Finding My Inner Athlete

One of the main proponents of “Hardstyle” Russian Kettlebells is that strength is a skill. It’s more than just building strong muscles, it’s learning how to coordinate those muscles to do that press, that squat, that pull-up, etc. Strength is a skill. It can be learned.

I am reminded of an article I read recently in Psychology Today titled “The Trouble With Bright Girls.” It was an interesting read. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but the part that really struck me was this:

bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

As a former ‘bright girl,’ I was used to many things being easy for me. I was good at school, especially math and science. I was a good musician. These things came easily for me, so I pursued them. On the other hand, I wasn’t good at history or geography. I wasn’t a great reader. And I definitely believed that I was innately good at some things and not others, and accepted that that’s just the way things were.

That’s scrawny lil’ me in jr high basketball.

I wasn’t a good athlete. I played basketball for a bit, but rarely got off the bench. I ran track for a year, but I ran on my tip-toes and got terrible shin-splints, and I knocked over the high-jump bar every single time. I don’t remember anyone working with me to improve my athletic skills (except for my dad, who believed all of us girls could do anything that we wanted to). There was a general attitude of ‘you either have it, or you don’t.’

In the past few years, I’ve learned that this just isn’t true. When I started climbing, I found a physical sport that I was immediately good at. However, climbing led to kettlebells, and it was then that the work really began.

I wasn’t good at kettlebells right away, and that didn’t surprise me. The messages I got from my coach, though, were not only of encouragement; he worked with me to teach me the movements, and teach me how to improve. His attitude was that strength and movement are skills that can be learned. I saw that attitude continued in subsequent coaches as well.

Photo credit: Hennepin County Public Affairs

The result? I learned how to use my body. I am still learning. After a year and a half, I am not only stronger, but I am more coordinated and not as klutzy (although I still tend to bang my toes on things far more than I’d prefer). I actually know what people mean when they say “lift from your legs” now. For the first time in my life, I feel athletic. Apparently it’s not just an innate skill.

An example: I’ve been focusing a lot on push-ups the past few months; starting with a really solid plank and keeping that position the whole way down and the whole way back up. I couldn’t do a push-up with good form 4 months ago. My kettlebells coach worked with me to learn how to coordinate my muscles to get that good form. First a solid plank, everything pulled tight. That is a skill in itself. Then I worked on very slow negative push-ups for a while, lowering myself down to the floor in plank position. Knees down to come back up. Repeat. After a lot of practice and patience, I can now do 1 or 2 solid push-ups, nose-to-the-floor, with good form.

What I’ve learned is that just because something doesn’t come easily for me initially, I can still learn how to do it. “I’m not good at sports” doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be. I now find myself in an athletic body; something I never would have imagined. Someone today suggested that I should try rowing. Instead of doubting my innate physical abilities, I thought that it might be really fun to learn.

I often hear people shy away from things they want to do because they just don’t think they’ll be good at it. They want to play the guitar, or be more fit, or fix up their house, or learn calculus (ok, maybe there aren’t a lot of people who exclaim “I want to learn calculus!”). I’m convinced more and more that most things can be learned, no matter what the starting point or perceived innate ability. Some things may come more slowly than others, but that’s no reason to not pursue them.

Once I can do five solid push-ups, I’m moving back to getting that first palms-out pull-up under my belt. 🙂


7 thoughts on “Finding My Inner Athlete

  1. ClimbingBetty

    Great post! I totally identified with this- I was (am?) one of those so called ‘bright girls.’ I gained approval from parents & teachers for my good grades, not my athletic prowess (or rather, lack thereof.) I tried running track in high school to impress this guy I liked. I thought I go for the “middle distance” events like the 400m, thinking “I don’t have to be fast like the sprinters and I don’t have to run god-awfully long like the distance runners.” Took me about a week to figure I was SOOO wrong and quit the track team. I didn’t run again until college when I had to for a required “life fitness” class.

    I discovered climbing the summer after my freshmen year of college and one of the reasons that I feel in love with it is because, for the first time in my life, I felt strong, powerful and athletic as I pulled myself to the top of the wall. I was immediately addicted. My ‘skills’ are still nothing to write home about, but since then, I’ve climbed a ton all over the U.S. (I can find a 5.6 route anywhere!) and even ran a triathlon and a marathon. Next month, I had to Rainier to slog up that puppy. Most days I don’t realize how much my life has changed, but if I happen to interact with anyone I went to high school, they are amazed at how much I’ve changed since then!

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Oof. The 400m is so painful! I remember running that a few times in my brief track career. I had the same experience with climbing. I remember feeling graceful, and that was definitely a new feeling.

      Wishing you the best on your Rainier climb, and congrats on finding your inner athlete as well. Rock on!

  2. Katie L

    Amazing, amazing post, Eliz. You’re so thoughtful and introspective, and I so appreciate your willingness to share what you’re learning about yourself with the world. I can identify with the learning curve you found with kettlebells – I had the same issue with CrossFit. But luckily, I also found a coach that pushes me to work my weaknesses, but helps me figure out how to tackle them. That’s so important. Looking forward to hearing more about kettlebells and pushups 🙂

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Thanks, Katie. That’s really nice to hear. 🙂

      I’ve enjoyed following along with your CrossFit journey as well. I think we all need people in our lives who can push us past our own perceptions of what we can do. Sounds like your coach is that person for you, and I’ve been lucky to find that in my kettlebell coaches as well.

  3. Astrid Bryce

    Eliz, you have a very strong, coordinated inner athlete just waiting to come out! Great job for working on something that isn’t immediately “easy” for you. As a klutzy former “bright girl” myself, I identify with your experience. Building my athletic abilities is something I always get a lot of pride in, just because I have to work so hard to do it. It doesn’t come easily to me, at all. I still remember clearly the first time I won an athletic award at the same ceremony where I won an academic award. It was a great moment. Good luck on the push ups and pull up! I am sure you will get there.

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Thanks, Astrid. I agree that there’s a very specific pride that goes along with having to work hard for something that doesn’t come as naturally as other things. Nice work on the dual awards, that’s awesome. 🙂

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