On Being Athletic

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Quite the athlete–in six inches of water!

I’m not athletic.

Or at least, I never thought I was. True, I’d been on a couple of teams when I was young (fencing, swimming) and been told I had “potential”.

But the formative comment on my athletic abilities came from a gymnastics coach when I was 8: “She hasn’t got it.”

By “it” he meant “kinesthetic sense”—that ability to know exactly where your body is and what it’s doing at every moment. It’s an ability that’s foundational for most athletic endeavors.

The coach was right—I didn’t have it, and I could see its lack in my everyday life.

I fell off things, or tripped and landed face-forward (my lower lip has been split so many times my dentist is in awe of the scar tissue). Especially early on, I could drive my kayak coaches to despair with my inability to understand basic movements: “Move the blade up, Johna… no, UP… Johna, just LOOK at me!”

So I internalized that lack, and for a while it defined me. I had many other strengths, but no kinesthetic sense—or so I thought.

Here’s what I didn’t know then, and know now: Kinesthetic sense—and with it, athletic ability—can be learned.

Sure, there are prodigies who have it at birth, and many more in whom it develops rapidly with just a minimum of encouragement. Like other human abilities, athletic talent appears to be distributed along a spectrum.

But for those of us on the “don’t have it” end of the spectrum, it’s possible to develop it by thinking about your body, what it does, and how it moves.

A revelatory moment came last year when I was taking CrossFit classes. The coach was a wool-cap-wearing tattooed guy in his 20s with interesting facial hair and the wiry body of a professional skateboarder.

“There’s one fundamental athletic motion, ” he told me, and demonstrated it: Driving your body upwards using your legs as a spring, straightening your bent knees and driving from your heels.

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Learning to kayak-surf (before developing my kinesthetic sense)

Damn if he wasn’t right! It’s the classical motion of kayaking (driving your heels forward to propel the boat forward with your strokes). But you also see it in practically every other sport, from basketball to golf to rock-climbing. To get it right, everything has to be in proper alignment (heels, knees, back, shoulders) and even the positions of your toes and your neck matter.

CrossFit taught me to pay attention to form, because the coaches encouraged us to do weighted squats—and if you do squats with poor form, you blow out your knees (and potentially create insurance liabilities for the CrossFit gym). Good coaches are therefore dogmatic about teaching you the right form.

So I spent hours watching myself in the mirror, lifting weights and struggling with chinups and situps. I’d shut my eyes and try to feel where my knees, toes, and shoulders were—then open my eyes and see how close I’d guessed.

The attention to form paid off in kayaking—suddenly, I made progress in areas that had been baffling to me in the past. And the more I thought about where my body was and what it was doing, the better I got.

I recently took up barefoot running, which is all about proper form. You have to think about curving your toes up (you want to land on the balls of your feet, shift your weight to your toes, and then to your heels). And you need to keep your neck relaxed and your shoulders back… and use that “fundamental athletic motion” to drive yourself along.

And for once in my life, I’ve found an athletic activity that’s easy for me.  That attention to form feels natural, innate. No, I’m not fast—but my goal isn’t to be fast. If I’m moving, I’m going as fast as I need to. My goal is to develop the form and motion that will allow me to run as much as I want—and I don’t know how much that will be, yet.

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Practicing my low brace form (don’t want to fall into the Gowanus Canal!)

What’s even more interesting, though, is how the whole experience has changed how I move my body in everyday life.  I find myself doing the “drive” when I get up from a chair, or instinctively adjusting my balance as I climb the stairs, thinking about whether my center of gravity is over my heels or my toes.  And my movements have gotten more graceful and confident—like those of the “natural” athletes I know.

I doubt that having a kinesthetic sense will ever be instinctive for me. And the coach was undoubtedly right—I would likely never have made it to the upper echelons of gymnastics.

But the fact that, as an adult, I can acquire “it” is eye-opening to me.

If someone who “hasn’t got it” can become athletic—what other seemingly impossible things might be possible, after all?

