October 31, 2022

Competitive Socialization and Exercise

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

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

Occasionally, people ask me if I am training for an event like a triathlon because my workout routine at our local rec center is pretty intense, and I can work out for an unusually long time. The staff might notice that some days I’m at the gym before the crack of dawn, go home for breakfast, and return soon after for a few hours of lap swimming. I also watch lots of videos on YouTube with training tips for swimming and running.

Why do I do this, if I’m not training for an event or trying to lose weight, you might wonder? I actually enjoy doing it.

I like listening to books and podcasts while in the gym. I like the sounds of the birds chirping and the water swishing in the pool, and the sight of the palm trees and mountains in the distance. I like the sensory deprivation under water. I like seeing other regular exercisers whose names I have come to know, but I really enjoy it when I have the place to myself. During the pandemic, when the indoor facilities were closed, I loved running up and down a nearby steep hill over and over, leading my curious neighbors to ask if I’m training for an event…like a triathlon.

A triathlon is a competition involving swimming, biking, and running. They vary in lengths; a beginner event might be the equivalent of 30 laps (about half a mile) of swimming, a 13-mile bike ride, and a 3-mile run. The hard-core “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 have no doubt I could complete the beginner version, but I have no interest in doing so. (Here’s where the sociology comes in.)

Exercise, fitness, and sports are great examples of Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self.” This idea suggests that our sense of self comes in part from what we imagine others think of us. Our bodies are profoundly social: we get feedback whether we ask for it or not on our appearance, and we might anticipate others’ reactions, which in turn shapes how we feel about ourselves. While Cooley’s looking glass isn’t meant to be literal, it is in this situation.

Sports are often constructed as performances where we are explicitly judged by others: how fast we are, how many points we score, how we appear while partaking in sports, all for the explicit purpose of comparing ourselves and being compared with others. My passion for exercise is mostly outside of these experiences.

I think back to my experiences in gym class, which like many peoples’ was marked by feeling judged and being judged by others. Exhibit A: the perverse experience of kids choosing teams, picking those thought to be the best athletes first, and hoping to avoid the shame of being picked last. (Seriously, why did gym teachers think this was a good idea? And why are they still doing it?)

Being female, small, and generally thought of as bookish rather than athletic, I was never among the first picked. The status of people who were bigger and more popular could be reinforced—both individually and socially—through this ritual of choosing teams. This  way of experiencing physical activity suggests that we are only good at it if others think we are, or if we compare favorably to others by scoring more points or by running faster than someone else. Cooley would postulate that this in turn shapes the way we view ourselves.

Recently, my nephew joined and subsequently left the swim team at his school. He likes to swim, and strives to get better at it, but there was no room 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 problem, it’s too bad that so many early experiences with sports and fitness focus solely on how we compare with others. Even now, it is easy for me to feel bad when someone swims on runs by me without much effort. But their fitness level does not diminish mine, and vice versa.

This is why I’m not interested in participating in a triathlon. Even in the most supportive environment, a triathlon is a social performance. At the most basic level, it is a collective activity while I prefer solitary exercise. I once considered running in a local 10K race, but the thought of running in a crowd and feeling the shame of being passed by, or the competitive pressure to pass others by, made me decide to just do a 10K run alone without the crowds.

One of our former neighbors was a triathlon coach, and I would often see him training clients at the pool and hear some of his tips. He once cautioned a client to be careful of competitors trying to sabotage each other, especially in the open water event. Be prepared for someone to “accidentally” kick or elbow you, he said, and don’t be afraid to fight back.

I’ll never enter a triathlon for these and other reasons. But am I training for one? Maybe, but far from the watchful eye of the looking-glass self.


I noted your comment about your nephew being disappointed that the swim team was interested in him learning to swim fast so that he could swim faster than someone else.
That is the nature of a swim team. They are a racing team, just like a track team, and similar to a rugby or soccer team.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of swim team practices and meets.
I hope your nephew finds some activity that makes him happy.

I should note that I was almost always picked last at school. Wearing thick glasses was not a plus. Swimming did not require seeing clearly as long as you could see the line on the bottom of the pool.

A swim team necessarily operates in this fashion. They're a racing squad, on par with a track squad and in the same vein as a rugby or soccer squad.

Great article, really enjoyed reading it!

This is a great article. I can relate to this article in so many ways. I have been working out at a local gym for years and everyone always thinks I have a goal of becoming a fitness instructor, body builder, or compete in some sort of event. I workout 5 days a week because I like to workout. It helps me to relieve stress and stay balanced.

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