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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