The Athletic Aspie. No, really.

Aspies are notoriously unathletic. We tend to be clumsy and uncoordinated. Chalk it up to a motor planning deficit, poor executive function, proprioception difficulties, dyspraxia, or all of the above. Whatever the cause, the result is that we’re more likely to be branded a geek than a jock.

Unfortunately, I never got the memo on this. All my life I’ve loved sports and being physically active. Loving sports, in my case, isn’t the same as being good at sports, but I’ve never let that stop me.

Though my parents didn’t know I had Asperger’s they did know that I was clumsy. One of their nicknames for me was “Grace”–as in, “careful there, Grace” and “that’s our daughter, Grace.” I think this is funnier when you’re the one saying it than when you’re the one tripping over an inanimate object.

Perhaps in an effort to help me overcome my lack of coordination, they signed me up for a lot of individual sports: dance, gymnastics, bowling, golf, diving, swimming, karate.

Most of these were activities that I could do with other kids but didn’t require the type of interaction that team sports do. I was on a bowling “team.” All that meant was that I took turns with four other kids. The bowling itself was an individual pursuit. Other kids took a turn. I took a turn. I got to add up the scores. I wandered off to watch one of the arcade games. Someone called me back when it was my turn. It was great.

Golf and dance and karate were the same. I did these things alongside other kids but not really with them. There was an appearance of social interaction. The actual amount of interacting I did was minimal and that was fine.

I’ve always loved individual sports for exactly this reason. I learned to swim soon after I learned to walk. My family had a swimming pool in the backyard so I was in the water months after being born and enrolled in swim lessons as soon as the YMCA would take me. Swimming is still one of my favorite ways to relax. I love being in the water–the sensation of weightlessness, of gliding, of floating, of being surrounded and suspended–and I love the rhythmic movement and sensory deprivation of a long swim.

My YMCA Minnow patch – one of the few things I’ve saved from childhood.

As an adult I took up running. Like swimming, I enjoy the rhythm of running. I also like the way it gets me out into the quieter places–trails through the woods, quiet paths along the river, a beaten single track frequented more by deer than humans. I loved long bike rides as a kid for the same reasons.

The Beauty of Individual Sports

I tried team sports. In middle school, I was on the school softball and basketball teams. It was fun but I wasn’t very good at it and spent most of my time sitting on the bench during games. I also got razzed a lot by coaches for not making enough effort. My basketball coach was always yelling at me to be “more aggressive” but I had no idea what she meant.

There was a lot about basketball that I didn’t quite get. Team sports have many variables–the rules, the other team members, the fast pace, the ball (inevitably there’s a ball involved). ย For the typical aspie, this is a lot to manage. By the time I got to high school, I knew that team sports weren’t for me.

But individual sports! This where aspies can shine. When I’m out on the trails or in the pool, I feel strong and athletic. I feel like I’m coordinated and connected to my body. I feel like I’m good at a sport! Forgive my exclamation points, but this is exciting for someone who grew up feeling clumsy.

So, let me sell you on the wonders of individual sports for aspies of all ages:

1. You can progress at your own pace. Individual sports allow you to measure your progress against yourself. While you might compete against others, most individual sports also encourage “personal bests.” Running a new best time for a mile or swimming a personal best for a 400 is as fulfilling as beating an opponent. Maybe more so, because it’s an indication that your practice is paying off and you’re better at your sport than you were a month ago or a year ago.

2. You can be part of a team without the pressures of a team sport. Individual sports can be less stressful than team sports when it comes to having to perform well every time. If you have a bad day as a team player, your actions can impact the whole team. If you have a bad day as a cross country runner, you might not place well, but one of your fellow runners could still win the race. There are team consequences, but they tend to be less severe.

3. You can practice by yourself. This is a huge advantage for aspies. Because of our motor coordination issues, we might need a lot more practice than the average person to learn or master a skill. When that skill is something that doesn’t require a team or a partner to practice, we can spend hours working on it alone, at our own pace.

4. You play side-by-side with others. Team sports put a big emphasis on bonding with other team members, which can be stressful for aspies. Individual sports allow you to play alongside others, interacting as much or as little as you feel comfortable.

5. Individual sports tend to be rhythmic, repetitive and predictable. And what do aspies like more than rhythmic, repetitive, predictable movement? Running, cycling and swimming are like large-scale, socially acceptable stims. And you can do them for as long as you like. The more, the better!

6. Individual sports can burn off a lot of excess energy. Many individual sports are endurance based, making them an ideal way to tire out a high-energy aspie. Even moderately vigorous physical activity will burn off excess energy and trigger the release of endorphins, which not only improve your mood but can reduce anxiety and help you sleep better.

7. Individual sports improve coordination. All sports improve coordination, but individual sports tend to be more “whole body” sports, requiring you to integrate all of the parts of your body to achieve the best possible result. Think of the type of movement required for swimming breaststroke versus the type of movement required for playing shortstop.

