athletes · fitness

On being a life-long clumsy/klutzy athlete (emphasis on the athlete part)

The New York Times seems to be bent on bringing back the terms “clumsy” “klutzy” and “uncoordinated”. In this article, called “Uncoordinated? You can still be an athlete”, experts and the author offer tips on how to combat clumsiness or “coordination problems” for those folks they label as klutzes. Spoiler: they hold out a glimmer of hope for meaningful movement life for the sports have-nots of the world:

Transforming clumsiness into smoothness isn’t easy, and there are limits. But while the klutzes of the world might not become Olympic athletes, they can get all the fun and benefits of a good workout.

Thank you so much, New York Times!

purple petaled flower and thank you card
Photo by George Dolgikh on

As you can see by now, I have issues with the notions “clumsy” or “klutzy” or “uncoordinated” applied to a whole person. Why? Glad you asked. Here’s a short list:

  • There’s no one notion of coordination– it applies in different ways in different sports and activities under different conditions, even within the same person.
  • The myriad forms and levels of coordination that each of us manifests change over time: with maturation, aging, instruction, new technology and gear, after injuries and life events, etc. It’s not static for anyone.

By the way, here’s their list for the sportswise less-talented of us:

  • think positive– say to yourself, I can be athletic (yeah, that will totally fix it)
  • get enough sleep (duh)
  • explore mindfulness (which seems to be the prescription du jour for everything)
  • get some instruction at a micro-step level (e.g. for swimming: stroke-stroke-breathe. Oh, I got it now..,)
  • choose a sport with less going on (e.g. more running and less basketball)

Why am I so irritated by this article? for two reasons: a) it’s playing into people’s insecurities about movement by labeling them in a way that doesn’t seem to invite them into movement or activity with others; b) I’ve been a clumsy athlete my whole life and there’s basically nothing wrong with that.

How am I a clumsy athlete? oh, let me count the ways:

  • I’ve broken both wrists roller and ice skating on separate occasions (4th grade and grad school)
  • I’ve fallen down stairs at least three times, resulting in ankle sprains or ligament tears;
  • I’ve endo’ed while mountain biking countless times, once during a race, resulting in a rotator cuff tear;
  • The biggest compliment I ever got in ballet class was “You’re looking less awkward!”
  • I’ve hit my head on a diving board trying to do a back dive;
  • I almost never manage to get out of a kayak without getting myself very wet;
  • I’ve fallen while skiing, tap dancing, doing yoga, playing squash, braking on my bike at a red light, walking anywhere near ice or snow, etc.
  • I can’t reliably hit a volleyball and make it go roughly in the direction of another person;
  • I could go on.

And still I rise, getting myself up, dusting (or mopping) myself off, and getting back in/out/over there. Why? Because, before I was so rudely interrupted by falling over or doing something clumsy, I was having a marvelously good time. And I still do.

Seriously, it’s helpful to know what our strengths and weakness are when trying out or continuing to do some physical activity. I choose not to play pick-up volleyball because it’s not fun. I enjoy kayaking and try to have a sense of humor about my shallow wet exit from the boat when we land. I don’t do steep climb-y hiking. But I do swim just about anywhere. That’s me. What about you, dear readers? Do you avoid sports where you feel clumsy? Do you ever find the fun in being a less graceful athlete? I’d love to hear from you.

7 thoughts on “On being a life-long clumsy/klutzy athlete (emphasis on the athlete part)

  1. Okay–first off and last off–I think most of the things on your list do NOT qualify as clumsy, they qualify as part of the sport or activity if you are giving your heart to it. Full stop. The terms cannot be applied to a whole person, as you say–maybe by moments we are clumsy, because of some circumstance, but I reject the idea that it’s a “condition” that people live in perpetually. Speaking as someone who is regularly klutzy and has equally likely moments of grace.

    1. Thanks, Mina! I totally agree with you. Yes, my list shows that I’m lived my life with a lot of bumps and bruises along the way. And also yes, we all enjoy glorious sublime moments, sometimes very unexpectedly. Which is marvelous!

  2. I’m with you: I bristled at the article (or at least the parts you quote). So patronizing. “You’ll never be one of us, you pathetic hopeless creature, but you can puddle along in our glorious wake.” So unmotivating.

  3. This feels similar to when a medical professional and her friend the swim coach told me I was a “motor moron” because my brain and my body aren’t on the same page. It’s taken my PT 2+ years to get me to (sort of) believe that isn’t true and offer alternate explanations for why I struggle with some movements. Wont be the first or the last time the NYT missed the mark, especially on fitness/weight/diet-related articles.

  4. I appreciate that you touched on the fact that movement challenges will vary from person to person. As a aerialist/gymnast/trampoline person I doubt many would think of me as a member of the klutzy club, but my reaction skills are massively below average. Put me in a situation with other people, balls or on skis and my brain body connections all seem to short circuit.

  5. Being active has always been an important part of my life, but I never made it onto teams. So what? I’ve ridden my bike across the USA – twice – and do yoga and tap dance, and over the years, I get better. In many ways, I actually sort of like knowing that my inborn abilities are different. It helps me figure out what’s gonna work best for me, helps me understand what I can do to minimize the risks of, say, riding out on the road. I guess the words “klutzy” and “clumsy” aren’t great – definitely sort of a put-down, but recognition that some people are just born knowing things that I will never quite grasp is actually a relief. I’m good at a lot of things (reading/learning, persistence, ethics, endurance cycling), not so much soccer or hip-hop.

    You sound like you’re not so much clumsy as brave. Really brave. You clearly throw yourself into your sports! If you look around, I think you’ll see it’s the pros who have the most accidents. Willing to push those limits. Hurray for you!

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