Here’s a story that’s absolutely true…
When I was in third grade, I was diagnosed with something called Sever’s Disease, which is a short-term inflammation of the growth plate of the heel in adolescent children, usually boys. It’s most common in athletically active children. I was not one of those children. It can also be due to having too much weight bearing on the heel.
Too much weight… that was me.
I was never an active child, for whatever reason. At some point between the ninety-to-nothing pre-K years and early grade school, I ceased to be an active child and sat inside all the time. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and my over-protective mother seemed comfortable with my reluctance to play outside. Nonetheless, Sever’s Disease is a short-lived phenomenon, and isn’t considered a disabling condition.
But for reasons unclear to me even now, I was exempted from Physical Education all through elementary and middle schools per this diagnosis. The result of this and a stunted social development brewed up a recipe of “husky child” that stayed with me well into high school.
I was never physically fit. I was portly, overweight… I’d go ahead and call me obese, as a matter of fact. And then came Fifth Grade, when the Presidential Fitness Challenge first came out. Our entire class was lined up by the monkey bars for a series of tests, boot camp style. Whereas the PFC was intended as an encouragement toward active lifestyles in children, our school chose to view it as a battery of obstacles we grade-schoolers had to hump over to pass. I huffed and puffed my way through the tires and the traffic cones with the speed of a Volkswagon van in neutral gear.
Then came the chin-ups.
I had never done a chin-up in my life. I lacked any kind of arm or upper body strength to perform even a single chin-up. My forearms were so weak I couldn’t even hold myself up on the bar. This was my physical condition. Rather than recognizing this, the coach (I forget his name… it was McNair or Stalin or something…) chose to encourage my classmates to berate me until I could do a single chin-up.
And even as they hurled invectives at me and belittled me for my weight and weakness, I failed.
The coach then dressed me down in front of everyone, commenting not only on my unacceptable physical fitness but also on my character. It seemed, in his eyes, I was a bad person because I couldn’t do a single chin-up.
Until very recently, I hadn’t realized what an effect this had on my psyche. I grew into adulthood, benefiting from pubescent growth spurts and a short-lived obsession on bicycling. I was never “athletic,” but for a while I wasn’t obese. As the years progressed, however, the weight began to return. As an adult, I had a choice to make.
I tried to find the motivation to exercise, but it continually slipped away from me. I would get into a zone for a week or two, but would surrender time and time again. I found exercise to be a hateful drudgery. I responded with such vehemence it began to worry me. A couple years ago, my wife signed up for a kickboxing class, and after a few months I decided to join with her. For the first time in my life exercise was fun! I stayed with it, and my fitness improved.
But shit happens, as it tends to do, and the kickboxing classes ended, sending me back into the No Motivation Zone. My wife tried to get my butt back into gear, but I slipped into malaise. Then we had a conversation one day, out of the blue, when I mentioned the chin-up debacle of 1984. A light went on. The reason I resisted exercise for so long had been buried in the memories of a fifth-grader.
I was still hearing those children call me a fatass and a turd. I was still hearing that coach tell me I was a bad person. That son of a bitch had given me a legacy of poor health, and I was no longer willing to accept that.
I’m back in the gym now, and committed to physical fitness like never before in my life. Granted, I’ve really just started, and I’m still trying to keep up with my dog, whose speeds are “Stop and Sniff” and “Windsprint.”
But the motivation is here, and it’s kind of weird. If anything, I’m harder on myself now than I’ve ever been before… but in a good way. I’m the one urging us to go to the gym. I’m keeping track of my progress. I’m watching what I eat, I’m tracking the calories burned, and overall I feel better about myself. Perhaps not only because my fitness is improving, but also because I’ve dug out a bitter, rusted root from my psyche.
So, why did I tell you all of this? First of all, I want everyone to be very, very careful what you say and do to a child. Words spoken in frustration, anger, or even casually without regard to its emotional impact could bury one of these rusted roots into their minds. Negative social pressure can be a powerful tool for motivation, but taken too far and it becomes a legacy of self-hatred.
Second, motivation is a big deal in our lives… and not just regarding physical fitness. It has to do with getting out of bed in the morning. Commuting to work. Going that extra mile for your significant other. Finishing that night course. Writing that novel. I feel lucky that I’ve found renewed motivation. It feels awesome! And I can’t promise you that there’s a magic wand you can wave to drop it squarely into your lap, but it is possible that somewhere in your past someone told you that you couldn’t do something. It’s possible that child-brain clutched onto it. It’s possible those words control you, and you don’t even realize it. Maybe it’s time to explore your attitudes and your personal history.
Running into self-doubt when you review your day’s word count? What if at some point you brought your third-grade creative writing paper to your parents, only to have them roll their eyes or squint just the wrong way? What if that one little gut-punch is haunting you today?
It’s food for thought.