Why Exercise is an Essential Part of Managing My Asperger’s

I need to get in at least an hour of running, swimming or walking every day. I need to exercise every morning. When I say need, I’m not kidding. If I didn’t exercise religiously, I would likely be on medication for both anxiety and depression.

Hard physical activity burns up the unwanted chemicals in my body and generates a nice steady flow of good chemicals. Exercise takes the edge off my aspie tendencies and leaves me feeling pleasantly mellow. ย If my physical activity level falls for a few days in a row, I start feeling miserable. I get short-tempered, cranky and depressed. I lose my emotional balance. I don’t sleep as well. I find it harder to focus.

Being physically active also keeps me connected to my body. I have a tendency to retreat into myself and become disconnected from everything that isn’t inside my head. I’m also still–in spite of decades of sports practice–more clumsy and uncoordinated than the average adult. Being physically active helps me combat this and makes me more physically resilient when I do take an expected tumble.

A Little Different Spin on Physical Activity

One of my favorite bloggers, Annabelle Listic, has written a wonderful post–Kinect with Me!–about how she is using the physical activity of gaming to address some of her concerns (which are different from mine). I’ve never played a video game that requires physical interaction but her post got me thinking that this type of gaming might have many of the same benefits as participating in an individual sport.

27 thoughts on “The Athletic Aspie. No, really.”

  1. This is a great post. I have been a runner for 19 years and I have been swimming for as long as I can remember. I, too, feel the absolute need to by physically active. It is my stress reliever. It is how I keep my sanity. If I don’t exercise regularly, I start feeling like I am going to implode. I start wanting to hit my head and if I am not carefu,l I will lash out at people . These activies also help me from retreating to far into myself. I never thought of myself as not being good at sports, I thought I was just not interested. I knew I couldn’t shoot a basket or play volleyball well. I have problems with aiming, but I always liked to play defense in soccer and floor hockey. Looking back, however, there is this underlying anxiety about the whole idea. I never really interacted with anyone while playing. I was intently concentrating on the ball and I had to keep it from crossing the center line. Now that I know I have Aspergers, it makes sense to me why this anxiety exists and why I never interacted with my team mates.

    1. It’s great to hear that you’ve had a similar experience with sports. I really do believe that running and swimming are what keep me sane in a neurophysiological sense.

      It’s interesting that you preferred to play defense in the team sports you participated in. It seems like there’s something really appealing in that focused task of not letting the ball cross the centerline.

  2. If you run by yourself, no-one can see you fall down n_n. And yes- lack of ball, huge bonus. I think team sports tend to involve more fast-paced, unplanned changes of direction as well. I am really bad at that sort of thing. I’m dyspraxic, and even though I’m generally pretty clumsy, I like to cycle by myself a lot. I find the hardest part is locking it up somewhere. I have trouble getting the order of movements right so that I get the lock where it needs to be (wrapped around the post AND the bike, sometimes I forget that part). Using the keys is really fiddly and awkward too. And I often manage to cut myself while attaching or removing bike lights somehow.

    1. Yes! and I do fall down regularly. I like to run trails which leads to a lot of tripping over rocks. I’ve learned to let got of my dog’s leash so she can get clear of me as I drop and roll in the dirt. That way only one of us gets hurt. ๐Ÿ™‚

      That’s a great point about the need to change directions often in team sports. There is just so much happening on a court or a field that it’s hard to filter and process it all, let alone act on it too.

  3. My husband is pretty athletic as well, and one of his obsessions when we met was a team sport, basketball. The challenges for him were more in the area of keeping his grades up, in order to be allowed to participate. It was unfortunate for him, as allowing him the physical outlet would have also helped him stay in his seat for other classes! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I think having that physical outlet goes a long way toward being able to concentrate when we have to. It’s a shame your husband didn’t get to play the sport he loved. I really enjoyed basketball too but was terrible at it, so I rarely ever got to play in actual games.

  4. I never thought of swimming as being a sensory deprivation activity, but when I think about how I like to swim (or drift in the water, is more like it) it’s the floaty, ear-plugged feeling, and just the sky or horizon for visual stimuli, if I’m lucky. I wonder if the all-over slight water pressure is a soothing aspect, too.

    1. From your description, I’m imagining swimming (drifting) in the ocean, which I love so much more than the pool. The movement of the water is really soothing and I think you’re right about the water pressure being soothing as well.

  5. I really like rollerblading. The motion is a lot like swaying side-to-side, except I’m supposed to keep my torso straight while just moving my legs. I push one leg to the left and then i push the other leg to the right. Again and again, over and over, and I get where I’m going faster than I do by walking. Also I find that rollerblades hurt my feet a lot less than regular shoes do. I built up a map of my city in my head that takes into account pavement smoothness (most of the sidewalks in my city have potholes and are very rough, so this is very salient to me). I know which side of the street is smoother for every street I’ve ever been to in my city and I like to play with combinations of shortest path and smoothest path. There’s always construction going on, so I constantly have opportunities to update my mental map which is fun.

