.

    I do enjoy watching sports. Love the Olympics, college football and college basketball (espcially the Cougars), and I have to agree with Paula- Jimmer Fredette is SO FUN to watch play ball!! GO COUGS!!

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  13. I never did sports when I was a child because my mom saw me as uncoordinated. She felt that I would've gotten hurt if I had played softball or soccer. My sister on the other hand did cheerleading her high school years and to this day is very physically fit. I am thin but not fit. I hate to exercise and sweat. I think it is because of never being allowed to participate in any type of sports. That is why I am encouraging all 4 of my kids to do sports or other type of physical activity. It builds self esteem and an appreciation for what our bodies can do.

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  14. "I’m feeling stronger and more confident in my body than I ever have before. It’s not ballet, by any means, but I think my brain is finally starting to communicate with my feet."

    I love this. I think our bodies were created to move and bring us joy. In D&C 88:15 it teaches that the spirit and the body are the soul of man. Together, not separate as we often think of them.

    Regardless of what activities are fun for you, it feels good spiritually, mentally and physically to move.

    It used to bother me as a teenager that I was not more "athletic". Now as an adult many people consider me just that. It is not that my skills or abilities have changed much, I have just kept at it and many others stopped long ago.

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  15. I hated PE. So much. I was really good in school, and PE was humiliating. I believe it was counterproductive for me–instead of helping me build skills and confidence to try, it only reinforced my sense of awkwardness and clumsiness.

    I think that athletic skills are talents just like any other talents; however, I think that if I had been more persistent, if I had cared less about looking stupid and being humiliated, I could have developed some skills myself. A couple of years ago I took taekwondo classes (they came to an abrupt end when I broke my ankle) and, while I was not naturally gifted, I was able to learn a lot by working at it. But I didn't have the maturity to stand being that awful at something, and then working to get better, when I was growing up. I was used to school, which didn't require that kind of humiliation from me.

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  16. You have convinced me that maybe even my nonathletic body would do well to get a work out. I too always was last chosen for a team, and in the outfield my faith in God grew because I would pray the entire time the ball wouldn't come my way–and it didn't.

    I too watched my determined boy go from being the worst boy on his lacrosse team his first year playing to one of the best for the rest of his life. He works harder than the rest and never gets a bad attitude about working out. What would I have accomplished if I had learned to do that! I think you are on to something. Maybe I should force my daughter back into sports–Tiger mom style.

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  17. is being athletic often more a matter of decision and practice rather than talent or skill?

    Yes!

    There are solid disabilities. Until I got contacts, I had as much as 25% displacement from where things were and where I saw them. Made me lousy at shooting a basket ball. But, those aside, you can get very, very good just by consistent steady practice.

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  18. I was never athletic as a kid — I had terrible asthma and I eschewed PE and sports. Like Emily, I was much better at school and that is where I excelled. As an adult, I've started training for and competing in triathlons, and it's been a very rewarding experience for me. I definitely believe that athletic ability is something that comes naturally to some and not to others. There is a genetic component to it — some bodies are just more able to perform to perfection than others. If you look at the physiology of gifted athletes such as Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong you can see why they are so skilled — their bodies are just "made" to do what they do best.

    As for me, I *know* I will never be an elite triathlete. I don't have that physiological gift. However, with consistent training, my speed has improved, and I'm more skilled than I was when I started. For me, it's not about winning the race, it's about finishing and doing better than I did on the last one. You're never to old to become active, and if nothing more, you're improving your overall health and well being.

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  19. I LOATHED PE in school. It was the only subject that a. my effort grade was an "A" while my achievement grade was a constant "C", and b. my parents were accepting of my inability to perform perfectly. My PE teacher actually said to me "Your brain just doesn't talk to your body, does it?"

    Then, in grade 10 the new PE teacher told me that he believed I could get my Bronze Surf Life Saving Medallion – and I did. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and I started Kung Fu and Ju Jitsu, having every expectation that I'd fail again (my head and body don't talk, remember?) My instructor told me that I could do it, took it slowly, and six months later I'm loving every class and doing well at it.

    I believe it's finding something that you like, then your enjoyment of it becomes the driving force, not any 'natural ability'.

    If only reading were an Olympic sport!!!!

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  20. Melissa – this was a charming post. So entertaining to read. Whatever grace you lacked in ballet progressions across the floor, you've made up for with your writing. And then some!

