On Being a Self-Made Athlete

>> Thursday, August 5, 2010

In our About Us section of the site, I describe myself as a self-made athlete. I didn't think much about this phrase at the time when I typed it -- mostly because it's a simple fact. But now several readers have brought up this specific way of describing myself because they say it has helped motivate them to break out of what they thought they were. Or what they had been told their whole lives they were. Or what they themselves have always felt they were capable of.

Being a self-made athlete is as much about empowerment as it is about ability.

Growing up, I wasn't encouraged to participate in sports. No one in my family was particularly active during my childhood. Really -- at least in my 10-year-old mind -- sports were for guys. My brother and cousins played baseball and basketball -- music, art, and writing were for me. I don't fault my parents in any way because they tirelessly encouraged my development as a musician and artist through countless music lessons (fun fact: I can play like 15 instruments), ensemble groups, band camps (yup -- I went to band camp!), etc. To add sports to this equation may have stretched me (and them) too far with extracurriculars.

So, as I grew, I didn't see myself as someone capable of, say, running a marathon. Nor did I care much. I was cool with my unique abilities. I was cool with my sedentary life where practicing Vivaldi for hours was my workout. But when I was in high school, I started having major body image issues. I gained weight. Most of all, I felt blah all the time.

I tried numerous diets and methods (some healthy, most extremely unhealthy), none of which actually worked at making me feel and look my best. And I struggled with my body image and eating for several years until one day, I decided to make a change. Many of you have already read the Ode to My 17-year-old Self: The Mile. I hated running with the core of my being for the longest time. But secretly, I envied those girls in my gym class who could sprint around the track at lightning speed. With my upbringing, however, I didn't see myself as an athlete. Far from it, in fact. Instead, I didn't feel I was "made" for athletics. People have different talents and strengths, I thought, and running/biking/swimming/etc. certainly wasn't in the cards for me.

But then I had this moment. This particular day I can remember, where it seems EVERYTHING changed in my perception of myself as destined to be sedentary. I'll tell the whole story next week (in our celebration of healthy living -- featuring reader-submitted posts!) . . . but there were several steps I took from that point that helped me jumpstart my journey to becoming a runner. To becoming an active person who enjoyed moving my body more than just out of pure necessity. I could run because I wanted to run. I became invigorated with motivation to get out there and accomplish goals I never thought I could accomplish.

Anyway, these three steps describe the basic process I took to start my journey. To become a self-made athlete. Even if you already are active (or perhaps USED to be active), these tips can help. But it's my sincere hope that maybe you'll pass this post along to friends, family members, coworkers -- strangers, even! Share this idea that being an athlete need not be reserved for a handful of people "born" to excel in sports. That's one of the main missions of our site -- we want to let everyone in the world know that they, too, can be active. Not only for physical health, but also -- and perhaps more importantly -- for mental wellbeing.

1.) Do some deep thinking. You need to find the courage -- yes, it takes major COURAGE -- to see yourself as a person capable of anything you put your mind (and body!) to. You need courage to take a look outside all those conceptions of who you think you are . . . and to grow and see yourself as who you WANT to be -- and maybe who you never thought you could be. Honestly, you have the power to be and do whatever you can dream up. To attain what you have always thought was unattainable.

Case in point: I never, EVER would have thought I'd be running for fun, let alone running a MARATHON for fun. But I decided to entertain the idea one day . . . and from that dream grew dedication. From that dedication grew ability. And from the ability grew even more ability to attain my goal. Think about yourself. Give yourself credit for your unique strengths and gifts. Even if you don't think you have any -- you DO! Write them down if it helps. Tell a friend.

But whatever you do, don't tell yourself that you're crazy. Don't tell yourself you can't do something. Figure out your limitations as you make your way toward your goal. Oftentimes, you'll find you can push beyond those once-upon-a-time roadblocks.

2.) That's right -- set a GOAL. This step all depends on the person. Some of us think big. Some of us think small. When I set a goal for myself starting out, I didn't write down: "I want to run a marathon." I may have thought it in some unconscious part of my brain, however -- I started with a goal that was broader: "I want to be a runner." To me, being a runner meant running several times a week, 3 miles at a time.

Your goal will most likely be defined -- in part -- by your chosen activity. There's no right or wrong kind of activity to gravitate towards. Maybe you're interested in fencing. Cycling. Volleyball. Dance. There are so many different types of ways to be an athlete -- just pick one that you find interesting. Try it out, and if it doesn't work -- set a new goal. Becoming an athlete can take some self-exploration time. You need to feel out what works best for you and your body.

If you are the type of person who sets a goal like: "I want to participate in an Ironman." You may want to break this goal into several mini-goals. For example, if you're starting from scratch -- no activity -- try out running for a while. Sign up for a 5K. Start incorporating brick workouts after several months. Add swimming after a few more months. Like with pretty much everything else, there's no perfect method. But I've found in my experience that striving toward that BIG goal is sometimes a bit intimidating. Becoming a self-made athlete is all about accomplishment. Focus on the little ones, and they'll add up to those bigger goals before you know it!

3.) Keep at it. With whatever activity you choose, you're going to have setbacks. Bad days. Good days, most definitely, too -- but the frustration can often outshine the motivation. Just know this part going into the whole self-made athlete thing. When you have these negative feelings, tell yourself to KEEP AT IT! Athletes work so very hard at their respective sports. They dedicate themselves because they have experienced that the pain and effort is well worth it. Feeling the empowerment. Accomplishing personal bests. Excelling in something that you love -- it's all worth it.

When I was running and working my way up the ladder with my smaller goals, I took a lot of pride in my journey. No one was doing this whole athlete thing for me. I was doing it for myself. Running my first 5K is probably my happiest memory in my athletic life. The first 19 years of my life, I couldn't see myself running in a race. Having a race number pinned to my shirt. Nope, I didn't think that was in the cards. But when I crossed that finish line, I knew that I could do anything at that point. I had trained diligently through mental (and sometimes physical) pain, but I had done something for myself. Not only was I healthier (with a new, fantastically muscular set of legs!), but I felt incredible on the inside, too.

If you keep at it through the rain, sleet, and snow. Through good time and bad -- you WILL succeed. Success is measured only by you. Everyone is on their own path, so define a "win" in any way that makes sense to you. No matter what it is, feeling that sense of true accomplishment will inspire you. I always describe how this feeling made me whole (as corny as that may sound).


That's really all you need to know. And I'd love to hear if you're currently trying any of these steps -- or if you're just starting out and want to know how you, too, can be a self-made athlete. We'd love to help! Just leave a comment or email us at neverhomemaker [at] gmail [dot] com.

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