I was at a bar with some coworkers after our holiday party when one of them asked me if I was “comfortable with my height.” Well, not just me – the question was asked to a group of guys, and it wasn’t meant as a dig, but rather an honest inquiry. It’s a kind of sincere question that only gets asked in a bar after a couple of rounds or by a tween on Yahoo! Answers.
The other guys, who all had at least a couple inches on me, muttered “yeah”s and “sure”s, so I followed suit and deflected the question, mentioning that I never gave it much thought.
What I really should have said is that I hate being small. I hate that I was almost held back in preschool because my teacher thought I needed to be bigger before entering kindergarten. I hate that I have to get a stepstool to reach the highest shelf in my kitchen and haven’t thought to just stop putting things I need on that top shelf. I hate that “men’s heels” is higher in my Google search history than I’d like.
I shouldn’t complain. I’m not tiny – I’d say my height falls on the favorable side of below-average. But for some reason my small size has always been a sore spot for me, something to actively hide by purposefully buying clothes too big for me and exaggerating on medical forms. Yet it also became a worthwhile excuse, when athletic skill started to elude me. I could just blame my inefficiency on my larger peers rather than a lack of effort or a mental block. I could have my (cup)cake and eat it too.
Nearly a year ago when I first devised a list of the most manly activities I could think of, among the more traditional activities like “smoking a pipe” and “riding a motorcycle” was an outlier – “throwing a shot put.” I don’t know why I chose to include it in my initial list; perhaps the Olympics of the previous year were still fresh in my mind. I never participated in track and field in school nor had any desire to join. I can’t even name more than a handful of track and field events. Apparently somewhere deep in my psyche I believe that the shot put is reserved for the Herculeses of the earth who see the solid sphere like I see a golf ball. For some reason, I had to try it.
But I had no idea if any of my friends and family had ever even touched a shot put before. Fortunately, an old friend surprised me by revealing that he had taken up shot put in middle school, and though he claimed to be no expert, he was willing to show me how it’s done.
Nick spent part of his childhood in Houston, Texas, and the middle school he attended there was small enough that each student was expected to take an event in track and field. His choices were between shot put and discus, and he chose according to which activity afforded a greater chance of avoiding embarrassment. He suffered through it for an entire year, though “suffering” is his word; it turns out Nick is still a competent shot putter.
Nick agrees to meet me in Central Park on a Saturday morning when we believe we could easily find an open practice area and I could avoid bystanders mocking me. Clearly a healthy dose of insecurity is an important prerequisite to any athlete attempting the shot put for the first time.
As I make the trek to the park, I carry the heavy shot put in a drawstring backpack with a couple of water bottles. With every other step, the sphere bounces in rhythm with my gait and slams into the small of my back. By the time I find Nick waiting in a strip of grass adjacent to one of the baseball fields in the park, I must have a bruise the size of a grapefruit. I try to convince myself this is one of those “no pain, no gain” scenarios, but I can’t quite put the “gain” part of the equation into words. Still, it seems like something I would be asked to do if Mr. Miyagi taught shot put.
I take out the twelve-pound shot put and Nick confirms it’s most likely the same size he used in middle school. Though twelve pounds seems like all I could conceivably use, a weight of sixteen pounds is actually standard for Olympic competitions. Nick takes the shot put out of my bag and cradles it like an old polaroid from his childhood. Though Nick hasn’t touched a shot put since he was 13, his muscle memory activates palpably as if he does this every weekend. It’s funny how activities we learned as children, especially in those middle school ages, never seem to leave us.
Nick starts by demonstrating the proper stance and grip of the shot put. You cradle the shot put in the crease between your neck and shoulder and allow the momentum of twisting then exploding your whole body to propel the sphere up, up, and away. Nick first shows me the stationary method, where your feet stay planted the entire time, which helps to avoid stepping out of the circle and getting disqualified.
