It’s reminding me of various times as a child when I was encouraged to play such games, to compete against people I cared about (and sometimes people I didn’t care about). I never wanted to compete. Ever.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to win—I was happy to play games where I thought I might win. I didn’t mind running races, and I liked games like checkers, chess and card and board games.
But if I had no chance to win, I shut down. I got so frustrated because I felt like the person trying to get me to compete was setting me up for failure.
And a funny thing happened when I constantly told myself I wasn’t going to win: I stopped trying to get any better. I didn’t care if I couldn’t swim the fastest because I would never swim as fast as the kids who took lessons. I was never going to win games of basketball or baseball or soccer, so I didn’t try. I didn’t want to try.
Looking back, it’s funny, in a sick way, that I consider myself so athletic now. And I do—I ride horses, hike, do yoga, walk and jog, lift weights, and I’m itching to get a bike and try my hand at commuting by pedal to work.
But all that’s because, eventually, I started thinking of myself as an athlete. When I was a kid, I didn’t think of myself as an athlete, so I chose not to be good at sports. I don’t think it helped that the types of sports one is encouraged to do as a child just aren’t up my alley—sorry, all ye volleyball players, I will never, EVER, enjoy having a very hard ball hurling at my face and expected to hit it. Who thought that was ever a good idea???? The same with softball. That ball is not soft. And it’s hurling at my head. Intentionally.
But now I consider myself an athlete—I track my workouts, my weight, I analyze my diet, make sure to build in rest days. I’m an athlete.
College was a big turning point for me. Suddenly, I saw people around me who exercised because they wanted to, not because they were on whatever team. Also, joining the equestrian team put some pressure on me. Not everyone felt it, but because I had such little formal training, I felt like anything I could do to give me an edge was a good thing. When I joined my first gym sealed the deal: I chose that place specifically to work out, and I definitely wanted to get my money’s worth out of every single month.
But as I’m watching those kids at the pool tonight, I hope none of them feel the same anxiety I felt in similar situations when I was a child.
My solution at the time would have been to shut down, leave the group, and go play by myself. I would have made up a quiet story about a mermaid who can’t play with the others because if she does, she’ll evaporate or turn into stone or get locked up by her evil stepmother (hey, I was big into the fairy tales back then). And I would have practiced holding my breath under water or doing handstands or just splashing, watching the water droplets spray up around me.
I wasn’t going to win the race, so I found my own game to play. Probably not the best coping mechanism, but it kept me sane.