Absolute Beginners: Gymnastics And What Makes Embarrassment Worth It

I think I did about one gymnastics lesson before I quit, when I was a kid. (I did a lot of quitting sports.) I was afraid, on the one hand, because gymnastics skills are so, I don’t know, flamboyant, and that means that when you succeed at doing them you look graceful and strong and amazing, but when you fail, you just look like a klutz. And I was failing, and I knew I’d fail, because on the other hand, I knew intuitively that I did not have the body for gymnastics. I was tall and chubby and a little ungainly. I didn’t have good balance. And I didn’t want to look stupid in front of all of these dainty, focused little spring-propelled girls who were my age but a head shorter, who had been in gymnastics for a year or so already and were so far ahead with so many physical advantages.

I’d heard, too, that gymnastics coaches really wanted short, very thin girls, that you couldn’t really do gymnastics long-term if you didn’t have a certain body type. And that’s true enough, not just a figment of my childhood insecurities – past a certain point with the sport, a young woman is sort of un-viable as a gymnast, but you don’t find out until you’ve hit puberty. By that time, your teammates and classmates have become your social group, and you’re spending 20-30 hours in the gym every week, and to be informed that you’re not worth the coach’s time anymore (at least in really competitive gyms) means that you lose your social group and your recreational activity, and that’s heartbreaking for an adolescent girl. I knew that, intuitively, too. And gymnastics didn’t seem like it was worth the embarrassment.

Straight-up, though: I was wrong. I should’ve kept going, because gymnastics is one of those rare sports that will build all-around strength, flexibility, balance, focus, and endurance. The skills you learn in gymnastics as a kid can help you in every single other sport. And while you probably won’t be picked to go on to Olympic-level training if you’re a very tall woman with wide hips, wide shoulders, and heavy legs, it doesn’t mean that you will be excluded from the sport once you develop, or that you will be incapable of continuing to make your own progress.

That much was made clear to me when I went to Chicago’s Lakeshore Academy, the only gymnastics gym I could find in the city that provided classes for adults. Which is a shame, because as it turns out, you can become pretty good at gymnastics from scratch even if you start later on in life, and regardless of your body type. Really – there were men and women of a variety of ages and body types in attendance, and their level of skill depended more on how long they’d been attending class than anything else. To be really frank about it, there were a woman and a man in attendance who were on the larger side who were doing backflips and cartwheels into flips and handstands into somersaults and all sorts of things I couldn’t possibly do because I just don’t have the practice, balance, and strength, as it stands. Which I say because if you’re in reasonably good health, it goes to show that your largeness or thinness or whateverness shouldn’t stop you from doing any sport you want to do.

And yeah, I will admit that it felt kind of embarrassing to do tumbling for the very first time in my life, really, in front of a bunch of people who had better upper body strength and less weight in their legs and more practice than I had. I can’t do a handstand. I can’t even do a headstand! I considered it a huge accomplishment for me that I successfully got into and stayed in the position in the header photo – a sort of half-headstand – because I had tried it in yoga in years past and had never quite gotten it. To me, that means that I’m halfway to a headstand, and halfway is as well as I’ve ever done. Hooray! I also made some pretty OK attempts at cartwheels, and found out that I’m pretty good with posture. For a first time, that’s not so bad.

Granted, I also fell sideways more often than not, and I faceplanted hard on the mats (and now have a scrape on my nose), and was generally slow and ungraceful. I commiserated with another first-timer while we lined up for our turn to cartwheel/somersault across the mats, watching other classmates flip and turn and walk on their hands, and when it came our turns we told each other to just go, just try, just keep trying. The coach gave us notes on form as we went along, our classmates were supportive, and I knew no one was going to snicker at us, because at some point they were probably just as inelegant as we were.

I think what I’m starting to intuit about my own “fitness journey” (barf) is that sports grab me when I think they’ll be practical outside the realm of sports. Lifting, for example, will increase my ability to carry heavy things quite apart from barbells. Running is, well, running – it increases endurance and also your ability to catch up to that bus that you just barely missed, among other things. Gymnastics catches me because good posture, good flexibility, good balance, and good overall strength seem like they would just facilitate a more physically comfortable life. That’s what makes all of these things “worth it” to me despite the initial embarrassment. Practice makes perfect, and over time, I will become confident. So, Beginners, the question is, if you’re resistant to start a sport because you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself, what do you value that would make the embarrassment worthwhile and the little victories feel like big accomplishments?

Send me a line at [email protected] and follow me on Facebook. If you’re in Chicago, do check out Lakeshore Academy’s adult class schedule and give it a shot!