Even the Weak Kids Should Play Sports

Playing sports, Drew Johnson writes, provides valuable lessons for children of every shape and size.

Growing up, I didn’t play sports. My parents put me and my sisters in gymnastics and Taekwondo as kids, but only for a few months. There was too much turmoil and not enough money to support those sorts of extracurricular endeavors for long and, without any parental encouragement to do otherwise, I turned into a very lazy child.

During the school year, I read, a lot, which I’m glad about. I also went to camp every summer until I was 15. For five weeks I was forced to use my pale and flabby body to actually do things besides flip a page or thumb a remote. I hiked, mountain biked, rock climbed, kayaked, canoed, shot guns, and rode horses. I was terrible at all of it, but I did those things—with my clumsy, flabby body—and, before I joined the swim team, those early challenges were the highlight of my physical experience.

Then, one day, during a class in the fall of my sophomore year of high school, a girl asked me if I wanted to join the swim team. I’ve always been better with women than men; I have a lot of sisters, and men traumatized me throughout my childhood. This girl wasn’t super hot, but she was hot enough, and we’d flirted quite a bit during most of freshman year. I was flattered when she asked me if I wanted to join her sport and, to be honest, I wanted to impress her. I said I’d give it a try.

The coach held open tryouts during the first week of swim practice, and I showed up on the first day.

“Do you know how to swim,” he asked.

“Sure.”

“OK, let’s see.”

I wore baggy neon-green trunks under my jeans, and I stripped down to my suit right there on the pool deck. He watched as I took off my shirt, and I saw his face fall when he took in my flabby frame. I’d never lifted weights in my life, never ran, hadn’t shot a basketball or swung a bat in years. I doubt I could’ve done a dozen push-ups, and a pull-up was beyond the realm of possibility.

He let out a sigh and said, “Jump in and swim four laps.”

I have no memory of how well I swam. I know now that, at the time, I actually didn’t know how to swim. At all. I could flail at the water and stay afloat, but that was it. After the fourth lap I jumped out of the pool and asked the coach if I could stay.

“OK,” he said. “Practice is every day at 3:00. Don’t be late.”

Where this all came from, I have no idea. I’m not a joiner. Groups freak me out. Aggression and competition are abhorrent. I even hate board games because I hate losing and get so anxious when I’m winning that I’ll sabotage myself to not have to deal with the stress of being in the lead.

Yes, I’m a neurotic mess.

I went home after that first day and told my mom I’d joined the swim team. “Really?” she said. “That’s interesting.”

My mother is an athlete. She played tennis in high school, and swam, ran, and rode bikes throughout our childhood. She’s still an avid bicyclist, who puts in at least 100 miles every week. Family lore has it that she was swimming laps on the day before she gave birth to me and my twin sister. I would have hoped for more enthusiastic support from her, but she had her own shit going on. Parenthood is tough.

I’m not sure when I told my father, but we weren’t close, and I wasn’t eager to share something I was excited about with him. This is the man who, when I told him I wanted to play football and learn how to box, found a doctor who told me my physiology wouldn’t permit those kinds of activities. Yeah, parenthood is tough, but some dads are just dickheads.

Swimming is perfect for loners because it is the quintessential individual sport. Unlike running, in which you can see your opponents to your right and left, in the pool your eyes are glued to the black stripe running down the center of your lane. During swim meets, you race to win points for your team, but winning meets isn’t the point of racing. The point is to swim faster than you swam previously. This is not to say that it doesn’t feel good to win races, or meets for that matter. But swimmers measure success in seconds, and, when I got fast enough for this to matter, I could lose a race but feel like I’d won because I shaved time off my record.

None of that mattered, though, during my first year. Times, records, winning—all of that came later, and when it came, when I became a vaguely successful swimmer, it was a very modest success.

♦◊♦

I only have the haziest memories of those early practices. Coach divided us into lanes, with the slowest in lane one and the fastest in lane six. I, naturally, was in the slowest lane with the other new recruits. Practice was two hours long, and coach spent a little time directing us on technique and teaching us drills that would help us learn the strokes. For example, to learn freestyle, you slow your stroke down dramatically, starting with your hand aligned with your outer thigh, and dragging your thumb up your side until it reaches your shoulder and then shooting your arm out in front of you. Repeat on the other side.

