A dyspraxic’s guide to: Sport

This blog post marks the beginning of a new series on the blog, “A Dyspraxic’s Guide To”. This series approaches a number of key areas of life, providing advice and contemplation on how to navigate them as a somewhat chaotically minded human.

This post tackles the most famously dreaded topic for many dyspraxic people: physical activity. Ah yes, the type of activity famed for extending lifespan, reducing stress, lifting mood, aiding sleep and improving confidence in one fell swoop. Coincidentally, also an activity that has led me to break over 5 bones and has forced sports day audiences, football coaches and dance teachers alike to stifle their laughter as I stumble awkwardly before them. Not exactly the greatest confidence booster where I’m concerned, and considering the number of injuries I’ve had I’m not too sure on the lifespan thing either. Even so, the feeling of satisfaction and adrenaline you get from improving at physical activity can be wonderful, especially when your life has been consistently defined by your struggles with it. So, even though I may never be able to do the Floss Dance, this blog post is about sharing my strategies concerning the world of sport and physical activity. For any with concentration issues, I will be breaking down the post into the following sections:

1. Key issues with sport for many dyspraxic people

2. Pointers for improvement and encouragement

3. Sports that I would recommend to dyspraxic people

1. So – what are the key issues?

While the key issues may at first seem obvious, the issues dyspraxic people face in terms of sport are nuanced and sometimes extensive. Firstly, there are the well-known issues: co-ordination and balance. These are some of the cornerstones of many sports and activities, and simultaneously something many dyspraxic people quite frankly suck at. As I’ll go on to discuss later, however, these are also key skills which you can actively improve over time.

Another issue is that awful tendency of sport to operate in teams, and by teams I mean groups of generally more proficient people who will become increasingly resentful every time you defy the laws of physics, gravity and pure common sense when you come to take part. There is also the need to find time for sport in your everyday life, and to remember the relevant equipment when you do find that time.

Sequencing issues are also key – sports are generally composed of an innumerable number of smaller steps, which take some a long time to grasp. Frustratingly, you will often know exactly WHAT to do in regards to a sport. For example, you might know exactly how you SHOULD tackle someone in football, yet be utterly unable to do it in practice. Being aware if the issues you might face is integral to making sport work for you, rather than against you.

2. So – what can I do about it?

There are a number of ways of making sport a less daunting prospect for you. The first recommendation I have is to find video evidence and examples of any sport you wish to undertake. When I decided (to my parent’s horror) to take up rollerblading when I was 13, the key cornerstone to improving was looking up explanatory videos on YouTube. These videos often had detailed descriptions of what whatever skill they were showing, along with a video to show what that looked like. Often, seeing something isn’t enough, as you need to understand exactly WHAT the basic skills are that they are doing, and also have a visual reference for how this is done. Here’s a great example relating to swimming.

Once you’ve seen it, you need to practice the basic skills – even if you feel like an idiot. I genuinely learned how to do breaststroke properly by lying on my bed and practicing the leg movements. It seems mad, but it bloody works. Think about the key skills, practice them in isolation, and slowly build up your confidence. It can be useful to do sports which specifically target key skills, like yoga for balance. After you’ve got a good grounding, everything becomes easier.

Another tip to reduce the pressure is to do individual, but sociable sports. For many people, the social element of sport is a key part of its fun, but the feeling of having a team dependent on you can be incredibly daunting, especially to an uncoordinated sport newbie. Therefore, it can be good to do a mix of individual and sociable sports, such as rock climbing or dance – more on this in the next section.

Finally, choose an activity or activities, and choose a completely non-negotiable time in which to do it. Take at least 30 minutes longer to schedule in for preparation and travel, and mark that time as strictly sports-related. It sounds difficult, but if you find a sport you grow to love, that hour and a half or so a week can become a highlight – especially in hectic times. Using an app like Strava can help track your progress and remind you to exercise – although try not to depend on it as you may find yourself without a charged or findable phone on exercise day.

