“Don’t overthink it!” I hear this a lot in my martial arts classes. True to form, now I’m overthinking overthinking. Or am I? I’m getting my head around the difference between athletes and people like me.
It’s also the difference between anyone who is “natural” at anything and those who aren’t.
What am I doing in class that qualifies as “overthinking”? I’m asking questions when I’m doing something wrong, for instance trying to block a head shot and instead smacking myself in the face. What “everyone else” is doing is practicing the block over and over.
Makes sense, right?
The part that doesn’t really make sense is why an otherwise intelligent person would keep showing up in a room only to make hundreds of mistakes and punch herself in the eye with a boxing glove.
This is the essence of growth mindset versus fixed mindset. I’m in the room because I believe I can be taught, eventually, despite all evidence to the contrary. I believe it is necessary to my wellbeing to push myself to learn new things. I believe strength comes from facing obstacles and overcoming them.
“Everyone else” is there for more or less the same reasons: enjoying the difficult workout, needing an outlet for intense competitive drive and physicality, or simply loving martial arts culture.
Why are my fellow students grasping things so much more quickly than I do?
A young man in my classes hit upon it the other day. He’s young enough to be my son and he started training as a beginner around the time I got into the advanced class. He’s already better than I am.
“Did you do sports in school?”
I explained that when I was in school, girls weren’t allowed to play sports because Title IX wasn’t being enforced. The only option for us was girls’ softball, but that was a league sport.
“That makes no sense,” he said, mystified, and then explained why he had asked. He had two female friends who wanted him to teach them how to skateboard. One got it right away, and she had a sports background. The other, a musician, struggled terribly. He saw it as a matter of time spent rather than a matter of aptitude.
I’ve thought about this for a long time, and it’s interesting that it would be obvious to a young person. My husband, for instance, started on athletics as a preschooler. He can’t even remember exactly when he got on the swim team. It’s just always been a part of his life. He participated in every possible sport offered in his region.
Does swimming at age five have anything to do with swinging a sword at age forty? Evidently!
What all these “natural” athletes have that I don’t is a track record. (Sometimes literally on the track team!). They were up and moving their bodies at a younger age. Every year of our lives, these “natural” athletes have spent a significant part of their day in motion while I sat on my butt reading a book.
They acquired what I have to learn. It did NOT come “naturally” - it came from deliberate practice. It came from doing different things as children. It wasn’t always even their choice; their parents may have pressured them and insisted that they do stuff they deeply loathed doing.
In some cases, they’ve built a different physical framework than I have. For instance, my thirteen-year-old training partner is shockingly heavy for her size. If someone told me she had a titanium skeleton, I wouldn’t be surprised. She’s been practicing martial arts since the age of three, and her bones are undoubtedly denser than those of another child. Her body composition is also probably much more muscular and lower in fat.
These “natural” athletes have been building better cardiovascular fitness all this time. By ‘fitness’ I mean that exercise actually grows more blood vessels and expands the lungs, among other changes. While I was sitting around reading for thousands of hours, I was not building that same infrastructure.
The biggest difference is in proprioception, I’m sure of it. My classmates are able to watch something demonstrated once, maybe twice, and then copy it. I watch the same movements and I’m completely befuddled. I have to see the same motions at least five times before I start to get it. Often I’ll misremember whether to go left or right.
I have trouble knowing where my body parts are. I can only seem to track three out of four limbs. If I’m moving both legs and grabbing someone, my other hand seems to float off on its own. After a year I’m still being constantly reminded to keep my hands up. In my mind, I am! I can’t tell when my butt is sticking out. It feels like motions that should be in 3D are only 2D for me. What I’m worst at is moving with my face blocked, when I can’t see what I’m doing.
What I have is like being tone-deaf, which I’m not, or having a tin ear for languages, which I don’t. Colorblind, I’m not either. I’m fairly good at yoga, probably because I’ve spent so long in two dozen familiar poses over the years. I’m competent at ballroom dancing because I went to the kind of dance school where you drill the box step hundreds of times and learn where to put your arms separately. What I’m telling myself is that I’m already good at certain things, because I spent time on them when I was younger, and I’m not yet good at other things, because they are new to me.
I seem to be overthinking things in class because I lack the facility to copy what I see. This is strange to sporty types who have done it all their lives. They can’t understand why not everyone can do it. They don’t understand why everyone isn’t like them. They’ve never experienced being awkward or inept in the kinetic world. To them, it isn’t a subject of study. This is part of why I stay in a class where objectively I don’t belong, because I have as much to teach as I have to learn. If they can teach me, they can teach anyone.
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.
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