I have always been a mediocre athlete.
Born with little body awareness and nonexistent intrinsic understanding of how to perform a new movement or task, when learning any new physical feat, fear and an immediate awareness of how bad I am at learning new things flood my system.
The truth is, I have always been one of the worst in any group when attempting something new.
Every team I have ever been on, every sport I have ever participated in, and every activity I have ever attempted, I have consistently been in the bottom of the group.
Coaches would flock to me as the person in need of the most help. Other athletes were relieved that they were not the worst on the team.
It is not just athletic tasks that flummox me. I sometimes have difficulty commanding my body to do basic tasks that others find easy. Parallel parking, blowing into the tube that tests lung strength at the allergist’s office, and braiding hair are all tasks that have, at one point or another, given me grief.
Not once has a skill I have attempted to learn come easy to me.
It takes me at least twice as long to gain proficiency in a new movement as it does for most people. And when I finally get proficient, I have to work extra hard to be average.
I have won more “most improved athlete” awards than you can fathom. How could they not be awarded to me? When you start out at the bottom, any improvement goes a really long way.
The swim team in high school stands out as a great example of what happens when I begin a new athletic venture.
My freshman year in high school, I was one of the three slowest swimmers on a team of 70 or so girls. I decided to swim the 500 free event, which at 20 lengths of the pool, is the longest event in high school swimming. (I may not be gifted athletically but I attempt hard things. Maybe another word for that is stupid?)
The first time I swam the 500, I was nearly blue when I emerged from the water with a time in the 12 minute range. (To make the state meet that year, you needed a time of 5:53 and a decent swimmer could finish it in under 8 minutes.)
The exhaustion I exhibited when extricating myself from the pool was so memorable that parents of other swimmers brought it up to me as recently as 2011. (I graduated from high school in 2004).
By my last year on the swim team, I finished the 500 with a time of 7:42, crushing it at the C team championship meet. Don’t pretend you’re not impressed.
After years of hours of swim practice and hard work, I was finally above average.
This is pretty much how any attempt at athletics has gone for me throughout my life. From taekwondo (last in my class to break a board) to rowing in college (had the hardest time of anyone on the team in learning how to keep the boat balanced) to spin class to CrossFit (I did it for four years and still can’t climb a rope), I start at the bottom and then over the course of years, top out at right above average.
So far, my progress in the sport of powerlifting is going about as planned. I have been lifting consistently for about 2 ½ years and in the 2016 Fall Classic event, out of 30 girls in my weight class, I finished 14th.
I believe that in the dictionary where it says “barely above average,” placing 14th out of 30 is right there.
Yes, the rest of my powerlifting story has progressed in the familiar way as well. I started out looking like a baby deer when I was first learning how to squat, knees nearly touching, while I struggled to achieve full depth with an empty barbell on my back. So having become barely above average is a great accomplishment for me!
But this time, I actually believe I can achieve greatness in a sport.
The insight that I was not forever doomed to mediocrity occurred to me while I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast while driving. The title of that day’s podcast was “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” The description of that podcast episode on the freakonomics website reads:
“What if the thing we call ‘talent’ is grotesquely overrated? And what if deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades. He tells us everything he’s learned.”
I was intrigued. I think we have pretty clearly established that I have no talent so the prospect that it may be overrated thrilled me.
Maybe this deliberate practice concept was the key to my piercing the barely above average standard for the first time in my life.
I will go into more detail about what “deliberate practice” means and how I am strategically applying it to my training in future blog posts. But for now, know that top experts are not born that way; they consistently maintain very high levels of practice and are constantly seeking to improve their weaknesses.
Know also that there is a great deal of science behind “deliberate practice” and that people who have sucked at things like singing, golf, memorizing long strings of numbers, and anything else that can be quantified have gone on to be great in all of those things by applying deliberate practice to their work.
This blog post is the first in a regular monthly series where I will chronicle my attempts as a mediocre athlete to become great in the sport of powerlifting.
Every month, I am going to write a blog post that discusses how I am applying deliberate practice to my training, how I am progressing in the sport of powerlifting, and what I am learning along the way.
If you want to see whether someone with no physical talent whatsoever can apply deliberate practice to their training and actually become great, these blog posts are for you.
I am not quitting this after a few years. I am dedicating myself to getting as strong as possible over the course of my lifetime. My goal is to become a great powerlifter not in a year or even two years but over the next decade.
I have always been a mediocre athlete but maybe I don’t always have to be.