28 March 2015

Special gym

In kindergarten, one time I was pulled out of class to learn how to use the stairs. I had always taken stairs, as best I can recall both up and down, by putting one foot on a step, and then putting the second foot on the same step. This had to be corrected, so a nice woman, who I think was a physical and occupational therapist, coached me on going up and down stairs. I think after that lesson I took to it fairly quickly, but unlike the vast majority of everyone who has lived since stairs have existed, it did not come without explicit coaching.

Through kindergarten, and at least partially through elementary school, I would occasionally be pulled out of class by the same nice woman to do other activities. One time, we climbed on the half-buried set of oversized tires that were climbing equipment in the schoolyard. Another time she lobbed a softball and I had to hit it. Once she tried to get me to run more upright. Who or what prompted these excursions--be it my teachers or my parents, reactions to isolated events or schedule program--is a mystery to me. I'm not sure how these activities came to named, but collectively they had the terrifically euphemistic name of "special gym".

"Special gym" was a nice try at correcting a problem, because regular gym was a source of trouble. I definitely gave it an honest effort, because in my mind school was a place where honest effort was an expectation and requirement. I just wasn't really good at. I remember being frustrated to the point of tears about small things: a game of matball where I felt particularly inept, coming in dead last in a race. I had some anger issues as a kid, stuff I barely remember now except for vague recollections of some group therapy and briefly seeing some sort of counselor or therapist, and a lot of it seemed to stem from athletics being a thing that mattered to my peers and me not being good them. I remember telling the therapist that my peers shouldn't be so enthusiastic about athletics. She said that that was not something I could change; I could conform to the values of my peers or learn to not let that bother me.

I took the latter course, for the most part. I eschewed most all physical activity outside of gym classes. I kept trying at gym classes and had sympathetic teachers who seemed aware of the fact that I was in fact trying, I was just spectacularly inept. I became less uncomfortable with my bad athletic performance in part because my perception that people cared about this largely went away. I began spending most of my leisure time with computers and video games. I embraced this, I self-identified as a nerd, and I felt no need to concern myself with athletic pursuits.

This mindset continued unabated for a long time. It broke down a little bit as I started enjoying baseball games late in high school. But looking back at it, I think the biggest blow to it was a change in how I saw myself after my freshman year of college. The nerd thing seemed limiting and not really satisfying as a lifestyle anymore. Other things seemingly randomly became interesting to fill that void. One of them was tagging along with some friends who went to the gym.

In truth, very little immediately came of it because I would only go inconsistently and I had no idea what I was doing. It definitely planted seeds of interest, though. I began occasionally jogging. Throughout grad school I used a stipend in my health insurance to pay for a gym membership. Nonetheless, the gym was a place where I felt somewhat self-concious and lost and I didn't go often.

Something really specific resulted a huge shift. About six months after I moved to Seattle, I joined a gym where I would trained one-on-one by one of a rotating set of personal trainers. My criteria for selecting this gym was pretty simplistic: it was right down the street from where I lived at the time. But the concept has demonstrated its efficacy remarkably well. Basically, it has been the only type of physical activity that I have been able to regularly commit to.

So basically, find myself back in "special gym". Nice, well-trained people are scrutinizing how I perform physical activities, advising me on what I can do better, and keeping detailed records of my performance. When they demonstrate how do an exercise, and I'm baffled about how I can get my body to behave that way, they'll go as far as contorting me into that shape. I'm learning how to go up and down stairs all over again. Only this time, the taxpayers of Framingham aren't paying for it; I pay dearly for the privilege, but it's easily worth it. Physically, I feel fundamentally changed. Things I long ago wrote off, like running a half marathon without much additional training, are things that aren't out of the ordinary.

What's interesting, though, it what hasn't changed. At the end of a session a couple of months ago, we had some extra time and my trainer and I played a game of basketball against another client and his trainer. The whole time I felt unaware of my surroundings. I was largely unable to guard or block because everyone seemed a couple of steps ahead of me. I was terrified of what I'd do once I got the ball and sought to rid myself of it as soon as possible. I realized I felt the same ineptness that I did back in elementary school gym classes. In spite of my training, something was still obviously lacking.

What I think that might be is the sort of presence of mind, acting without conscious thought, and real-time strategic thinking that comes from a strong competitive drive. And to some extent, even if that's learnable I don't think I'm terribly interested in learning it at this point. Being unable to be comfortable partaking in sports is a definite downer; I never really felt at ease when I was in a softball league a couple of summers ago and I'd hoped it was something I could take great enjoyment in. Nonetheless, I feel I derive plenty of joy from the accomplishment and sheer incomparable fatigue that I get a result of my time at the gym.

With that in mind I wonder if there's something that can be done for kids in school these days who are struggling with gym classes. It seems a shame that some of them, like me, could be set up to overcompensate and throw away physical activity because they're conflating it and competition. How do you send every kid to their own special gym?