Everyday Sociology Diary: Competitive Socialization and Exercise

Everyday Sociology Diary: Competitive Socialization and Exercise
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Karen Sternheimer

I’m not training for a triathlon. At least I don’t think I am.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m training for an event like a triathlon because my training routine at our local rec center is pretty intense and I can train for unusually long periods of time. Employees may notice that some days I’m at the gym before dawn, come home for breakfast, and soon return for a few hours of lap swimming. I also watch a lot of YouTube videos with swimming and running training tips.

Why am I doing this if I’m not training for an event or trying to lose weight you may be wondering? I actually enjoy doing it.

I like to listen to books and podcasts while at the gym. I love the chirping of the birds and the lapping of the water in the pool, the view of the palm trees and the mountains in the distance. I love the lack of senses underwater. I like seeing other regular exercisers whose names I know, but I really like having my space to myself. During the pandemic, when the facilities are closed, I enjoyed running up and down a nearby steep hill, prompting curious neighbors to ask if I was training for an event like a triathlon.

A triathlon is a competition involving swimming, cycling and running. They vary in length; a beginner’s event might equate to a 30-lap (about half-mile) swim, a 13-mile bike ride, and a 3-mile run. The grueling Ironman race includes a 2.4-mile swim (equivalent to about 168 laps) in open water, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full marathon (26.2 miles).

I’m sure I could finish the starter version, but I’m not interested in doing so. (That’s where sociology comes in.)

Exercise, fitness, and sports are great examples of Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of “seeming myself.” This idea suggests that our sense of self comes in part from what we imagine others think of us. Our bodies are highly social: we receive feedback whether we ask for it or not, and we can anticipate the reactions of others, which in turn shapes how we feel. Although Cooley’s gaze is not direct, he is in this situation.

Sports are often constructed as performances in which we are clearly judged by others: how fast we are, how many points we score, how we look in sports, all with the express purpose of comparing ourselves and being compared to others. My passion for exercise is mostly outside of this experience.

I remember my experience at the gym, which, like many people, was characterized by feeling judged and judged by others. Exhibit A: The warped experience of kids picking teams, choosing first those who are considered the best athletes and hoping to avoid the embarrassment of being picked last. (Seriously, why did the gym teachers think this was a good idea? And why are they still doing it?)

Being female, petite, and generally considered bookish rather than athletic, I was never among the first to be picked. The status of bigger and more popular people can be enhanced – both individually and socially – through this team selection ritual. This way of experiencing physical activity suggests that we are only successful if others we think we are, or if we compare ourselves to others by scoring more points or running faster than others. Cooley would postulate that this in turn shapes one’s view of the self.

My nephew recently joined his school’s swim team and later left it. He likes to swim and wants to improve, but there was no place on the team for someone who wasn’t interested in swimming faster than Someone else. At a time when obesity is a major public health issue, it’s unfortunate that so much of our early sports and fitness experiences focus solely on how we compare to others. Even now, it’s easy for me to feel bad when someone sails through runs without much effort. However, their fitness level does not diminish mine and vice versa.

This is why I am not interested in participating in triathlons. Even in the most favorable environment, a triathlon is a social performance. At its most basic level, it’s a collective activity, and I prefer solitary exercise. I once thought about running in a local 10k race, but the thought of running in a crowd and feeling the shame of being overtaken or the competitive pressure to outrun others made me decide to just run the 10k alone without the crowd.

One of our former neighbors was a triathlon coach, so I often saw him training clients in the pool and heard a few tips from him. He once warned a client to beware of competitors trying to sabotage each other, especially in open water. Be prepared for someone to “accidentally” kick or elbow you, he said, and don’t be afraid to fight back.

I will never do a triathlon for these reasons and more. But do I training alone? Perhaps, but far from the watchful eye of the self.

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