On being bad at sports

I kinda suck at all of the sports I practice. Despite all the effort and enthusiasm, I am a 5+ hour marathoner prone to training weight gain, a rock climber who is still struggling on the easier pitches, and that girl in your yoga class who can still not straighten her legs in Downward Dog. Then again, running, yoga and climbing have been such awesome sources of inspiration, growth and fun over the years, that they have become part of who I am.

At first sight, one would think that sports are about: challenging yourself and having a great time. Physical activity makes you feel good. We have the Holy Trinity of evidence on this: academic papers, common sense wisdom, and bad stock photography.

Woman laughing alone with tiny, pastel-coloured weights

By the time we get serious about exercising, it also becomes part of our identity and therefore something that we use to validate ourselves.  Working out makes us feel good. But it also arouses feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and overall unpleasant shite. There are so many ways to fail at self-discipline, constant progress and all-round measuring up to everyone else.

Self-worth, measuring and comparing

Am I really good enough if I run the next race slower than my first ever? What if I skip the gym?  How on earth do all Instagram yogis have their headstand and Teeki leggings collection all figured out? I have thought about these questions a lot while struggling with comparisons and self-worth and think that social media fitspo and fitness trackers are two of the main tools that backfire when I am trying to build up an exercise routine that comes from a happy place.

In running, my experience is that it becomes about obsessive time tracking very easily. Technology really bit us in the ass there. Measuring our progress can be helpful in training. But from my job evaluating programs for NGOs, I also know that you will work towards what you are measured on. Humans are incredibly biased towards judgement and measurement. This means that even if you start using Runkeeper with the most positive attitude possible, you will likely get lost in the data and focus on improving your numbers. In psychological terms, your intrinsic motivation shifts towards extrinsic motivation This, if you are an NGO or an average runner, will put you at risk of enjoying your activity less, buying way more gear than you need because of your insecurity, and of losing sight of why you started working out in the first place.

That feeling of yuck and self-pity mixed with not being good enough? Being anxious about improving yourself and comparing yourself with others, who seem to be doing so much better? It is normal. We even have specific research on fitspo, which links it to increased feeling of insecurity and self-worth (albeit accompanied by an increased willingness to work out in some cases).

Jackie O’ has zero issues with body image on the yoga mat


The solution? As the Buddha would say, Let that shit go. Here are some ways I managed to get rid of bad feelings when it comes to sports:

  1. Ask some questions

Reflection is always a good place to start. Think of an occasion where you really enjoyed your workout, and ask yourself what was the reason behind this? It is rarely the data as you often don’t see it until afterwards; and I bet it was not looking damn hot while being in a difficult yoga pose, crushing a Crossfit workout or spinning.

2. Ditch the trackers

I remember feeling like a workout did not matter if it wasn’t in my tracking app, and being quite harsh on myself if I had not improved compared to previous occasions. Let’s face it, if you aren’t  a pro athlete, the ultimate goal of your exercise should probably be something else than competing on time. Switching to a routine without a tracker or leaving it at home at least half the time will help you avoid depending on external validation and tune more into how you feel.

3. Diversify your social media feeds and inspiration

There is no one way to do awesome stuff. If you struggle with feeling inadequate, it can be very helpful to widen your inspiration sources to include a rainbow of role models. Social media is full of them! Following campaigns such as This Girl Can and body positive activists like Dianne Bondy can help you focus again on what the essence of your chosen sport is.

Any other suggestions for a happy and balanced exercise routine?