I rarely use my blog to tell my own athletic story, but for all you parents of introverts and introverts yourself, it might provide some meaningful insight.
I still remember my first “race.” I was just 7 years old and my sister had taken me to the roller rink for the first time. I was wearing rental skates, wheels slipping out from under me. They called us out for “races.” There wasn’t really a start or finish – you went out and just skated fast around the cones when the music started and when they faded out the music you were done. I couldn’t wait. Me, the timid, awkward introvert, suddenly had a burst of confidence. I went out there, flying around everyone. I passed a boy my age — I can still remember that exact moment, where it occurred and how I did it. Me, the girl who was dying for friends but too shy to have any close ones, the girl who was always picked last for sport teams at school. The girl who was so afraid of the ball I couldn’t even hit the predictable tetherball on the school playground.
When people think of the stereotypical introverted child, they think of a kid that’s more intellectual than athletic, preferring to sit alone with their nose in a book rather than running around with the neighborhood kids. This is an unfortunate stereotype and too often quiet, introverted kids are not encouraged to develop their athletic ability. Our society tends to coddle us nerdy, socially awkward kids, the subconscious notion that introverts sit around reading books because they aren’t coordinated enough to participate in sports and find solace in intellectual activities. I find the reverse to be true – we don’t participate in sports because we are unintentionally placed in a predefined box and live up to the expectations of being clumsy, nonathletic and non-competitive. However, one only needs to look at all the adults that came to sport late in life – triathlons, marathons and other endurance sports are filled with adult introverts who never had the chance to be athletes in their youth based on self-imposed or societal expectations.
For me, that moment at the roller rink changed my life. No, I didn’t suddenly become the confident, extroverted kid that I had longed to be. But I did find something that became a foundation of my life and all my successes. It gave me a self-esteem I may have never developed. Yes, I was still bullied at school, would never be popular in high school and would never quite fit in with the kids in my neighborhood. But as I became better at skating, my self-esteem grew and that fueled me to work even harder. Soon, anything I tried I could be good at – I just had to work hard. I became internally competitive: If my friend got good grades, I wanted to prove to myself that my grades could be better. I suddenly had friends, and even boyfriends, eventually all over the country. I finally found somewhere I fit in.
I found that if I worked hard enough I could be not only a successful speed skater, but could excel at any sport I wanted. I eventually became one of the top sprinters in the nation, but also found I was an amazing 3rd baseman in softball. I switched to ice speed skating with ease, and eventually became a professional inline speed skater amassing National records and championships. I had a successful competitive hockey career, and as a defenseman I consistently held the best +/- in the league. And finally, after all these years, I can play a casual game of volleyball and actually want to get the ball instead of ducking it.
And, I’m still an introvert.
So why should we encourage our introverted children to simply participate, making a big deal of a last place finish because hey, they are bookworms that actually participated? Why should expectations be so low? Encourage your introvert to do what they like. If they dream of becoming an NHL player but don’t seem athletically gifted, let them try anyway. Encourage them, drive them all over the country if they want. Get them special training if they ask for it. Reward the desire to work hard. The participation in athletics to an introvert can, and often is, a life changer.
Too often, sports scientists will tell you that athletes are “born, not made,” that your genetic make-up chooses your sport for you because you gravitate to what you’re good at. I couldn’t agree less. You become good at what you love to do, because that’s what you put all your efforts into. Anyone can do it. Even an introvert.