3. So – what sports would work for me?

◊ Rock Climbing

This might seem a little bit high stakes for people with a clinical tendency to fall of stuff, but hear me out. A personal favourite of mine, Rock climbing is great for social dyspraxics who find team sports difficult. Despite climbing being an individual sport, bouldering walls are some of the most supportive, encouraging and team-driven environments you can get. Generally, there are people of all abilities willing to swap tips, share chalk and probably go for a pint with you afterwards if that’s your thing. In addition, practice and determination go a long way in climbing, and the solo nature of the sport means that you can go at your own pace (arm strength permitting). Our unique brains also have unique problem solving abilities, and so sometimes it is your slightly ‘off the wall’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) thinking that spots the particular move that solves the climb. My top tip for getting into rock climbing is to watch the experts, and work on your arm strength. You’ll be reaching the top in no time!

◊ Hip-Hop / Zumba

I know what you’re envisaging; convulsing limbs and confusing steps, standing still like a confused extra in Step Up 2 (The Streets), while the rest of the class pops and locks effortlessly around you. To start with, the reality might not be that different, but the great thing about hip hop is that it consists of a number of individual, easily broken down movements that – when practiced continuously – are possible to master. Writing them out one by one and learning them is key. Once you’ve grasped it though, the feeling of achievement of dancing in a group and executing a routine is amazing. To start with, its best to choose a very chilled group, who you can laugh with. Chilled groups are also more likely to have a few other uncoordinated souls to form esprit de corps with at the back while you jam along a few steps behind everyone else. In addition, once you’ve got the hang of dancing to the beat, your general public dancing ability will improve massively too. Zumba is also a great idea, because its impossible to NOT look like a fool when doing Zumba.

◊ Swimming

Pretty much everyone loves swimming – and when you go to the pool on a saturday morning, there is almost always going to someone slower than you. A great sport for the elderly, or those less able to hold their own weight, swimming has long been championed as a sport which is fairly accessible. Different lanes provide a lack of pressure – and you are barely ever alone in a slow lane. Lifeguards provide the sense of security you may need (apart from when they laugh at you for belly flopping of the highest diving board, true story), and the water enables you to exercise without a great need for balance. It tones your whole body, and consists of discrete strokes that you can practice and work up to with floats. There is a wealth of advice online about learning to swim, and almost always shallow pools to practice in before you’re confident enough to hit the lanes. Its only real downside is that it can be a bit of a faff, as to swim best you need a costume, goggles and a towel – which are easy to forget. Once you’ve nailed your routine, though, swimming can be an easy and fun way to exercise and relax. Also, the water slides provide a great incentive – as long as you’ve mastered staying steady enough not to whack your head on the side of the enclosed tube as you swoosh downwards (another unfortunately true story).

◊Cycling

Pretty self-explanatory really – once you’ve got the balance, it’s really not that hard. Find cycle routes so you don’t have to navigate the road, and you can go for miles. Also, the only things you need are a bike and helmet, and there’s no faff or travel required.

◊Yoga

I do yoga every day before bed, and attribute it as the sole reason I can now tie my shoelaces on one leg without falling over. Pretty impressive, right? Amazing at building up muscle tone and balance, yoga is a great activity for dyspraxic folk – although it may not seem it at first. It’s important to start easy, and there are thousands of YouTube videos and podcasts to show you how to do simple routines to calm you while improving your physical wellbeing. Yoga With Adrienne is a great place to start, and Tara Stiles is fab to move on to once you’re feeling a little more adventurous! There are often long periods of lying down involved too, which is, in my opinion, a prerequisite of a truly enjoyable sport.

I hope this article has been useful! Let me know in the comments if you have any tips relating to dyspraxia and sport, I’d love to hear other people’s ideas!

Clumsily yours,

Ellie

Running a Half Marathon – The Dyspraxic Way

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In October, I decided that I was going to run a half marathon for cancer research. This was an ambitious challenge for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I was pretty unfit. Although I started university with good intentions, joining the netball team (I will never get the hang of the drills) and attending Rock climbing sessions, my incredibly busy life always got in the way. Added to this were the inevitable dyspraxic obstacles, like forgetting my equipment, double booking myself for match times, and being too behind on work to make the time. In sixth form this was less of an issue, as I had to walk at least half a mile (up a very steep hill) everyday to get to school. In secondary school I had compulsary PE, which, although I faintly dreaded some parts of it, did mean that I maintained a basic level of fitness. As it stood in my third year of university, I found myself unable to run a quarter of a mile without stopping, let alone 52.4 times that! I suppose that is one of the reasons I signed up, to scare myself into exercising, but it ended up having a bigger effect on me than just my fitness levels.

