I’ve hated sports for most of my life. And like with other kinds of hatred, what’s underneath it is fear. My athletophobia is tied up with fear of letting people down, fear of failure, fear of not being good enough. Those basically represent three of my top fears right there, actualized by the prospect of sport.
The secret to overcoming athletophobia is to find something you don’t hate, and then do that. I know: it’s not rocket science. You probably know this already. But I only learned it the year I turned 40 and took up swimming.
At an early age, I discovered I was terrible at every sport they made me do. My parents, athletophobes themselves, did not push. But at school, teachers made me. I stood too close to home plate during T-ball, gazing at the clouds instead of the game, and got whacked in the eye with the bat. In floor hockey, I flailed around, slapping the plastic stick on the gym floor while praying no one would pass to me. In basketball, I stumbled down the court, thrilled that no one was getting in my way, overcome with joy when the ball actually whooshed into the net. Ecstatic, I threw my arms up and turned to my team, ready to be lifted onto their shoulders. “Wrong basket, you idiot!” “You scored on your own team!” And I count that moment among my sports victories.
As an adult, I have dabbled in yoga and love nature walks, but beyond that, I never saw myself enjoying anything remotely sport-adjacent – until I started swimming.
It took me a long while to actually get myself to the pool; like, years. In 2007, a wise therapist observed I might really enjoy swimming. I ignored her. A year and a half ago, as though it were my own idea, I decided: I’m going to try swimming.
I’ve always loved being in water. The sounds, and then how it gets quiet underneath. The power of pulling yourself through the water. The floating that feels close to flying.
I took swimming lessons as a kid but I quit in grade seven, after a grade three kid whooshed past me in the pool, fast and smooth. Sometimes in my classes now somebody whooshes past me. I won’t lie to you: I still don’t love that. But so far, it isn’t enough to make me quit. Because not only am I not afraid of swimming, I actually love it.
Getting into the water gets me out of my head. Showing up on winter evenings is a triumph in itself, and so is the particular kind of tired satisfaction that comes afterwards. The smell of chlorine, my little swimming kit with cap and goggles and quick-dry towel, new swimming suits. Having something just for me, and feeling myself getting better at it over time.
Of course I know exercise is good for mood. Everybody’s been telling me that for years: my friends. Science. The world. I agreed – intellectually, at least. But I finally get it now. I faced my athletophobia by jumping in the pool. It might have taken me to middle age to get my suit on, but better late than never, right?
By Rebecca Higgins
Rebecca Higgins is a writer and mental health educator in Toronto. Her first book of short stories, The Colours of Birds, is out now. For more information about her mental health work, visit her at www.mentalhealthworkshopstoronto.com