How Early Experiences With Sports Shape How We Feel About Fitness in the Future

Photo: Getty/Delmaine Donson

As an adult, I enjoy working out, but this certainly wasn't the case when I was a teen. "Who likes being a sweaty mess, anyway?" I used to tell myself. I thought that I hated sport, but in retrospect, I actually hated the toxic culture surrounding high school sport: the lack of teamwork and the focus on winning above all else. Field day was especially competitive. The majority of it involved running—never my forte—and there wasn't any trampolining, no squash, no netball, and no rowing machines, which I was better at. It felt mundane, and I grew tired.

"What's the point of me being here?" I wondered to myself as a group of girls shouted at me for "not running fast enough" during a relay race. Because the events at my high school solely focused on speed rather than other pillars that make good athletes, I always felt pressured to perform and discouraged when I didn't do as well as I would have liked. So, after I left high school, I didn't get involved in sports for a while, because I was under the assumption that I would hate them. I'd confused my dislike of people's competitiveness with a dislike for sport itself.

Experts In This Article

Research from the National Alliance for Youth Sports shows that around 70 percent of children in the United States drop out of sports by the time they turn 13 years old because it is not fun. For this reason, Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, a certified mental performance consultant, emphasizes that it is important to shift the focus from defining success as winning or losing to have a healthier relationship with sport and enjoy it.

"Unfortunately, others' actions can cause us to interpret and make meaning of events and we develop schemas," says Cauthen. A schema is a cognitive framework that helps us organize and interpret information. We have schemas about everything we experience, and these ways of sorting information shape our world views.

After sharing my experiences with Cauthen, she concluded that my schema was: "Sport is not fun unless you are good at it." To me, successful exercise meant running and running fast. I felt like there was no point in participating when I wasn't as good at it as the other people I knew. Even when I thought about all the other sporting activities I could do aside from running, I assumed that I would dislike them because I associated my negative running experiences in high school with every other sport.

Because I was looking for validation from others, I was extrinsically motivated to exercise, according to cognitive behavioral therapist, Laura El Mir, MSc; however, she believes that it's better to be intrinsically motivated to exercise or to do it because it's good for health, mood, and connection. "When our motivation is linked to external cues and this defines our success, it may impact our self-worth and belief in our ability negatively if one is not gaining the expected external rewards," explains Cauthen.

Since becoming intrinsically motivated, my attitude towards sport has become significantly more positive, and I attribute this to changing my environment and the people I'm around when I work out. For example, going swimming with my best friend puts me in a different mindset than sprinting around a track did when I was a teen. Now when I go to the gym, I use all of the equipment and participate in a range of sports for fun.

Whether you're an amateur or a professional athlete, we are all susceptible to roadblocks in our sporting journey. "Most people who come to me for help are suffering from some issue or experience in their past which creates a barrier and holds them back from progressing or being the best they can be," says psychologist Fiona Shaw, BSc. I believe that no matter your fitness level, whether you are an amateur or pro athlete, by identifying sticking points from the past (whether through the help of a sports psychologist or on your own), you improve your relationship with exercise, which helps you to cut through all of the noise that can interfere with your relationship to movement and all the benefits it can bring.

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