Kindergarten for Muscles

by Sarah on April 18, 2015

I talk about parkour a lot, and I worry that somehow people think this means that I’m actually good at it, when in fact I’m often the slowest and weakest in the class and spend a significant portion of my time feeling frustrated as I try to master new skills.

However, one of the things that’s been helping me lately is something the teacher of this tumbling class I’ve been taking told us a few weeks ago:

To paraphrase, she said that you wouldn’t teach calculus to Kindergarteners, and you wouldn’t tell a 5-year-old that they’re stupid because they don’t know how to do calculus. First you have to teach counting, and then arithmetic, and then algebra, and so on and so forth so that, by the time they’re in high school, they have all the foundations they need to be able to access and understand calculus.

And she said that gaining skills in gymnastics is a lot like this; you have to learn to do a forward roll (and a bunch of other things) before you can do a back tuck.

When I try to explain why this felt so profound, people seem to miss the point. They think I’m simply referring to some kind of linearity: A before B. And certainly, when you’re lifting weights in the gym, there is linearity. This week you lift 50 lbs, and in a few weeks you can go up to 60. This is how many of us think about strength and skill gains.

And yet, the more I train parkour, the more I realize that there are other forces at work besides brute strength. Getting from counting to calculus isn’t just a matter of learning more numbers; it’s a matter of synthesis and learning new functions.

As an example, I’ve been working on step vaults, one of the most basic parkour skills, since literally the first day I started, and I’ve struggled with them particularly over rails. And until last month, there were a lot of times when it just felt like I wasn’t getting any closer, despite clearly continuing to gain strength.

And then a few weeks ago, on my 8 month parkour-i-versary, I suddenly was able to get the vault over a rail from the ground. And then again. And again. And while it’s possible that suddenly, on that Wednesday, I had exactly enough strength to finally execute the move, it seems more likely that I’ve probably been strong enough to do this for a while, especially since I was able to do 20+ in a row. Rather than the new skill being the product of a linear strength gain, it was more likely a result of my brain and various neurons finally catching up with my body and being able to synthesize all the parts of the movement; foot up, lift, rotate hips, step through.

A few weeks ago, in fact, one of the female coaches here did a lesson on the step vault where we went over a very small object while practicing really good technique, and I’m convinced that it was her comment about needing to rotate the hips up that eventually percolated in my brain and through my body, resulting in the vault. I had been convinced that I wasn’t strong enough, when actually, my body just hadn’t quite grasped all the functions it needed.

Of course, while this idea that my muscles are still Kindergarteners (or maybe first graders by now?) is really helpful, it also feels frustrating sometimes because I know that many other people come into the class with middle school or high school level abilities. They were encouraged to run and jump and play and explore the world and their bodies throughout their lives, and I was not, both as a function of my size and my perceived gender.

If I had been picked earlier or teased less often in gym, if I had ever made any of the dozens of sports teams I tried out for, if I had learned to jog instead of being thrown into a field once a year and told to run a mile… maybe I would be further along than I am now. If I had seen images of people who looked like me having fun in their bodies, if I had found anyone who had encouraged me to be more athletic, or if I hadn’t been self-conscious of how my stomach stuck out in dance costumes by the age of 8, maybe this would all come a little bit more naturally.

Of course, stressing myself out about never having been Kindergarten isn’t going to help me actually get the skills I need to do to the things I want to do. For me, thinking of this metaphor has been most helpful in getting me to stop focusing on what I can’t do and instead focus on each new baby step in front of me.

And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be able to do the parkour equivalent of differential equations too.

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Fat Kids Can’t Jump

by Sarah on November 29, 2014

In grade school, we used to have to do this thing called the President’s Physical Fitness Test. This was generally sprung on us with no warning, twice a year, and we would suddenly have to demonstrate and be evaluated on our ability to do sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, a standing broad jump, and a run.

Please note that during the rest of the year, we did absolutely no training or conditioning or anything that would help us improve at any of these activities.