29 responses to “On Being Athletic

  1. What a great post! The same philosophy applies to art; some have that natural ability while others need a bit of coaching.. for art, it’s the ability to truly see.
    as for running barefooted; when i was young, i raced my sister back from the barn. in full throttle bare-footed sprint, i was winning until my foot landed on a small discarded aluminum can. my arch still carries the scar. whenever i consider running without shoes at the beach, i pause and remember that moment. i always pick up any remnants of glass that i see along the way, so that runners like you will have a wonderful experience ‘sin zapatos!

    z

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Z! And totally agree re: art. I am also “not artistic”–that I know of. Yet. Except that I discovered several years ago when watching modern dance that I could predict was was going to happen next–which meant there was something that I was seeing and understanding…..

      As for broken glass/aluminum cans.. it’s an issue, yes. But part of learning to do it is to learn how to minimizes the chances of it happening–you can never perfectly protect, of course!

  2. This was such a good read. I realized early on, when trying to compete against more “athletic” friends that I “did not have it”. But I know how to appreciate what I have. And that took some time. It took wanting to be connected with my body and “nature” My environment. Technically I have not had training in how to listen to my body and its form, except for Yoga, Piliates, and spin class. Biking is my favorite sport. And little by little I get to know my body posture. The position you described is so true. I can recite as I ride “heel – toe”, keep the shoulders down, chest up, arms relaxed. This connects me and I feel stronger. At 56, I need all the help I can get. :-)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Yoga is GREAT for playing with balance, form, etc. What I’ve found interesting is that I’m doing better at yoga now that I understand the general idea. For me, another big breakthrough was getting permission from my kayaking coach that it’s OKAY to shut my eyes and “feel” a position. Funny, but the visual stimulation was overwhelming me.

      You might want to try taking a few CrossFit classes. I”m by no means an afficionado (in fact, I haven’t been back in months) but they have a really good strategy for teaching people of all ages “general fitness”. If nothing else, learning to do squats properly was worth the entrance fee…

  3. Interesting read, Johna. It’s so important to be in tune with one’s body. Well done on your achievements. :)

  4. Developing the form and motion is what trainers emphasize in the gym, most people don’t attention to it. Thank you for the post!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thank you for reading and commenting! I’ve actually had personal trainers before, and they do focus on form, etc. What I think they didn’t teach as well was this concept of “general fitness”. It was more, “Here’s how you do a situp so you don’t throw out your back”.

      Instead of talking about how to do fitness moves correctly, CrossFitters talked about which moves are critical to fitness–a small but (to me) important distinction. What that did was open up a world in which it was possible for there to be “crossover fitness”–where doing squats properly translated to kayaking better, etc.

      For me, anyway, that was part of the breakthrough.

  5. when a coach says you won’t amount to anything, i wonder if he tells it as it is or he just wants to challenge you to prove him wrong. if he’s a true coach, i think the latter is true.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks for commenting, and good observation!

      A bit more context might help: This particular coach was an olympics-level competitor and coach at the US Naval Academy. He was also a good friend of my father’s, and was offering a summer course for kids.

      What my father wanted to know was whether I had any particular aptitude for gymnastics, and what the coach told him (honestly) was, “no”.

      That was actually useful information, because I ended up dropping gymnastics and taking up swimming and fencing (for which I have more of an aptitude, as kinesthetic sense is less critical).

      So I think in this case he was just being honest. I could have kept taking lessons, but my parents’ money and my time were better spent on a sport that I had more aptitude for.

  6. Ah! The truth is that no matter what age, the possibilities for learning are endless. And, amazingly, what we thought impossible when we were young, seems vaguely daunting now that we are older and wiser. We lose many things with age, but we do gain awareness of ourselves, of our bodies, of what matters and of what obstacles are there because we let them and which ones we will demolish because we can no longer tolerate them.