To learn flip-turns, we practiced flipping forward in the water, over and over and over, until we were so comfortable with the motion that we could begin to combine it with forward motion. To make butterfly—by far the most difficult stroke—teachable, coach had us do the stroke one side at a time: swing your right arm out, dolphin kick, swing it forward, dolphin kick, repeat on the left. Breast stroke and back stroke were easier to learn but, at first, we drilled endlessly on freestyle, learning proper stroke mechanics.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At the end of a two-hour practice, my legs would feel like jelly and I could barely pull myself out of the pool. One of the upperclassmen would drive me home, and I’d collapse into my bed to sleep for an hour. When my mother came home I’d eat (and eat and eat), do my homework, and pass out.

And most of the first year was like that. I got better, but barely. When the season started, coach entered me in events for which he needed a swimmer—not for which I had any talent. This meant that, at least once a week, I swam the 500 free and the 100 fly. This also meant that, for the first year of my athletic career, I placed last in almost every event I swam. At one meet, we had to swim in a pool with longer lanes than I was used to (our home pool was 25 yards, whereas most indoor high-school swim teams have 25 meter pools), and by the end of my heat of the 100 fly I could barely lift my arms out of the water. I finished the event flailing through the pool, all semblance of form and grace sunk into blue water.

I got out of the pool, went to the school’s locker room, sat on a bench, and wept. I wanted to quit—had wanted to quit since the first week of practice—but didn’t know if I could. Somewhere deep inside myself I’d made a promise that I’d see this thing through, and I refused to run away because it was hard. My then-girlfriend—a senior and also the prom queen who, to this day, I have no idea what was doing with this skinny loser—came into the boys’ locker room and sat with me while I cried it out. Then I washed my face off, went back to my team, waited for my turn to swim the 500 free, and finished last.

♦◊♦

Then, the next year, I started to get better. I grew a couple more inches over the summer, giving my body the length necessary to start developing a polished stroke. I turned into a backstroker and a middle-distance freestyler, and my go-to events became the 100 back and 200 free. I still wasn’t great, but I stopped finishing last and, finally, I started winning points for my team. More importantly, my times started dropping. I would never be strong, nor would I ever be the fastest swimmer on my team. My twin sister, a natural-born athlete, joined the team during my junior year and within a couple weeks was competing with the fastest girls. One of my best friends, a 6’4” country-boy named Jeremiah, likewise joined the team and within a month had blown past all my times.

I didn’t care. I relished what was happening to my body. Our team would lift weights a couple times a week before practice. A year before, I’d struggled to yoke out three pull-ups. By my junior year, I could do 15 without stopping. My mom’s boyfriend game me an old weight set he never used, and I would do curls with a 65-pound bar.

Along with the strength came profound, blissful exhaustion. After practice, my friends would stop at the convenience store and buy five dollars of junk food each, which we’d gorge ourselves on before going home and passing out before dinner. Most nights I slept straight through, waking only occasionally when a cramp shot excruciating pain up my calf or thigh.

Teachers were lenient with athletes, and for some reason we swimmers got a pass for sleeping in class. The team became very close—girls and guys—and we all hung out together. For the first time in my life, I was part of a community that I loved. I became close friends with several of the guys on the team, and dated a handful of the girls. We were playful, but also hard on each other, like siblings, and coach was a surrogate father to most of us.

I decided to skip camp after my junior year, and spent that summer swimming with a private team. I got faster. We all got faster. By my senior year, there were several standout swimmers on my team—but I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t care. I swam in the relays with the other seniors, and our relay squad could compete with all but the two fastest schools in the city.

For the first time in my life, I felt strong. Each stroke was a physical miracle, propelling my body through the water with a force that surprised me. Practices that used to wipe me out now felt like warm ups, and coach started tacking on more and more distance to wear us down. I got good at fly, and goddamn if it doesn’t actually feel like flying when you do it well, like your body’s actually skipping like a stone above the surface of the water.

By the mid-point of the year, I was winning races against schools of similar size. Numerous times, in the 200 free and 100 back, I finished my heat not just body lengths but, on occasion, entire pool lengths ahead of my competitors. One day a girl I knew stopped me in the hall of my high school to say, “Drew, you look different. Your forearm is all veiny. It looks cool.”