Another challenge I faced was my muscle tone. Although this is partially due to my lack of exercise over the past year or so, I’m quite sure its also due to the fact that I have developed a slightly ‘special’ way of moving my body due to my co-ordination difficulties. My knees tend to point inwards when I run, and aside from this are dodgy at the best of times because I have patella that tend to dislocate (don’t google image that). I lost all the muscles in my right leg after being in a cast for around a month last year, after my knee broke when I dislocated it slipping on ice. This meant that even as my fitness improved, muscle pain stopped me from achieving my best.

This is all sounding a bit negative, so I’ll weave in some positives here: I knew that running would be great for my mental health as I transitioned to living without antidepressants. I far prefer individual exercise to group exercise, and running is so easy to do (all you need as a beginner are trainers and somewhere to run) that I found it a good form of exercise to fit into my routine.

As someone who struggles without instant gratification however, running proved an exceptional challenge. I live for ‘easy wins’ – feeling a sense of achievement without really having to try that hard. Running did not provide this. Each training session was gruelling, and I often complained that I wasnt getting any better, when really my fitness improved quite drastically. Somewhere towards the end of my training, I noticed that everyday things (especially for perenially late dyspraxics) like running for a train or to an appointment were a lot easier, and that this must have been because of my training. I had always previously consigned myself to the fact that running wasn’t something I would ever be able to do, but mile by mile, shallow breath by shallow breath, I proved myself wrong.

Motivation was another thing I had always thought I didn’t really have, yet when I look back, the fact that I trained at least twice a week for a good three months (admittedly, training in December just didn’t happen) is super impressive for me. Despite feeling I wasnt improving, there’s something – perhaps slightly smug I’ll admit – really rewarding about getting back from a run, no matter how far you went.

As it stands though, I only managed to work my way up to running 6 miles on a run before the event, and I did underestimate how much training would be neccessary. When the day came, I was terrified, but excited. The first 3 miles were ok – many people passed me, but I was happy at my relaxed jogging pace, knowing it would set me up to be able to run for as long as possible. Mile 5 was the worst. I was evidently struggling a little, and people tried to encourage me by telling me ‘my nans would be really proud’ (on the back of my shirt I’d written that I was running in celebration of them – one who fought cancer amazingly for over 5 years, the other who is fighting it now -although this was a lovely sentiment, it sent me into emotional breakdown, and I suddenly found myself unable to breathe. I stopped, and practiced deep breathing, with the help of a few other runners who helped me by squeezing my hand and giving me kind words – including the 2hr 30 minutes pacing man, which I’ll admit was a little depressing as he sped into the distance. Luckily, it couldnt really get worse after that, and in fact I ended up getting into the rythm of it and beginning to enjoy myself in the strangest way. I was in so much pain, but I simultaneously felt so invincible and awesome. All the lovely spectators were amazing, cheering us all on, and there was an amazing community feel amongst all the runners (I think this is especially strong in the back section of the runners, because you know everyone is in just as much pain as you). This faded, and I got myself through the rest by singing inspiring songs to myself in my head as a distraction, and trying to name all 9 RuPaul’s Drag Race winners.

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The last 2 miles were ran on pure determination, and seeing my friends at the end gave me the determination to somehow sprint to the finish line, which really did feel amazing. I finished the race in 2 hours, 58 minutes and raised £370 for Cancer Research! (You can still donate here if you fancy it https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ellie-williams18 ) The most frustrating thing was that I was never really out of breath, and it was my muscles that meant I couldn’t run the whole thing. Hopefully with a bit of physio and weight training, I can change this, and I’m hoping to finish my next one in 2 hours 30 minutes if possible!

I think what this story goes to show is that you can always surprise yourself. No matter what it is, us dyspraxics can achieve pretty cool things when we set our minds to it, and can defy all expectation that our condition may create for us. If any of you are considering a half marathon, I would say absolutely go for it, but maybe appreciate a little more than I did the challenge involved in a Half Marathon. Even if you don’t, and end up *slightly* under trained like I was though, know that your determination and willpower CAN pull you through. This is something after all, that it seems that many dyspraxic people are great at – not giving up.