I’ve thought about this question; “why fitness? Why workout? Why compete in sports?”, for a long time. If I’ve learned anything about myself, it might boil down to one loaded word: overcompensation.
I was always smart. The Plainview school district where I grew up started administering intelligence tests in the 3rd grade. In the 5th grade my reading comprehension tested at 12th grade level. I was only average at things like math, but I could pretty much understand any concept. In the 11th grade I played chess grandmaster Shelby Lyman to a draw in a match that lasted over 3 hours. I was cutting classes to stay in the match and the principle was watching the last 60 minutes of it. It was the crowning moment in my love of chess. But I always felt I was cheating just a bit. I was born talented and smart the way some people are born beautiful, I hadn’t really earned it. I took it for granted, absolutely.
I was also born short. Slightly built to the point of puny. And a big nose. Smart, short, skinny, and a big nose, made me an easy target for bullies, but I had some less obvious physical advantages. I was crazy fast, possessed great reflexes, and I had a much older brother who I loved to rough house with, so I was tougher than I looked. I learned to make myself more trouble for the bullies than it was worth, using my brain, my speed, and a first strike policy if I thought a fight was inevitable. I was and am small, but my ego was (is) 10 feet tall. Did I mention I was competitive? Whatever I liked doing physically I needed to do as well as I possibly could. I hated losing in anything if I believed I should win, and I hated not doing as well as I thought I could, even in defeat. I was always a good sport, but would obsessively work on improving my game. The sports I loved to play as a kid were Basketball and football. Did I mention I was puny? Didn’t matter. I played smart, I played fast, and I played big by surprising people with my unexpected strength. It wasn’t that I was super strong, it’s just that people underestimated me and I loved taking advantage of that. When opponents would adjust, even when they shut me down, I felt great; I forced opponents to notice me!
That started slowly changing with puberty, and the discovery that I really liked looking at girls but was at a total loss as far as interacting with them. I retreated. I was still short, puny, big nosed, and now pimply. All the girls were taller than me. I felt I was undesirable in the extreme. I was more comfortable with adults, books, and my art (I was a self-taught sculptor at 4), than with peers. People praising me for being smart or talented meant nothing to me though. These were gifts from fate (or genetics). I wanted, needed, to be acknowledged physically.
I was 17 when I got a job at a nearby gym the summer after high school graduation. If I was afraid of girls before, now it was worse! All these sexy women in their form-fitting leotards (it was the 80’s) and I’d never kissed a girl or been on a date, and was convinced no woman could want me. Low self-esteem. Low self-esteem came into conflict with the fact that I always felt special, above average, above normal, because of those natural gifts. High self-esteem. I started working out to make my body over in the image of my ego. I wanted to feel super strong and powerful. I wanted to earn it. I started building my body, from 5’6″ and 120 lb., to 150 lb. I started playing racquetball and soon became a top club player and a competitive “open” level player, competing in tournaments all over the northeastern seaboard. And women who liked athletic guys started noticing me. The popular athletic guys started wanting to hang out with me, started looking to follow me. I had re-invented myself. There was a cost. I became someone I’d grow to not like very much. It took time to reconcile low self-esteem me to my high self-esteem self.
Eventually I added an additional 20 lb. of muscle, getting to 170. I was really strong and felt compelled to keep pushing. By my mid 30’s I was stronger than anyone my size and un-augmented ought to be and the injuries started piling on. By then I’d learned a secret. All these people who were pulled into my orbit were being pulled in because I was smart and passionate and supremely confident in those attributes. My physical accomplishments had little effect on people’s behavior towards me. It was all about my attitude towards myself. I still want to be the best at whatever I do, but try to be smart enough to know what I can’t do. I haven’t beaten low self-esteem, and it still exerts its influence, but I have improved myself in some ways, taken backward steps in others. It is about health now, and a little more. I still dream of getting myself really strong, if I can do it smarter. I still like being the go to expert on anything I care about. There’s that ego again. Overcompensation isn’t always bad if you channel it right. Still working on figuring out how to tell the difference, 23 years later. The adventure continues…