♦◊♦

That season, I qualified for the state championships in the 100 back and as part of the 400 free relay. Our relay team made it through a few heats before getting eliminated. A friend on the team, Justin, and I had competed all year to have the faster 100 back time, and we both qualified to swim in the same heat at the state meet. The pool was huge, and there were swimmers in our heat who looked gigantic, like they were in college. We jumped in the water and grabbed the starter bar above the deck to prepare to start the race.

“Swimmers take your mark. Beep!”

We swam our hearts out, but it was a strange pool and I missed both my turns. Justin and I tied for last place in our heat.

And that was pretty much the end of my career as an athlete. It seems pathetic, as I read back over it, but it wasn’t. This wasn’t like losing the big game and letting down the whole school. Swimming showed me something. It taught me about strength, and speed, and about the beauty of practicing hour after hour to do a thing well.

I think that’s called grace. In those moments when I glided through—above—the water, I had access to something that most of us only have a few glimpses of throughout our lives. It’s something most of us only have the luxury to partake in as children, when we have enough disposable time to devote to the singular, focused pursuit of mastering a difficult subject.

For most boys, especially the weak ones, these experiences can change our lives. Being excellent, or just grasping at it, teaches us what we’re supposed to aim for in our work, or relationships, our marriages, and with our children. Working hard at sports teaches us how to be good. It can make us men.

—Photo Geomangio/Flickr

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About Drew Johnson

Drew Johnson is an online editor living in San Francisco. He grew up in Oklahoma and thinks you should read Lonesome Dove.

Comments

  1. Marcus Williams says:

    You make me wish I’d tried swimming. I was the weak kid who liked playing sports, but never developed a physique or talent for being good at sports, so my childhood experiences were characterized by being one of those kids that coaches only played the minimum allowable, and then got stuck in positions where I could do the least damage. As a result, I had a little fun but never really felt that team camaraderie that so many people talk about. As an adult, I finally gave team sports another try and now love playing hockey and finally get what some of the camaraderie is about, but I still feel like an outsider at times when it comes to “competitive spirit” and caring about winning, because neither of those things ever led to positive sports experiences for me.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. CajunMick says:

    A very nice story.
    Not the way it turned for me. I was a REALLY small kid. So small, I didn’t hit the 5 ft mark until my junior year in high school. You can imagine the fun I had in school.
    My family made me play little league for one year. My step-father thought it would toughen me up.
    I was horrible, it was horrible. I literally was the worst player on the wors team. While in the car on the way to the ballfield, I used to beg to not play baseball anymore. I’ve never begged for anything else in my life. I guess I learned then it wan’t effective.
    I’d like to say, like Mr.Johnson, that is got better. I gradually became a better baseball player and the team grew to accept me. Nope. I didn’t and they didn’t.
    I did my time and was released back in the wild.
    It really was the wild. We lived in a very rural area, and I liked to hike, explore the forest. I’d bring a PBnJ and a book. I’d read out in the woods and observe the life I saw around me.
    Actually, there was one person who I felt more pity for than I did for myself.
    It was my younger brother, who played on the same team.
    He was, by far, the best player on the team. He was a natural athlete, and it must’ve been really hard on him to be surrounded by the worst players in our league.
    I have a son now. When he was smaller, his mother and step-father signed him up for T-Ball. As I sat in the stands, I watched my son stare at sky, pick flowers and other plants from the playing field. He looked at everything, but the game. His eyes followed everything but the game.
    I thought to myself, “That’s MY son.” I couldn’t have been prouder.

  3. Great article. If we are lucky at some point in life we find a sport or physical activity that we are good at and enjoy. For me it was handball in my teens and soccer in my thirties. At every other sport I always was and still am crap.

  4. Drew said, “For most boys, especially the weak ones, these experiences can change our lives. Being excellent, or just grasping at it, teaches us what we’re supposed to aim for in our work, or relationships, our marriages, and with our children. Working hard at sports teaches us how to be good. It can make us men.”

    I must dissent. I have a real problem with the coercive aspects of the sports culture. When I refer to “sports culture,” I’m not referring to the athletic events themselves. I’m referring to the culture that is associated with the games, but is not inherently a part of them. (By the way, a culture can be changed.) And the only sports I’m referring to are the most popular of the school sports.

    Some men have never had an interest in sports. The sports culture is so pervasive that masculinity is now defined in terms of physical strength and athletic prowess. I’m sick and tired of it.