    An insightful post…and even though my interest in athletic endeavors remains limited (laugh away at my recent attempt to hike in Maui which resulted in bruises and some close encounters with unseen spiders that left tremendous marks–nothing I am interested in repeating), I love and share your continued life-long interest in learning! To continuing our education, on our own terms and in anything that sparks our curiosity!!!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Ci si mette molto tempo a diventare giovani! (“It takes a lot of time to become young!”). Someone very wise had that Picasso quote on her high school yearbook. :-).

      And yes, I had to go look it up, so while we’re at it, mine was: “We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore….” Quite a propos, also, though Styx isn’t quite as timeless as Picasso!

      Anyway, I’ll keep working on you on the athletic stuff… Hawaiian spiders are no joke, they’re small but they take big bites!

      But don’t let that stop you… Maybe yoga on the beach at sunrise is more your speed, for now?

  7. Will be looking into cross-fit very soon! Thank for the informative post.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      You’re welcome! CrossFit is amazing, but a word of advice: Don’t get too sucked into the competitive, “gotta do it every day” mindset (at least not right away). Even very fit people can manage maybe 4-5 workouts a week, and when you’re just starting, once a week may be plenty—even though the coaches encourage you to participate more regularly.

      Please let me know how it goes!

  8. I really enjoyed this post and it gave me something to think about (another great reason to read blogs). I found this with the yoga – when I started doing it, I couldn’t keep up with a class and couldn’t do most of the moves. I finally started dong it on my own, practicing a pose for a week until I finally got it down, then practicing the next pose. It took a while before I worked up to a decent flow, but I’m pretty good at it too. I’m also pretty good at figuring out substitute poses when a teacher can’t help me out (it’s disappointing how few of them can figure out how to accommodate a large woman).

    This has application to other areas of my life, but I hadn’t thought it through. It’s definitely something to contemplate. Thanks!

    Nancy

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Nancy, that’s fantastic! And totally agree with you on yoga. Learning at your own pace is the best, and modifications can be wonderful. It’s not about achieving the perfect pose, it’s about making the effort….

  9. It’s nice to know there is hope for the rest of us. :) I dabbled in Tai Chi with a video, and noticed a difference in how I moved afterward. There is something to what you say. Enjoy your new-found abilities!

  10. Wow, I’m already practicing my form. Thank you!

  11. A truly great post, most enjoyable reading. You’re so right, I’ll certainly practice a bit more now.
    Thanks.
    Greetings from the Far North
    Dina

  12. Inspiring post! Makes a lifelong klutz of almost 80 feel that who-knows-what is possible? I go to the gym and I do my workouts and I pay attention to form, mostly because it feels good, not because I do it well; and then to read this makes me aware that — as I do my balance exercises — I can have a new goal if I think about it, to be AWARE of my body in space. Thanks. I’m going to try!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Touch!!

      When you do your workouts in the gym, try shutting your eyes (holding on to something if it feels safer). I was getting some kayak coaching a few days ago and I mentioned to my coach that another coach (one we both respect deeply) had “given me permission to shut my eyes”. That really made quite a lot of difference.

      Oh, and your Dec 17 post was AWESOME. Thanks for posting it. I love the idea and will try myself. Plus, you aren’t the only one for whom glass and heights is an issue—remind me to write about the time a glass elevator cured me (mostly) of my fear of heights…. Anyway, it was a fantastic post!

  13. Well Johna! up until two days ago I didn’t think of myself as athletic though I often walked up to 8 miles a day when I was five or ten years younger. However, on venturing down the mountain to the local village this week I performed all sorts of gymnastic manoeuvres that would have done our Olympic team proud and am now a champion ice-skater to boot. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

  14. Pingback: On Limits | Wind Against Current

  15. Excellently stated… Crossfit is a good program and your article was a good demonstration of its purpose. To stay fit and flexible so we can enjoy playing and growing in our enjoyment of an active life. Thanks for sharing your success. It encourages me to keep at it… Cheers

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