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Being Unathletic: What I Learned About the Limitations We Place On Ourselves

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wisconsin chapter.

It’s time to just go for it

Growing up, I was “the unathletic sibling”. I couldn’t hit the ball off a tee, throw a football ten yards or hit a free throw. The BEEP from the infamous Pacer test still sends my body into panic mode. My dad, who is an exercise enthusiast, did his best to coach talent out of me until my younger brother and sister were old enough to start joining sports teams. As they naturally excelled at soccer, volleyball and basketball, I let myself firmly take on the label of “the unathletic sibling”. In small-town Wisconsin, where the social life seemingly revolves around the high school sports team, I was known as “the sibling of” my brother and sister.

Surprisingly to many people, this experience wasn’t a bad one. With the freedom to finally explore other interests, I not only found other hobbies I enjoyed but learned to love these hobbies loud. Meaning: sure, I couldn’t run more than a half mile without feeling like death, but I could take on any creative project and discover all the hidden gems in any thrift store. I loved volunteering at our local Boys and Girls Club, and I competed on the public speaking team. My hobbies did not come with the glitz and glamor of making the last-second shot to send your team into the state championship, but they were hobbies that I enjoyed. I didn’t hide them. Consequently, the people that I connected with in high school were people whose company I genuinely enjoyed. One of my best friends and I bonded over our shared hatred for gym class. Some of my favorite memories with her are when we would be so absorbed in conversation that we were completely oblivious to the intense games of dodgeball occurring around us. 

At the same time, however, I graduated high school with a very defining assumption about myself: I was unathletic. During my freshman year of college, I gawked at people who suggested we go to the gym or take a workout class together. Burning in the forefront of my brain was the humiliation of barely making it by on the Pacer test or perpetually being picked last for every sports game imaginably. Going to the gym or doing a workout class for fun? These types of activities weren’t for people like me. 

During the winter break of my sophomore year, however, my eating and sleeping habits finally caught up to me. A year and a half of dining hall food and microwavable meals, paired with caffeine in place of sleep, had taken its toll on my body. My stomach constantly hurt and mentally, I felt anxious and overwhelmed. So, in the safe space of my basement at home, I did what I said I would never do: I started working out.

I started with Youtube videos. At first, these five-minute ab routines or HIIT workouts were as much as my imposter syndrome could handle. Eventually, though, as I became more confident, I wanted to try new workouts. I wanted to test my physical limits instead of running from them.

Coming back to campus, I decided I was going to continue working out. Fortunately, my roommate had the same realization over break. The accountability we provided each other was huge in keeping me to my resolution. Our daily trips to the gym eliminated my fear of going alone, especially during those first few weeks when it seemed as though the word UNATHLETIC was still printed in bold across my forehead.

Slowly, doing my mat workouts in the corner of the gym became less frightening as I realized that no one was paying attention to me. I then started experimenting with different equipment and machines. Late last spring, I did something that my freshman-year self would have never believed: I worked out in the Power House, the bottom floor of the UW-Madison gym with heavy weights and an atmosphere that not too long ago, I would have described as being where the “real” or “serious” athletes work out. I would have dismissed my mat routine or my time on the stair stepper – still my preferred physical activities – as somehow not counting as a real athletic activity. How else could I – “the unathletic sibling” – do them?

After over a year since sticking to my resolution, however, I have eliminated this perception of myself. Now, I see and believe myself to be athletic – not the type that shows itself in victories or points in dodgeball or basketball but in a pilates class or ten-mile bike ride. It was never that I wasn’t athletic but that other people’s definition of athleticism didn’t fit into the physical activity that my body excels at and even more importantly, enjoys. After spending so long internalizing others’ perceptions of my physical abilities, I have surprised myself – not only with what my body is capable of but my newfound enjoyment and genuine love for an activity that I once instantly wrote off. After running from the mere thought of even stepping into a gym, I now feel at home in a place where I was convinced I would never belong. 

If you have ever held back from participating in activities and spaces due to your own self-limiting beliefs, my hope is that this story encourages you to take that first frightening step forward. You may surprise yourself with the new hobbies, interests and, ultimately, confidence that you uncover. 

Hi, I'm Julia! I am a senior at UW-Madison, double majoring in International Studies & Legal Studies with a certificate in Chicanx & Latinx Studies. I love to travel and hope to teach or work at a nonprofit abroad someday.