Carmen Chavez has spent much of her life avoiding sports. Her dislike, she says, stemmed from being embarrassed in high school gym class. While more athletic girls cut high balls in volleyball, she worried about tripping or getting hit by a ball. To avoid the game, she would often stay on the sidelines and act as an announcer.
For several years afterward, she told herself that she was simply too clumsy for ball games. But a year ago Chávez, now 26, started playing basketball with a friend and discovered that she is very good at shooting and dribbling. Perhaps more importantly, she likes to gamble.
“Being afraid, being evasive, has done me more harm than good,” says Chávez, who says she is still so clumsy that every now and then she has an accident. “I’m trying to stop letting my clumsiness keep me from being active.”
About 6% of school-aged children have a developmental coordination disorder, also known as “clumsy child syndrome”, which can persist into adulthood. Jill Zwicker, researcher and occupational therapist at the University of British Columbia (Canada), indicates that the disorder may be why many people develop a lasting dislike for sports and exercise.
This is important because even feeling a little uncoordinated can have tangible effects on people’s lives. Children who avoid physical activity are at greater risk for anxiety and depression, says Zwicker. A study of thousands of British children also found that those whose teachers described them as uncoordinated were more likely to become obese as adults.
But feeling uncoordinated, whether as a child or an adult, doesn’t mean you can’t be an athlete.
Clumsiness starts in the brain
There’s no question that some of us — professional athletes and dancers — are inherently more coordinated than others, says Gary Wilkerson, a sports injury researcher and professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.
The ability to spin a basketball over a finger or return a quick tennis serve comes from the efficiency with which the brain communicates across nodes and networks that control things like vision, motor activity, and decision-making, as well as between the hemispheres. right and left brain, Wilkerson points out.
“If they don’t sync well, you’re clumsy,” he adds.
The good news is that nerve tissue in the brain and spinal cord is very good at adapting and changing. Just as some stroke (stroke) patients can learn to walk again, uncoordinated people can learn new sports and activities, with focus and practice. In other words, clumsiness, says Wilkerson, is “very correctable.”
Question beliefs about yourself
The first step to overcoming awkwardness is to question the story you tell yourself, says Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist who specializes in human performance.
Like Chávez, most people’s beliefs about their athletic abilities crystallize in adolescence, and this determines how they engage with athletics in their lives, he points out. People get stuck in this identity they’re not capable of from an early age, “usually because gym class in elementary or high school was so embarrassing.”
Believing that you are inept or clumsy can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that causes people to disengage. To reframe these beliefs, think of your abilities as an experience rather than an identity: “I can be athletic,” for example, rather than “I’m not an athlete.”
Then find the will to try something new that holds your interest. Remember that you are not who you once were.
“If you can’t challenge your beliefs, you won’t have the courage to start and you won’t be giving your brain the opportunity to change,” says Ross.
Prioritize sleep and calm the mind
It may sound simple, but a good night’s sleep or even a nap before a workout can improve performance, no matter how clumsy you are. In fact, one small study suggests that a lack of sleep is just as bad as drinking when it comes to coordination. Another found that the less college students slept, the less control they had when walking on a treadmill.
Stress is also a factor. It makes us distracted, which slows down the brain’s information processing speed, says Charles Swanik, athletic trainer and professor of kinesiology and applied psychology at the University of Delaware.
Under stress, the brain can become very excitable, he says, causing muscles to tense up. When muscles become tense, normally smooth movements are replaced by exaggerated movements. To reduce this, Swanik recommends, before physical activity, focus on calming your mind and body through music, deep breathing, or mindfulness.
look for clear instructions
Let’s say you want to practice “pickleball” [uma espécie de tênis] or a martial art. Every time you serve or punch, the connections in your brain are strengthened. But if you are less coordinated it is especially important to practice correct and precise movements.
People with coordination problems often benefit from explicit step-by-step instruction as well, because motor learning doesn’t come naturally, says Zwicker. For example, balance on the bike first, then place your left foot on the pedal. A script to repeat to yourself can be helpful, she suggests. If you’re learning to swim, you can try: “Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe,” he recommends.
People who struggle with coordination also tend to do better in less competitive, non-team-based sports like martial arts, Zwicker points out. “You’re still with other people, but you’re your own yardstick. You’re working on your own skill set and progress.”
Finally, when it comes to new sports, pick one with fewer distractions that you can focus on. Instead of soccer or football, which can feel chaotic, try tennis or running, Swanik says.
Turning clumsiness into integration isn’t easy, and there are limits. But if the clumsiest of the world can’t become Olympic athletes, they can get all the fun and benefits of good exercise.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves