I have a confession: When I was five, my mom took me to recreational soccer. You know, the kind where there weren't really "positions," because we were all kindergarteners, and everyone got a trophy (it was the early '90s, after all!). She told the coach that I was "shy," so he immediately put on a huge smile and told me that I was going to be his "special helper," and yelled for all the kids to be nice to me.
Needless to say, I burst into tears and refused to take to the field. My mom drove me home, likely embarrassed, but, as a fellow introvert, deeply understanding.
Flash-forward 25 years, and I’m still the introverted one who shudders when someone asks to share my lane at the pool for "circle swim" and finds salsa dancing classes terrifying. But I have managed to enjoy downhill mountain biking with a crew of girls, run with some of the fastest people I know, take hundreds of group fitness classes—subjecting myself to a lot of embarrassment in the process—and even meet some new friends in the climbing gym. Introverted? Hell yes. But thriving in the world of sport as well.
Here’s what I wish someone told me 10 years ago about shaking it off. And none of them involve enlisting a friend to come with you to avoid feeling shy, because, as an introvert trying to make it in an extrovert’s world, I am really sick of that being the best advice one has to offer.
Know That Honestly, No One Cares
There’s a great study I think about when I’m falling off the back of a group during a run or a ride. The “Spotlight Effect” is best explained by Psychology Today with the line: "People regularly overestimate how much people notice their brilliant contributions—or their embarrassing feet in their mouths.” So next time you face-plant on a run or fart during yoga class, know that even if someone did notice, the odds that they’ll remember, or care, about your awkward moment are slim to none.
Stay in the Back
Get to classes a little early so you can snag the spin bike in the back or the yoga mat in the corner. It’s like being on a first coffee date: The smart move is to arrive just a bit early so you can pre-buy your coffee, select the seat, and be casually reading when your date walks in. You’re in the power position. The same is true for class, though for you, the power position might be that corner spot where the instructor has a hard time seeing you during class.
Let the Teacher Know
It’s a little bit grade-school, I admit, but I’ve found this extremely helpful. If you’re terminally shy and this is a group participation-style class where people regularly get called on to help demonstrate, it can be a huge help to you and the teacher if you let him/her know ahead of time that you’d rather be left alone. Classes like parkour, salsa, or even things like deep-water running can be intimidating to beginners, and some teachers think calling out each person is a good thing. So email, call, or arrive early to let your teacher know that you’re not interested in being singled out; most will be understanding.
Schedule a Solo Session
For something like CrossFit or any strength training or skill-based class, consider splurging on a solo session before getting into the group. This way, you can work one-on-one with an instructor to get the basic techniques down so when class starts, you’re more comfortable with the skills, and you can avoid too much "friendly advice" from the guy squatting next to you. (Note: If that guy gives you advice anyway, feel free to move to the other side of the room.) Most instructors prefer this anyway, especially for technique-focused classes like strength training. Plus, as you build a bit of confidence while working one-on-one, it might be a bit easier to get over your shyness when faced with a few more people in the group.
Find the Right Crew
If you’re new to a sport, the easiest way to slip into a group without anyone noticing/with minimal disruption is by finding the speed-appropriate one for you. This is true of fitness classes—no one likes a pro in the beginner class, to be honest, but it’s more true for things like group runs and bike rides. If you’re unsure about your placement on the easy, medium, or hard run, email the person in charge of the group with some of your (honest) stats and ask which group is the best fit for you. A lot of women, in particular, are often more inclined to go into beginner groups when really, we’re ready for intermediate or advanced, and being the runner that’s pulling everyone along and pushing the pace isn’t always the best place to be. You make more friends when you’re running or riding with people hurting the same amount as you—not much more or much less.
If You Don’t Dig It, Don’t Go Back
It’s as simple as that. If your yoga class involved the instructor constantly readjusting you and you weren’t comfortable, just stop going to that class. (Most studios will even refund your pass or suggest a different instructor if you explain the problem.) You don’t need to work out in a group setting to work out—many of us find that the most fun we have is by going on those solo runs or doing long hikes on our own, and that’s 100 percent okay.