“Don’t overthink it.” This is something I hear in martial arts class all the time, maybe even as often as once per class. I understand why. That doesn’t really make it easier, because what’s happening is complicated, at least from my end. I’m trying to learn what other people have acquired naturally. From their perspective, it looks like I’m adding unnecessary layers of complexity to something easy. If I didn’t overthink it, I wouldn’t still be training.
Overthinking is my way of explaining something to myself that is otherwise confusing.
As the “last kid chosen for team sports,” small for my age and young for my grade, I was slow and awkward. This is automatically reinforcing. Those of us who felt humiliated and out of place in gym class tend to quit exercise for life. Our reluctance to be active in any way, shape, or form means that we deliberately miss out on the hundreds or thousands of instances when other, more active kids are practicing physical skills. We think they’re “natural” at it when really, they just put in 100x or 1000x more effort into this stuff, starting in early childhood.
As adults, when we set out to do something about this sorry state of affairs, we’re trying to build physical and athletic skills that a “natural” or “real” athlete might have mastered by the age of eight.
What kinds of skills?
Internalizing the rules of various games and sports
Vascularity, lung capacity, bone density, muscle strength
Eyes adjusted to bright sunlight
Stoicism as regarding bad weather
Tolerance of boredom and repetition
Linguistic adaptation to jock lingo
Awareness of altered states derived from athletic pursuits
Respect for achievements of athletes, both professional and amateur
Curiosity about one’s own athletic potential
I didn’t have much or any of that as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. I had nothing but contempt for people who liked that sort of thing, having felt bullied by mean kids and gym teachers. I had nothing but disgust for the idea of getting all sweaty and dirty and somehow being absorbed into some sports cult. I had no idea what I was missing. Now, as an adult, I just really wish I had figured out a different approach.
All I can do now is to be patient with myself and keep trying. That’s why I’m still doing this thing they call “overthinking it.”
To an experienced athlete - I won’t say “natural” because I understand that this is something taught - every athletic pursuit is like dancing. They see and know what to do. If someone throws a ball, they can run toward it and catch it, because they’ve developed their proprioception and depth perception and all of that. They also feel a connection in those situations. If someone is throwing a ball, that is an invitation to a kind of party. My dog would agree. He doesn’t need to overthink anything involving a ball.
An athlete can watch someone go through a set of physical movements and then copy them. Actors are trained in this as well. I remember in grade school that a theater troupe visited and put on a show for us. They invited volunteers from the audience to walk across the stage, and then one of the actors would follow them and mimic their walk. It was hysterical, an innocent and playful trick that involves the same proprioception used by athletes and dancers.
For someone like me, a bookish and late-blooming middle-aged athlete, copying someone else’s movements is really, really confusing and challenging.
This happens in every class. I’ll watch a demonstration between the instructor and a partner, either another student or one of the other instructors. Then we’ll break into pairs and take turns going through the forms. My partner will usually get it right. I will somehow manage to combine the motions of both parties. I’ll strike with the opposite arm, step forward when I was supposed to step backward, step right when I should have stepped left, and on and on. One of my best tricks is to “bob and weave” directly into a punch instead of away from it.
Instructors are always rushing over to help. They can take one look at me - one single look! In one single split second! - and instantly see that once again, I’ve gotten myself all mixed up.
It was the same in ballroom dance. I was trying to learn the basic steps of the rumba. My dance teacher paused and asked what was going on, why I was struggling with this. I said, “My third leg keeps getting in the way.” “Your... third... leg? Your THIRD LEG?” He was incredulous. In my poor overthinking mind, it felt true. I did eventually get it, and in fact with tons of practice I became a pretty fair ballroom dancer. I just had to practice a lot more than most people. I practiced those three basic rumba steps at the bus stop, at work, in my kitchen, while brushing my teeth, hundreds and hundreds of times until it entered my body memory.
I’d do the same with boxing combos if only there weren’t so darn many of them...
I’m not so great at watching someone and copying them. I am pretty good, though, at talking to myself. I’m also good at communicating and asking questions, and I’m not ashamed or reluctant to do so. I can explain, “Oh, I see, I missed that step to the left and that’s why I was striking with the wrong arm” or whatever other blunder I just made. Thinking in text helps me to visualize and remind myself of what I should be doing. Also, I count, just like I did when I played clarinet in band class.
It isn’t hopeless. We’re never too old, or too clumsy, or too awkward, or too dorky. At least we aren’t if we believe we aren’t. We can draw upon our other strengths to help us learn to do these new things. As we keep at it, eventually we find that people think we are “natural” at it as well. Some time after that, maybe it even becomes true.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.