The Myth of the Un-Athletic Kid

I’d like to share a worjockd of encouragement on a tough topic. One of the challenges in my workday is to help develop the physical skills of kids who have labeled themselves non-athletes. Of course, as long as that label is in place, this is a major uphill battle. It is self-image, not physical potential that holds them back. The good news?  None of this needs to be permanent, and working on it is totally worthwhile. Let’s examine.

At some point a your kid got picked last for a team on the playground or internalized the careless words or actions of an indifferent coach, and this heartbreaking moment set them on a course of disassociation from their own bodies. These negative beliefs can be reinforced when adolescents, seeking identity, are tempted to define themselves by rigid category. When kids who excel in art or academics see Athlete as a mutually exclusive or even antagonistic label, you’ve got yourself a problem.

Over time, It’s easier than it should be for parents to accept this fate. When our kids seem relatively happy and well-adjusted in their niche, one could imagine worse things than a lack of athleticism. Plus, it seems like those sports kids spend an awful lot of time and money on their activities, and who could imagine adding all of that to our plate? Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Some piousness can even slip in at this point–What care we for the things of the flesh?

The flatulent sound has not been made that can express the contempt we should feel for that sentiment. Let’s be real. It matters if you are too clumsy to dance with a girl, too slow to avoid an accident, or too weak to help someone in trouble. Imagine the mountains not climbed, the races not run, and even the years not lived by kids who develop false and limiting beliefs about what they can do with their bodies. It is a great, and somewhat invisible tragedy that we should not settle for in our families. We were designed to be good stewards of our bodies, to figure out how they work and enjoy them. The truth is that almost everybody can do almost any physical thing they set their mind to with the proper training.

What to do if you’ve got a kid who’s more than a few steps down the un-athletic path? Start by re-framing their whole point of view with a useful distinction: a Jock is different than an Athlete. Show them that Jocks bloom early and have talent, while Athletes develop skills*. Jocks are one-dimensional and uninteresting. Athletes are smart and well-rounded. At age 30, a Jock rests a box of donuts on his beer gut and talks about the good old days while an Athletic ex-nerd competes in the Cross-Fit Games. Show them some examples of physical late-bloomers and help them see the long view. Creatively demonstrate how silly it is to allow a single snapshot of physical ability at age 9 to dictate a life of awkwardness and poor health.

It’s fine to ditch team sports if they aren’t a good fit, but never give up on the potential for athleticism. Let’s continue to make it part of the picture we paint when talking to our kids about their future, and continue to expose them to a wide range of physical opportunities. They will find something that connects.

*This idea of talent vs. skill has been huge in working with my 8 year old son who has an incredibly talented cousin/best friend. We talk all the time about how skill can eventually overtake talent, and that anyone can develop the skills they care about.


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