    Your post made me think back to sports I gave up on or didn't want to pursue because I didn't feel I would be successful. I was afraid to do poorly, to fail. Other activities that I was naturally good at, I enjoyed and developed easily. I think there's a fair amount of genetics at work, but I've worked with quite a few clients who, with sheer determination, have mastered many sport/exercise skills. No doubt, genetics plays a major role, but don't underestimate the determined participant. Where there's a will, there's usually a way.

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  21. PE is the worst! I do think, though, that while some athletic ability has to be innate (like perhaps dancing) I agree that everyone can learn to do some sort of physical something or other (like P90X, for example :). I'm not very good at any sports at all, but after watching the World Cup it's fun to go kick around a soccer ball, and it's nice to go biking or walking or fake-running (run two blocks, walk a block…) just to feel better about yourself. Endorphins! What a lovely post 🙂

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  22. I've wondered the same thing–perhaps I wouldn't have been so terrible at sports if I'd just worked at it and been encouraged as I kid. I have no illlusions that I would have been a star athlete. But perhaps I could have been proficient rather than an embarassment to every team I was ever on. I was always told that I didn't have an athletic build. My first memories associated with sports are of me wishing (at six or seven years old) that I could be a gymnast like the girls who would tumble accross the field during recess. But I was always tall and gangly–all wrong for a gymnast–and those first impressions of non-athleticism set the tone for the rest of my growing-up years.

    I think it's a shame that PE emphasizes performance. PE should be about teaching kids to be active and enjoy it. Instead, PE just teaches the un-athletic to associate exercise with failure and humiliation. I've worked hard as an adult to train myself to enjoy exercise (the kind that doesn't require much coordination). For me this has meant peeling away years of negative associations with exercise, most of them involving PE or some other group sporting activity.

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  23. As you can see, I'm writing this very late at night. I was busy today and so I didn't have a chance to respond to your comments, but I wanted to dash off a few thoughts before I go to bed.

    Many of you have said that you believe that while some people do have an innate ability or talent for sports, there's a lot we can master simply by working at it. I agree. Another common theme running through these comments is that participating in some form of physical fitness—anything that gets us moving—helps us feel better physically, mentally, and spiritually. Again, I agree. And I'm impressed with those of you (like Andrea R.) who, though you felt uncoordinated and not very athletic in your youth, have found a sport or fitness routine you enjoy and you're working hard at it—and feeling good about your new skill. Kudos!

    I also appreciate the comments from fellow PE haters (Emily M., we are kindred spirits).

    Selwyn aka Kellie, it appears that you and I had the same brain-to-feet blockage. 🙂

    A couple of my favorite lines from your comments:

    Marm—"We can have strong, fit bodies and feel good about ourselves whether or not we are super athletic."

    Paula—"we focus on what we can do, not what we can’t."

    Janet—"at our age it’s more about doing than how well we do." (So true!)

    Tiffany W.—"I see no reason to torture any of us in the name of possible and ambiguous benefits of team sports."

    Charity Jeffs—"Sticking with something that I wasn’t good at right off the bat taught me a lot about myself and about life."

    TTT—"Regardless of what activities are fun for you, it feels good spiritually, mentally and physically to move."

    Amy Lofgreen—"in the outfield my faith in God grew because I would pray the entire time the ball wouldn’t come my way–and it didn’t." (lol.)

    Andrea R.—"For me, it’s not about winning the race, it’s about finishing and doing better than I did on the last one. You’re never too old to become active."

    Selwyn—"If only reading were an Olympic sport!!!!"

    kyliemm—"Endorphins!"

    Shay—"PE should be about teaching kids to be active and enjoy it." (Hear, hear!)

    Thanks, all, for your comments!

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  24. I seem to remember a time that you schooled a date on wind surfing. He wanted to show off his skills, but you out did him.

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  25. Ah-ha!, Melissa. Busted. 🙂

    I was fairly athletic when I was younger, but I was a terrible dancer–very stiff and awkward. I think I must have been way too self-conscious about my body in that context. It's been one of the happy surprise of aging that I have become more comfortable with my body as I've grown older.

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  26. Uncle Wayne, I'd forgotten all about that incident! I guess I had one successful athletic date, after all.

    Sharlee, it's true, some of us feel more comfortable in our bodies as we age. One of the benefits of maturity, for sure.

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