Dear Newbie, Dabbling Is Not a Sin

Just get out there and try stuff, and if you don’t like it, try some other stuff.

Hey there, newbie. On behalf of trainers, coaches, writers, editors, and fitness professionals everywhere, I’d like to issue you a formal apology. You see, in articles, videos, and podcasts everywhere (even on this very website), we’ve been giving you some truly useless advice. Our intentions were good, but in our zeal to spread our own personal Gospel of Fitness, we forgot to remember who we were talking to.

You see, we’ve spent years and years, sometimes our whole lives, immersed in this thing that we are so passionate about. It is so important and all-encompassing to us, that it’s hard to comprehend how somebody would look at our Big Shiny Thing and say, “meh.” We just assume that when we talk about it, you’re as fired up and interested as we are, and that means we give you advice as if you were going to automatically adopt our Big Shiny Thing as your own, and devote countless hours of your own life to it.

That assumption was unfair, and makes much of the advice we’ve handed out for the last several decades utterly worthless.

The Salty Old Coach

Let me give you an example. Say there’s an Olympic weightlifting coach, who is very good at what he does. Maybe among the best in the country. He sits down to pen a piece for you, the new athlete looking for a sport. Instead of talking about how much fun you’ll have discovering the sport of weightlifting, he clubs you over the head with fiery rhetoric about how hard you’re going to have to work, how difficult and complex the lifts are, and how you’ll never have any success at all unless you devote yourself to hours of specific training for weightlifting, for months and years at a time.

Oh, and by the way, you’ll never really be that good at it anyway, because you didn’t start doing it when you were four.

That’s the kind of “advice” that permeates 90% of fitness media. I’m sorry for that. Our job is to help you, and when we produce that kind of stuff, we’re failing at our job. We’re preaching to the converted, and then in the next moment we all want to whine that our sport isn’t growing the way it should. Bunch of geniuses, aren’t we?

It’s not that our hypothetical weightlifting coach is factually incorrect. Weightlifting is very hard, the lifts are very complex, and unless you started early in life, there is a very small chance you’re going to the Olympics. Duh.

But none of those things actually matter to you, the 40-something mother of three who’s never played a sport in her life, who is tired of feeling weak and fragile and soft all the time, and who wants to set a better example for her kids. All you know is that you saw this Icelandic chick on ESPN in the waiting area while your son was getting his hair cut, and she was throwing this barbell over her head that looked like it weighed a million tons, and she looked so happy, and powerful, and confident. In that moment, you didn’t wonder if you could become her, but you wondered if you could have just a little bit of what she had.

After the kids were in bed, while you sipped your glass of wine on the couch with your laptop, you started Googling what that girl was doing, and thanks to some great SEO and a lot of social media sharing, the first piece you come across is from our grouchy weightlifting coach. And just like that, the tiny spark of interest in a sport that genuinely could have changed the course of your life is snuffed out, and you go back to watching outtakes from Family Feud.

Just Try Stuff

My god, what a mess. I am so sorry. We’ve totally let you down, and we need to do better. I intend to use my little corner of the internet to try and right this travesty, and let me start right here:

That guy might be a fantastic coach, but he’s also an idiot.

Here’s why. Dabbling in a sport, or a workout routine, or any athletic discipline is completely fine. In fact, I wholeheartedly encourage it. How else are you supposed to find things you like? When you’re teaching your kids to try new foods, you don’t sit them down with a dinnerplate piled high with pickled trout and tell them the only way they can learn to eat is if they finish the whole plate, every night for the next seven years. Of course not. Instead, you give them a tiny piece of fish and have them try it, and if they don’t like it this time, they can try it again another time, maybe prepared a bit differently.

You can, and should, apply the same method to your search for a fitness outlet. You know you have to move your body, but there’s nobody on this website or anywhere else who can tell you how to get that done. Just get out there and try stuff, and if you don’t like it, try some other stuff. I think CrossFit is a fantastic training protocol for most people, but it isn’t for everybody. I love to race and compete, but I also understand that there are people who are completely turned off by that atmosphere.

All I would ask is that, whatever you decide to try, you give it an honest go. Find a place where you feel welcomed, dedicate yourself to showing up and sticking with it for at least a few months, and make room in your life to grow in your new thing. All the same rules you gave to your middle kid when he decided he wanted to play the trombone apply to the new thing you’re trying. And at least kettlebells don’t make obnoxious noises, right?