As I practice the motion without holding the shot put, it’s difficult to avoid my impulse to use my arm more than I should. The idea of using my whole body equally feels uncomfortable and counterintuitive. However, seeing Nick throw the shot put thirty feet with barely a hint of exertion is enough to convince me he has the right idea. I just have to think less Nolan Ryan and more Tasmanian Devil.
It’s difficult to twist my body fully when I’m wearing four layers of clothing to combat the cold, and it immediately becomes apparent why shot put isn’t a Winter Olympics sport. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t bother warming up. Either way, I’m very stiff as I try this brand new motion and Nick calls me out on it. When I do find the right balance of a deep bend followed by an explosive twist out, it’s crystal clear that I’ve found the groove. It’s the difference between trudging through mud and jumping on a trampoline. Now I have to actually do it with the shot put.
It’s at this point that I figure out the hidden benefit from lugging the shot put all the way to Central Park. The dense weight of the sphere no longer startles me when I pick it up and place it on my shoulder. It’s not that the shot put and I are exactly friends, only that we’ve reached a sort of understanding. I raise my elbow into position, stand shoulder width apart in the makeshift circle, and breathe deeply.
Yikes. By concentrating so much on the back swing and follow through, I forget to activate my wrist and it goes limp as the shot put leaves my body. The shot put hurtles forward in the tiniest of arcs before landing on the cold ground after about ten feet. I quickly pick the sphere back up after a cursory measurement (14’ 5”) and return to the circle in hopes of rectifying my sorry display of strength. Now that I’ve been slightly embarrassed, I resort to using my tried and true method of throwing objects and use mostly my arm to throw. Though a get a few feet more on my subsequent tries, the strain on my arm is immediately apparent. Shot putting is not a very forgiving activity – when you do it improperly, you feel it.
Next, Nick shows me the hop-step method. By adding a short hop before the pivot and throw, it allows for a bit more momentum and seems to be the method of choice for most shot putters. The trick is to not hop so far as to land outside of the circle, but since today is mostly about seeing how far I can throw, I decide to at least give the hop-step method a try.
It goes a little better, but I still haven’t made a single throw that clicked for me like that one practice throw. Though I’m not physically tired after ten minutes of shot putting (at least, I wouldn’t admit that on the internet), the mental exertion is more taxing than I would have thought. The true test is keeping all of the physical pieces in play. When I remember to bend deeply in the back swing, I forget to keep my wrist stiff. When I remember to explode on the follow through, I neglect my elbow or lose my balance. I suppose it’s like any other athletic activity where muscle memory makes all the difference, but I never would have compared throwing a shot put to a golf swing before I tried it. Watching the sport gave me the impression that it’s simply a strongman contest, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I go back to the stationary method for my final throw. Though the hop-step method could clearly generate more force, I think I need to stick to the basics for the time being. For my final throw, I have the faith that the instruction I’ve received so far is all I need for a successful shot put. I focus on just getting outside my head, and as always, that seems to be the turning point.
Though I’ve only improved five feet and am still five feet short from Nick’s earlier effortless throw, the last throw feels right. I was able to disperse the potential energy throughout my body, so I didn’t feel all of the strain in just my arm or legs. Even though the distance I achieved after an hour’s practice wouldn’t even be enough to get me a spot on Nick’s middle school team, I’m nevertheless delighted with my showing. Somehow, the shot put feels much lighter in my backpack on the walk home. So light, in fact, that I don’t even notice when it pops open the plastic bottles in my bag and a deluge of water soaks my backside. No matter. I still walk proudly to the subway station so if anyone sees me, their first thought will be, “That man looks like he pooped himself.” That’s right. That MAN.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
No big epiphany this time, but it was a nice reminder that my diminutive size is more often a hindrance in my mind than in actuality. Sure, it would be easier to crush the shot put if I were over six feet and weighed 250, but the basic technique doesn’t require any one body type. People will always have natural advantages, but at least in shot put, that’s not a substitute for mental agility and toughness. Whether or not I’m comfortable with my height, it’s time to stop using it as a crutch. 2.81.
NEXT WEEK: I say “Whoa!” so many times it would make Keanu uncomfortable.