The kids who did well at this would go on to various competitions at the county and state levels, and the rest of us would experience varying amounts of shame and stigma for a week or so while this went on and then try to forget it ever happened.

To me now, this seems patently absurd – the equivalent of testing kids on their “innate ability” to do long division twice a year, without actually ever showing them how it works or providing any opportunity to practice.

While I like to think that I’ve always been inclined to movement of various kinds, my innate strength was limited and my body weight was always in the 99th percentile, so I had more work to do than most. Except, we weren’t being tested on our ability to train to do something – we were just being tested on our ability to do it. The rest of the year, we mostly played sports.

What I took away from this was that I can’t. I can’t jump. I can’t run. I can’t be strong. And since nobody really ever expected anything different of me, there wasn’t much need to try or even to care.

So when one of my parkour coaches looked at me yesterday and said, “I think your jump has doubled since I’ve known you,” and I replied with, “I just had to cry out all the years of people telling me I couldn’t jump,” I wasn’t really joking.

Now that I’m an adult who has spent a long number of years learning to love and accept her body, I can approach this all with a very different mentality.

Now I’m curious about what my body can do with training and practice and commitment, and as a result, I’m getting stronger every week.

Now I don’t say, “I can’t,” without amending, “yet.”

There’s no reason I couldn’t have done this same thing twenty years ago with any kind of inspiration or guidance or direction, but for a fat kid, there was none of that to be found.

I’m grateful, as an adult, to have cultivated the ability to say, “Fuck everyone’s expectations,” but I also ache for the kid who never knew how to do that and who thought lack of “innate ability” to jump meant that she couldn’t jump.

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I Did a Thing

September 26, 2014

Eleven weeks ago, I tried my first parkour class. Seven weeks ago, I decided to sign up for a weekend long parkour event happening in Boston. I also made a commitment to myself that I would go to three classes a week between then and the event. I would give my training my all and […]

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How to Treat a Fat Person in a Fitness Class

September 23, 2014

Body image and fitness are so intertwined in the general consciousness that some truly bizzare things can happen when a fat person sets foot into a fitness class. Fat people are often encouraged to work out (which is problematic for many reasons, but not what we’re discussing here), but when many fitness environments are basically […]

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On Intersectionality and Stuff

August 28, 2014

I was all set to kick up the frequency with which I post on here a few weeks ago… …and then Michael Brown (an unarmed teenager) was shot and killed in Ferguson, and I’ve been sick to my stomach ever since. Yes, there is a war on fat people in our society. Yes, married people […]

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Fat Parkour

August 9, 2014

Me: I’m not sure if it’s lack of strength or fear. Coach: Welcome to parkour. It’s probably fear. In case it is not evident from the title of this site,  I am fat. I have been fat my entire life. It wasn’t until two years ago that I stopped thinking of fat as a bad thing, […]

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Subverting the Stereotypes

July 16, 2014

There are a lot of negative stereotypes out there when it comes to singles, and the more confident and vocal I become about relationship issues, the more I find myself able to engage with them out in the wild. Which I have to admit is a hell of a lot of fun. Today, at work, […]

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Singles and Healthcare

July 2, 2014

Since my social media feeds are blowing up with comments about the shit-tastic SCOTUS ruling (and Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s rockin’ dissent) I thought I’d take a moment to talk about singles and how our relationship to healthcare is different and more challenging than coupled folks, and why this decision is extra-frightening for single people in […]

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The Courage of My Own Convictions

June 10, 2014

When you believe a thing that is very different from what most of the world believes, it can be hard to hold on to that belief. And this feels especially true when that belief is so big that it becomes an identity. There seem to be only two good options: silence or flag-bearing. I started […]

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Re-Examining Relationship Anarchy

February 21, 2014

Relationship anarchy, as far as I can tell, is not particularly well defined nor widely documented, but the little I’ve read about the idea has always called to me. I think, in essence, it says that when two people are in a lower-case “r” relationship, that relationship does not have to fit into any pre-existing […]

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