While you’re at it, give yourself permission to suck; to fail at things and try them again. If you decide to try running and end up with shin splints, maybe get a different pair of shoes and try again. Or if the solitude of pounding out miles on your neighborhood sidewalks is boring you to tears, find a local running club to get involved with. Maybe even hire a coach, who can help you work through whatever problems you’re having, so you can have a better experience. Just as you might discover you like a food you used to hate because your palate has changed or the preparation is different, give each thing you try a proper chance before you toss it aside and try something else.

It’s Not That Hard to Be a Novice

I’ll let you in on another secret: Nothing is as hard as everybody’s making it out to be. That’s not to say any fitness pursuit is really easy. After all, you’ll be asking your body to do some new things, and it will object in the strongest possible terms. It may even make you think that your coach is trying to kill you. That’s okay. You’ll learn when to listen, and when to tell it to shut up and play along.

The biggest difficulty you’ll encounter is in finding the courage to try. Showing up is the hard part; the rest almost takes care of itself. Even for me, seven years into my own experiment in trying all the fitness stuff, there is a feeling of trepidation at the beginning of each new thing, and to an extent, each workout. I deal with feelings of existential dread on the way to the gym, or right before I drop in at the mountain bike trailhead, or just before I start to warm up for a track workout. That’s normal. Over time, you’ll learn to recognize that feeling, and understand that it goes away as soon as you’ve actually begun.

Once you have started, you’ll find out that you can do just fine. Doing what you saw that Icelandic chick do is incredibly hard and complicated, but remember that’s not what you’re there to do. At your level, you can perform the movements safely and effectively, and get the benefit of doing them, even if they aren’t perfect. You’ll get sore, and you might even ding yourself up from time to time, but that’s okay too. You’re there to learn, and mistakes are a huge part of learning.

The important thing is to just show up and start doing. Do what you can with what you have, instead of worrying about what you can’t because of what you don’t. Because if you don’t, you may one day discover that what you had is yours no longer, and now you can’t do what you could’ve. Clear as mud?

The Advantages of Dabbling

There are upsides to trying lots of different stuff. The fact that you won’t be going pro in whatever sport you try is actually freeing, not limiting. If you talk to any top-level athlete, you’ll hear them describe their training and sport as a job, and you already have one (or more) of those. As a dabbler, you’ll have the freedom to step away from something if it becomes drudgery, and come back to it later. You’ll still set goals and work hard, but when it just isn’t jiving with you anymore, there’s no reason you can’t take a break and go do something else.

One thing that much of the fitness industry does right is to encourage variety in training. For the single-sport-obsessed, the tendency for overuse injury is very strong, and so coaches have begun to recognize the value in cross-training, even at the elite level. The nice thing about dabbling is that your cross-training is usually built in, making you more resilient and less injury prone.

Mentally, trying lots of different things can have a profound effect on your confidence. There’s something deeply reassuring about being able to walk into lots of different conversations and situations, and knowing how to handle yourself. My wife (the most wonderful woman in the world) was an uneffusive, unmotivated, avowed couch potato when we met a dozen years ago. Today, she’s fluent in CrossFit, running, cycling, taekwondo, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. The transformational effect that has had on her is indescribable, and has carried over to everything, including her professional life.

Find Your Big Shiny Thing

Despite what I’ve just finished telling you about fitness professionals, rest assured that good ones are out there. Ask your friends, and chances are one of them can point you toward the right person (or group of people) to help you get started trying new fitness stuff, free of judgment or discouragement.

The challenge for you will be to find the true masters. The best coach or crew for anybody at any level is the one who builds their athlete up; who will tell you the things you can do, and help you plan a route to the place you’re trying to go, rather than lecturing you on all the things you’re doing wrong, and what you’ll never be. The right fit for you will be the trainer who will meet you exactly where you are, and be willing to walk with you every step from there, no matter where you decide to go.

I can’t stop fitness professionals from being obsessively dedicated to their sports. In a way, I’m glad that they are, because it helps them pursue a level of expertise that we “dabblers” will never approach. But when they start telling you what you can’t do, it’s time to stop listening. Get out there and try stuff, even stuff that scares you. It’s the only way to find your own Big Shiny Thing, or even a half dozen of them.

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