Do you remember what it was like your first time doing, well, ANYTHING?
I remember thinking I'd never remember how to tie a figure 8 in a rope. Being hyper-aware of other people the first time I tried to lift in the gym. Getting socked in the jaw the first time I tried sparring (well, this one never ends if you do martial arts).
Since then, I've tied all sorts of knots in all kinds of places, developed strength, and never stopped loving Muay Thai (my primary sport throughout my childhood).
But I understand what it's like to have negative experiences. To feel ostracised in sports communities. When more experienced peers roll their eyes at your innocent mistakes because you haven't learnt any better yet, and/or clearly regard you as a less valuable member of the community based on your skill level. Unfortunately, some of those experiences (/egos) put me off certain sports entirely. Fortunately, I didn't have many of them, because the majority of people I meet in sports are lovely. Partaking in any sport is an inherently humbling experience (everyone fails, at every level) and most people recall that everyone starts somewhere.
But it only takes one of those negative experiences to transform a newcomer's perception of the community and send them packing.
Take climbing, for example. Most of the climbers I've met are awesome people. In fact, climbing gave me most of my now best friends - who are virtually all better than me yet are my biggest supporters, often believing in me more than I believe in myself. But there are always one or two in the community who think it's designed exclusively for people who climb at and beyond a certain level (i.e. 5.13+) Now that doesn't make much sense when you consider that the majority of the climbing population (read: anyone who climbs) does not and will happily never climb at that level. Plus, that suggests the point of climbing is to chase grades. Not everyone climbs for the same reason, but god - I'd like to think that everyone who does climb does it for the pure joy of it, first and foremost. For learning, acceptance, curiosity and connection with others. Those recreational climbers who do over-fixate on grades, to the point of holding everyone else around them to this same standard, are simply creating hierarchies that only serve to separate us further.
I believe that having a broader range of experiences within a sport is a good thing; it makes the community richer and more inclusive. Sports communities should not exist simply to support those at a certain level - the whole point of a community is to support everybody involved. There is one common, enormous, unchanging denominator between all of you, no matter how wide the gap between the most and least skilled in the community, and that is your shared love for that sport.
The more you welcome and help nurture newcomers, the more likely they are to have a good first experience, return, and improve. I enjoy welcoming newcomers to anything I’ve already had some experience in. The desire to learn and self improve is an admirable trait, and it takes guts to try something you’ve never tried before - especially when you know you’ll be surrounded by people who already know what they’re doing.
Whenever I see someone getting started in the gym, dabbling in a new sport or taking a new class, I think “GO YOU!” And so should everyone. You are never too good to remember your roots. Communities (of all kinds!) truly benefit when those who are able to, help elevate others in the ways they need. So be the one who encourages, the one who helps creates a positive environment for others to share in the enjoyment of what you love doing, too.
People often ask me how to start something new - they’re nervous about looking silly in a climbing centre, embarrassed to look weak in the gym, scared of putting the gloves on. Man, do you know how cool it is that you’re even showing up and giving it a go?
I could say you’re never going to be “good” on the first go - but I’ve been doing some things for years and I still don’t feel “good” at them on the thousandth go, because I’m always around more experienced people who show me where I can improve. As you inch forward, your personal bar only ever gets higher. It's all relative.
Right now we are engaged in a constant culture of comparison. I find it difficult not to compare myself to others due to my participation in a system that has been designed for me to do exactly that. But I try as much as possible to remind myself: don’t compare yourself to others, because there’s always another level for everyone.
In my opinion, you’re good if you’re having a good time.
If you're new to a sport and nervous, I do just want to add: people never really care about how you look as much as you think they do. Half the time, they’re too focussed on themselves. And most people are flattered when you ask them for advice. If they’re bothered - fuck ‘em, you don’t need them anyway!
I love outdoors adventure and sports, and I know a lot of people want to experience those things too. You can. You don’t need to be an expert in any of these things - you just need to be willing to try them.
Everyone starts somewhere.