Just not sporty: how to embrace exercise as an adult if you disliked it as a child

Emine Saner
Illustration: Guardian Design/Getty

When Sarah Overall was a child, a PE teacher held the entire class back because Overall would not do the high jump. She was tiny – as an adult, she is under 5ft (1.5m) tall – and was scared of hurting herself on the metal bar. “I was too short to get over it,” she says. “I remember the whole class watching.” Netball was “pure hell”. She enjoyed hockey, which suited her body better, but she felt written off by her PE teacher. “I was like: ‘Do you not get that I actually work really hard at the things I can do?’”

Now, years later, Overall is a personal trainer and sees the damage that bad PE lessons have had on her clients. “It’s pretty much everybody who comes to me,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve got anybody, especially a woman, who has said: ‘I was good at sport at school.’”

It is something other trainers see, too. “Kids at school are not like babies and toddlers who try to crawl, fail, try to crawl, fail,” says Joslyn Thompson Rule, a personal trainer. “They sense embarrassment and shame, and it’s easier not to try than to try but fail. Unfortunately, it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and leads to them not being able to do it.” Teenage experience, she says, “can affect your perception of your ability”.

The things we are told as children and teenagers stay with us. I was not particularly sporty at school, although I clearly remember being praised by my PE teacher one day after a volleyball class. The idea that I am good at that one particular sport has, weirdly, become a small part of my identity – even though I have never played a game of volleyball since. Likewise, I hated cross-country running with a passion and, for years, told myself it wasn’t for me, only to discover a love of running – especially over fields and hills – more than two decades later.

“Kids pick up all kinds of stuff, whether or not anybody actually labels them – they make comparisons with their peers and draw conclusions,” says Wendy Johnson, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh. “There’s nothing intrinsic to say these kinds of labels have to get wired into our identities, but sometimes they do – when kids are often last to be picked for teams or laughed at for being slow or clumsy. Things can happen along the way to reverse impressions like this, but for some kids, these identities can last a lifetime.”

All of this is not to bash PE teachers, although many adults who still hate exercise blame the teaching methods of decades ago. There is a lot of good practice out there, says Stuart Kay, schools director of the Youth Sport Trust. Schools are under immense pressure, and PE is suffering (according to research last year by the trust, 38% of secondary schools in England have cut the time dedicated to PE for 14- to 16-year-olds since 2012).

The stereotype of the sadistic games teacher is probably largely unfair, but, says Kay, there is “room for improvement in some areas”. Historically, PE lessons were “largely about physical ability”, he argues, but for older children it is equally important for the lessons to cover social and emotional wellbeing.

“If you think about some of the things that turn people off sport, they’re probably the same things that turn people off competition,” he says. Competition can be made more inclusive beyond physical ability. “We’re not trying to get rid of competition; instead, we’re saying what can you do about the rules, the environment, and how are you going to decide on a winner? By reframing competition, you can make it more inclusive, and make sure that things other than sporting prowess are celebrated.”

These could include allowing everyone to play, rather than only a select few making a team, or changing the scoring so it is not only about goals or runs – the outcome of a game – but also giving scores for behaviour or skill.

Johnson says she always told her children: “Exercise is good for our bodies, and everyone can find some exercise they can enjoy; it doesn’t matter if you’re particularly good at it.” As an adult, you can shift your identity around whether or not you are “sporty” by simply doing it, she says. “Pick up any issue of Runner’s World – it’s full of people who have come to running in their 40s or 50s and ended up getting into it and running marathons. I don’t mean winning, but they see the benefits not just of the exercise, but joining a club, where the focus is on the community rather than being the best.”

Labels such as “sporty” have particular connotations, she says, and it is not necessarily useful to think of yourself in those terms. “Not just about exercise and health, but about fashion, values, lifestyles, athleticism and sexual identity. Physical exercise that boosts physical health and psychological wellbeing comes in many forms that aren’t sporty – dancing is exercise, as is gardening, carpentry and housework. If the goal is physical exercise for health, one doesn’t have to have a sporty identity. Think broadly about anything that involves getting yourself moving.”

Overall rediscovered sport after enjoying aerobics classes. Hannah Lewin, a personal trainer, says many of her clients suffer from a lack of confidence around sport and exercise, usually instilled in them as teenagers. Instead of something to be enjoyed, sport became “a stressful experience. An early negative experience around being shamed, or being forced to do something you weren’t naturally very good at – and then belittled for not being very good at it – is something I see every day. It really does carry through into adulthood.”

Adults tend to find their way to her – and exercise – once their confidence has improved. “They may have had other successes in work or relationships,” says Lewin. Overall adds: “You’re now doing this for yourself. You don’t have the pressure of teammates, and nobody is judging you. Don’t compare yourself with anybody else. Once you find the activity that is right for you, and a situation you are comfortable in, you can be surprised at what you can do.” She has had clients who have gone from sedentary lifestyles to running marathons.

All the personal trainers I speak to say you should choose something you enjoy – this isn’t about compulsory rounders any more. “Gyms can be daunting places and you can feel the same as an adult as you did as a child – not being good enough, fit enough, strong enough,” says Thompson Rule. If being shouted at in a HIIT class isn’t working for you – or brings back bad memories – do something else.

“If you keep forcing yourself to do something you’re really not enjoying, it’s going to become another source of stress,” says Lewin. “You’ll give up and come back to that old idea of: ‘I’m not sporty.’ That’s not the case. You just haven’t found what’s right for you.”