    Sometimes I like to listen to music while I rollerblade to block out loud noises, and that’s fun because whenever a song comes on I remember where I was in the city the last time it came on, and times before that. I can still remember what song was playing three years ago when I was going down a certain street, it was in mid October 2009, but I don’t remember where I was going, just what song I was listening to and what building I was passing just as the song came on.

    1. I’ve never tried rollerblading but you’ve reminded me how much I loved rollerskating as a kid. I could spend hours going around in circles at the roller rink.

      Your rollerblading-specific city map sounds quite amazing. I like that it has a soundtrack as well!

    2. Rollerblading is my favourite exercise. I live in a rural area, so my map is of the roads in the neighbourhood with the quality of the asphalt/concrete as a measure. I managed to map out a 5 km tour which I do in slightly less than half an hour, and is enough to get me exhausted(I’m not that athletic). I try to do that tour as often as possible, but unfortunately asphalt is impossible to skate on when it’s even slightly wet, so in autumn/winter I almost get no opportunities for exercising.

      1. Also: my favourite time of day to go skating is way after sunset, especially during a full moon. There is a part of my tour where there is no artificial lighting at all, so I have a pretty good view at the starry sky at that moment(all while that road is of the highest-quality asphalt I know)

        1. That sounds like the perfect time to exercise! We used to live in a very rural area and I loved walking the dog after dark because I could watch the changing of the constellations over the course of the seasons.

          Rollerblading must be great exercise. It looks fairly demanding.

  6. Yes. I was (and somewhat still am, in a different capacity) a gymnast. A rather advanced, competitive gymnast. I won bars at the state level once in level 7. I really loved being on a gymnastics team – mixed groups of girls of different ages and in different places in life. Individual sports are amazing. I could practice on my own. Nothing ever depended on my teammates doing well. I could support them without worrying about my own fate. I was TERRIBLE at team sports, and especially what I called “ball sports”. But individual sports are amazing. ๐Ÿ™‚ And through gymnastics I learned how to control my body. Something that I’m utterly horrible at naturally. I never got to be an incredible gymnast, but I was pretty darn good. And I’m very proud of that. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. That’s awesome that you were so successful! ๐Ÿ™‚ I tried gymnastics for about a week at my dance school (probably more like basic tumbling) and then in middle school P.E., but I have serious problems with getting disoriented when I’m upside down. It does look like a fun and demanding sport. I can see how it will build great body awareness and improve coordination/control.

  7. I can honestly state that gymnastics has saved my life much more than once. I may not be graceful, but I am when I am doing gymnastics. I think that it’s because my focus improves.

  8. Team sports are HUGELY stressful to me. I just don’t understand how to work with my teammates to get a ball into a net efficiently. During my short stint as an elementary school soccer player, I was mainly defense because I could kick a ball far. However, on the occasion I missed the ball the first time, I didn’t understand all the rules surrounding defense players, so I’d often do nothing. What you said about swimming is definitely true for me, except that swim meets can prove a little trying because they are very… energetic environments to say the least, downright noisy actually.

    1. I wanted to play soccer by parents thought it would be too dangerous for me because it’s such a fast moving game. They were likely very correct.

      Also, my idea of enjoyable swimming is at 6:30 in the morning when it’s all the old folks doing laps before work so it’s quiet as a library. ๐Ÿ™‚ A swim meet must be much more challenging for sure.

  9. Well, being a male teen with Asperger’s, I notice I’m clumsy too and I almost trip or I trip over things too. And to be honest, I’m not that great at swimming. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I’m panicky when it comes to swimming for some reason but I like being in the water. Thanks for the advice though! I guess I can use this to live by as I become more of an adult. ๐Ÿ™‚ Another thing is that I’m not great with big crowds and usually, as a stim, I twist my fingers, mumble out things or look down or side to side. Hopefully, next year, I’ll “try” to get used to college and being in a new house but it will take me time to get used to it all.

    1. Hey, swimming isn’t everyone’s thing, right? My parents enrolled me in swim lessons as soon as I was old enough to walk because we had a swimming pool in our backyard. So I basically grew up in the water. There are lots of other individual sports. I know autistic gymnasts and fencers and martial artists and runners and golfers. Or, you know, gaming is cool too. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Good luck with getting ready for college. I didn’t got to college straight out of high school so I don’t have much advice, but it seems like a good time to “reinvent” yourself if you’d like to. Everyone and everything is new, which is both scary and a chance to have a fresh slate.

  10. Oh, goodness, yes! The more stressed I am, the more physical activity I need. I haven’t been able to work out or anything in months and I am going crazy! Gaming can take a mild edge off of it if it’s a character being active, but I still need that release in my muscles.

  11. There is 1 more ‘wonder’ about individual sport. Our autistic son looks clearly awkward/clumsy at sports, generally. Yet when he swims/plays snooker, he looks well at ease. No one stares anymore & no one asks ‘special needs’ questions since they would say, “Good, isn’t he?” As a mum I feel intense pleasure when our teen is free to be himself without being judged. It is easier by far to be, comfortable in one’s own skin [well, at least, it looks that way to our family] & socially accepted when playing an individual sport.

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