    Just for the record, I am physically active. For several years now I’ve been working with a personal trainer at a local health club on a bodybuilding program. I enjoy working out immensely. I rejoice that I’m now enjoying what was denied to me as I was growing up. I certainly recognize the need for physical exercise to avoid developing health problems, but I’m sick and tired of the machismo that’s so prevalent in sports. High levels of physical fitness can be achieved without participating in any sport. I have a “live and let live” attitude towards people in general, but I often see an intolerance directed against nonathletic guys by more than a few of those in the sports crowd.

    I’m 61 years old. When I was a boy, none of the mandatory boys’ P.E. classes provided any exercise programs for nonathletic boys. During the years I had to endure mandatory “sports only” P.E. from the fourth grade through junior high school, I never so much as heard the words “exercise program” from any of my P.E. teachers or coaches. The way nonathletic boys were often mistreated in those classes is an untold story because no one cared what happened. None of my P.E. teachers or coaches would give a nonathletic boy the time of day. Their attitude was one of indifference or outright contempt. I am not exaggerating. Not only was there no instruction in how to become physically fit through some sort of exercise program; but also there was hardly any instruction in the sports themselves, as if all boys already knew how to play the games. Weak boys were often subjected to the worst kind of bullying in these classes. We’re talking about young boys emotionally scarred for life. Here’s an interesting question: When has the issue of the bullying of nonathletic kids in such P.E. classes ever been seriously examined by anyone? I’ve done some research and have discovered that nonathletic boys who had to endure the old P.E. (which should have been an elective from the very beginning instead of being mandatory) were DISCOURAGED from becoming physically active in their early adulthood. (Speaking for myself, I didn’t join a health club until I was 57 years old.) This is the way to promote physical fitness?

    Today the old P.E. is still with us in some school districts. In recent years there has been a movement to stop imposing sports on nonathletic kids who aren’t interested in them and provide genuine fitness programs for them instead.

    I’ve heard the claim, for example, that football builds character; yet I’ve personally seen more than a few examples to the contrary. Incidentally, I have several close friends who played football when they were in high school who are quite decent. So, I’m not meaning to make a stereotype here; but this needs to be said.

    Frequently school athletes are not held accountable for the way they treat others when the game is over. I grew up with a former university football player who was an arrogant bully. He once beat up a friend of mine who was so short that he was having to take injections of growth hormone. I noticed that many of the football fans were indifferent about this player’s bullying. Even my best friend (who, incidentally, had never met the player or even attended any of his schools) denied that what I told him was true. At our rival high school in the district, one of the football players (whom I had admired when we attended the same junior high school) tormented a mentally retarded student at the school. Bullying a mentally retarded person is particularly despicable, but did the player’s shameful misconduct affect his popularity? Not at all! A friend of mine at that same high school once had the door to his locker deliberately slammed on his right hand by an upperclassman who was a football player. He had to keep his right hand (which was the one he wrote with) in a cast for two weeks. Even though he had identified the player to the school nurse, the player was never disciplined. I could go on and on. (Incidentally, when do sportswriters ever report such incidents?)

    If a boy will feel better about himself if he participates in a sport, I say, “Go for it!” I don’t doubt that individual men have benefited in certain ways from having participated in one or more sports when they were kids, but that certainly doesn’t mean that those of us who didn’t are somehow deficient or inferior as a result. In fact, I resent the insinuation. I resent the idea that I’m supposedly not a complete man because I didn’t participate in sports. I reject the notion that boys who choose to not participate in sports are somehow “lazy.” There have been men of great courage who never participated in sports, but don’t tell that to anyone like Dennis Miller or Colin Cowherd.

    Beginning at an early age (all the way back to when I was in kindergarten, as a matter of fact), I began to learn from my own personal experience that the sports culture is often of a cruel, adversarial nature to nonathletic boys; and what I’ve heard over the years from other nonathletic guys has only reinforced my conviction.

  5. Hong Williams says:

    My son is 11 years old with low muscle tone. He was not good with any sports. However, he started to play in swimming pool since about 5 or 6 years old. Recently I encouraged him to take swimming lesson. Comparing to the other kids in the same swimming class, he was certainly in the bottom level. I almost gave up. Thanks for your writing, I will let him continue his swimming, although he is not good at it.

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