Growing up, I didn’t have much confidence in myself or my body. The reasons are immaterial at this point, but suffice it to say that I was awkward, and seemed only to reinforce that when I tried to do things that others did very naturally. As a result, I tried to avoid doing anything remotely challenging – like throwing a ball, doing a sommersault, playing dodgeball or dancing. It’s a wonder I ever learned to ride a bike!
Once when I was 8 or 9 years old I was rollerskating on the sidewalk in front of our house when I hit a crack where the sidewalk had heaved up. I hit the pavement so hard it knocked the wind out of me. My dad saw it happen and ran over to pick me up. I can still remember the panic of being breathless and the shame I felt about not having seen the sidewalk crack. That lack of confidence only increased throughout my childhood. I was the uncoordinated kid who was picked last for team games at recess, and while I learned to swim, I was anything but smooth in the water. At school dances I don’t know which I feared most – not being asked to dance or being asked to dance!
There were brief hints of the physical gifts I would later discover I possessed. After high school graduation, I took a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with a friend and climbed Long’s Peak. We started in the dark of early morning (so we could be down before afternoon thunderstorms were a risk) with little more than some advice from hikers we’d met the day before, a flashlight and some water. We didn’t “summit” – altitude sickness leveled us “flatlanders” – but before we turned around we knew we had done something physically challenging in getting to around 13,000 feet in elevation. The peak is 14-something. Not bad for a couple of out-of-shape Midwestern girls whose only prep for the trip had been hours of dreaming during breaks in band practice our final semester of school! What we lacked in skill, we made up for in endurance.
Miraculously, I had learned to ski in high school P.E. class at our local ski hill, and it was skiing that provided the enticement to go to college in Montana. I loved the active, outdoorsy, and athletic vibe in my environment. Maybe I hoped some of the athleticism would rub off on me…? I became a good skier during those years, but surprisingly, that didn’t bolster my confidence in my body. I continued to think of myself as clumsy, soft and weak.
A few years later while in graduate school, my advisor asked me to be on the staff at a summer leadership camp. Her confidence in my academic and social skills was encouraging, but I was worried about embarrassing myself if I had to do anything too physical. When I arrived at the camp, I was asked to fill in for a last-minute staff resignation to team-teach a group of about 40 high school freshmen and sophomores for the two-week session.
One of the lessons on teamwork was to be conducted on the camp’s challenge course or ropes course. This activity presents small groups of people with controlled physical challenges at a series of stations, each with a different goal and many potential solutions. The learning comes as group members identify potential solutions to the “problem”, recognize and utilize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and encourage each other to trust that the group will respectfully support each individual’s effort and contribution to the task, regardless of the nature of that effort.
Ropes course day was anticipated by campers and staff with both trepidation and excitement. I was so nervous I was unable to eat breakfast that morning. A lifetime of angst, shame, and fear about my body and its shortcomings was about to be laid bare to a group of kids, a co-teacher and the ropes course staff. I considered not going, but only briefly. I felt obligated as a leader to demonstrate my faith in the power of teams, so I went. What I learned about teams and about myself that day altered my confidence in ways from which I am still reaping the benefits.
I don’t remember much about that morning, except the station that required us all to cross an imaginary river full of piranhas using nothing more than a series of tires hung by ropes and suspended from a cable. The first step was to launch yourself from a platform on a knotted swinging rope, and grasp the first tire. I immediately slipped off the rope and into the “river”. The entire team goes back to the beginning when one person falls off the course. But somehow, my team supported me emotionally, got me back on that platform, and when I launched the second time, one of my teammates was there to hoist me up by the back of my pants onto my tire, while another person held his tire steady.
I don’t remember getting across the “river”, but I do remember talking about what that support had felt like as we de-briefed. For the remainder of camp, whenever I was free, I was at the ropes course helping other groups through their adventures and encouraging the kids in whose eyes I recognized that familiar mix of fear and shame. By the end of the week I had shimmied through a web of ropes, balanced on a log see-saw, climbed telephone poles and fallen backwards off a platform into the arms of a bunch of kids below. On purpose. More than once.
Now let me assure you, I was not a latent athlete waiting to come alive. I was, and still am, kind of awkward at a lot of physical things. I still hate dancing. I still have a rotten throw. I’m still not coordinated well for things like team sports. But I am strong and I don’t quit. I rarely back away from a physical task. I can push wheelbarrows loaded with rock, carry heavy boxes and furniture up flights of stairs, grow things, stack hay bales and step safely from a dock into a boat. I can assemble IKEA furniture, kayak two miles across a lake and back again, climb up and down a ladder all day to paint, nail shingles to a roof, and dig out old tree roots. I like to ride my bike. I like to train with weights. I am proud of what I can do with this body.
I will not likely run a marathon, or dance gracefully, or golf. But that’s ok because I can help the marathon runner unpack boxes and be completely settled in her new home in one day. I can plant and grow a flowering landscape that the ballroom dancer with a brown thumb needs only to water to enjoy. And I can skillfully drive a cart so the golfer can play 18 holes despite painful arthritis. Yes, I am proud of this body.
My ropes course experience happened 26 years ago. In the years since, I have led countless groups of students through challenge course activities in the name of teambuilding. I am always conscious that on that day, in that group, there is someone who feels about his or her body the way I did about mine. And I hope to catch his or her eye at some point and silently, confidently, offer the strength in my body to help them swing to that tire and grasp the power, as yet undiscovered, in her own body and mind.