Feeling uncoordinated shouldn’t mean you can’t participate in sports

Children who avoid physical activities at higher risk of anxiety and depression, occupational therapist says

Carmen Chavez spent much of her life avoiding sports. Her aversion, she said, stemmed from the embarrassment of school gym class. As more athletic girls slammed volleyballs across the net, she worried about tripping or being hit by a ball. To avoid playing, she often sat on the sidelines and acted as the announcer.

For years after, she told herself she was simply too clumsy for ballgames. But a year ago, Chavez, now aged 26, began playing basketball with a friend and discovered she’s pretty good at shooting and dribbling. Perhaps more important, she enjoys it.

“Being afraid, being avoidant, did me more harm than good,” said Chavez, who said she is still so clumsy that she has the occasional crash. “I’m trying to stop letting my clumsiness intimidate me from being active.”

About one-in-20 school-age kids have a developmental co-ordination disorder, which can persist into adulthood. Jill Zwicker, a researcher and occupational therapist, said the disorder may be why many people develop a long-standing dislike of sports and exercise.

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This is important because even just feeling a little uncoordinated can have tangible effects on people’s lives. Children who avoid physical activities are at a higher risk of anxiety and depression, Zwicker said. A study of thousands of British children also found that kids whose teachers described them as uncoordinated were more likely to become obese as adults.

But feeling uncoordinated, either as a kid or an adult, doesn’t mean you can’t still be an athlete.

Clumsiness starts in the brain

There’s no question that some of us – professional athletes and dancers – are inherently more co-ordinated than others, said Gary Wilkerson, a sports injury researcher and professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

The ability to spin a basketball on your finger or return a fast tennis serve comes from how efficiently the brain can communicate across nodes and networks controlling things like vision, motor control and decision-making, as well as between the brain’s right and left hemispheres, Prof Wilkerson said. “If those don’t sync well, you’re clumsy,” he said.

The good news is that nervous tissue in the brain and spinal cord is very good at adapting and changing. In the same way that some stroke patients can relearn to walk, uncoordinated people can learn new sports and activities with focus and practice. In other words, clumsiness, Prof Wilkerson said, is “very correctable.”

Question beliefs about yourself

The first step is to question the story you’ve been telling yourself, said Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist who specialises in human performance.

As with Chavez, most people’s beliefs about athletic abilities crystallise in the teenage years, and that dictates how they engage with athletics in their lives, he said. People lock in this identity early on that they’re not capable, “usually because gym class in school was so embarrassing”.

Believing you’re incapable or clumsy can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads people to disengage. To reframe these beliefs, think of your abilities as an experience rather than an identity: “I can be athletic,” for example, instead of “I am not an athlete.”

Then summon the will to try something new that holds your interest. Remind yourself that you are not who you once were. “If you can’t challenge your beliefs, you’re not going to have the courage to begin, and then you’re not giving your brain the opportunity for change,” Ross said.

Prioritise sleep and calm the mind

It might seem simple, but a good night’s sleep, or even a nap before a workout can improve performance, regardless of how klutzy you are.

In fact, one small study suggests that lack of sleep is as bad as drinking just beforehand when it comes to co-ordination. Another found that the less sleep university students got, the less control they had while walking on a treadmill.

Stress, too, is a factor. It makes us distracted, which slows the brain’s information processing speed, said Charles Swanik, an athletic trainer and professor of kinesiology and applied psychology at the University of Delaware.

Under stress, the brain can become too excitable, he said, causing tension in the muscles. When muscles get tense, normally smooth movements are replaced with exaggerated ones. To reduce this, Swanik said, before physical activity, focus on calming your mind and body, through music, deep breathing or mindfulness.

Seek out clear instructions

Say you want to take up pickleball or a martial art. Every time you serve or throw a punch, the connections in your brain are getting strengthened. But if you are less co-ordinated, it’s especially important that you are practising the correct, precise movements.

People with co-ordination problems often also benefit from explicit instructions in steps, because motor learning doesn’t come as naturally, Zwicker said. For example, first balance on the bike, then put the left foot on the pedal. A rote script to repeat to yourself can be helpful, she said. If you’re learning to swim: “Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe,” she said.

People who struggle with co-ordination also tend to do better with less competitive, non-team-based sports like martial arts, Zwicker said. “You’re still with other people, but you are your own yardstick. You’re working on your own set of skills and progressions.”

Lastly, when it comes to new sports, choose one with fewer distractions, where you can focus. Instead of soccer or football, which can feel chaotic, try tennis or running, Swanik said.

Transforming clumsiness into smoothness isn’t easy, and there are limits. While the klutzes of the world might not become Olympic athletes, they can get all the fun and benefits of a good workout. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times

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