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Visions Journal

Fat, Fit and Setting up Success Through Team Sport

Nicole Richard

Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 29-31

Photo of author, Nicole Richard

This story begins with a vivacious pigtailed girl. Scabbed up knees and sticky chin from the orange slices she wolfed down during halftime at her soccer game. She’s joyful, content, full of life and her body just feels right. As a 40-year-old woman, she would learn this feeling by name. She felt regulated.

As an elementary school–aged child, she was fortunate to feel this way often. Intricate chalk drawings on sidewalks mapping out a whole town for her and her friends to navigate with their bikes. Running through the neighbourhood woods with her mom before the school day started. Chopping down firewood in the forest with her family. She felt good being outside with friends and moving her body.

As she approached puberty, her body and self-esteem started to change. A little extra weight meant she could not continue in soccer on the same teams with her friends. Her asthma meant she couldn’t keep up with her friends in gym class. The gym teacher, although well-meaning, divided the class into heavy girls and skinny girls.

The pigtailed girl began to identify as a fat girl. Fat girls are lazy. Fat girls don’t exercise. Fat girls are not athletes. Still, in Grade 8, one more defining moment made an active identity seem possible: high school gym class.

Gym class allowed her to try various team sports. She learned she really enjoyed volleyball. It didn’t require much running, so her asthma stayed in check. Her height gave her an advantage, and the wicked hand-eye coordination inherited from her dad meant that she was quick to respond on the court. She felt good at it! Social interactions with teammates, mixed with exercise and competition, hit exactly the right endorphins for her mind and body to feel right. To feel regulated.

Desperate to continue the sport after gym class moved on to gymnastics, she built up the nerve to try out for the school volleyball team. How could she know this would be the nail in the coffin of her budding sporty identity?


I think back to that little 12-year-old girl and feel so proud of her. “Yeah, you can kid! Go get ‘em!” I remember having extreme anxiety during the tryouts. I had already learned from the world around me that I didn’t look like someone who played sports.

I did not make that team and was one of the first girls cut. It hurt. More than that, it confirmed what I had been told: fat girls aren’t athletes. The coaches conceded for me to stay on the team as a manager. I could carry the clipboard and water bottles. I went to a few games, diligently scratching off attendance and filling water bottles, but it did nothing for my mental health and nothing for my fitness.

It doesn’t take much to convince a teenager they are not enough. I never tried out for a team ever again. That kind of regulation was lost to me. While my friends continued to play sports, I receded into the world of watching TV and eating chips. Regulation became a feeling of the past, replaced with depression, anxiety and lethargy.

It would take 26 years for me to get it back.

Return to form

At 40 years old, I was invited to play volleyball against my daughter’s Grade 7 class. It was a fun end-of-year game, and I remembered how much I loved the feeling of team sports. Regulation! A fair number of the parents involved must have felt the same way. One of them found a recreational league in the city and formed a team of us old, “non-athletic” athletes. What followed was a 10-year love affair with the sport I’d been told at age 12 that I wasn’t good enough to play. My life and love of team sport blossomed. I was good enough for this.

In fact, I was athletic. That hand-eye coordination and my height really did make me a valuable recreational player. Most importantly, I LOVED it. My mental health vastly improved with newfound scheduled regulation and my weight started to decline. I felt whole in my body and spirit. This tiny Thursday night recreational volleyball league was life-changing. My kids have to have this experience, I thought. And they cannot wait until their 40s to get it. But finding those opportunities for positive physical experiences has not been easy.

Challenges for a new generation of sports lovers

When my kids entered high school, I expected school team sports to have become more inclusive. To my shock and dismay, they had become incredibly exclusive. In Grade 8, any child can play team sports with the promise of no cuts and equal playing time. At the Grade 9 level, things change. You need to be a player with an already developed skill set to make the team, and if you are not one of the better players, you can expect to spend a lot of time on the bench.

The system of school sports and community coaches we grew up with is disappearing. It is being swallowed up by a for-profit, hyper-competitive club sports system. The new system needs wins to maintain its profile and justify its cost. Parents pressure their athletic children to pursue sports like a job because they are lured in with some vague hope of scholarships and a future of playing professionally. Having an awkward kid on the team becomes a threat because it might affect the future of a child who takes sport “seriously.” Now, coaches don’t call your kid fat. They just never call your kid at all.

To be economically successful, the new system has to be inaccessible not only to the fat kid, but also to the awkward kid, the anxious kid, the kid with parents who have no time for practices every evening and tournaments every weekend and the lower-income kid who cannot afford the astronomical cost of sport. Beyond that, social sports clubs are unlikely to take on the cost of insuring kids for fun leagues. That vivacious, pigtailed kid wouldn’t stand a chance today.

It strikes me as ironic that the people who stand to benefit most from school sports are often the people who are excluded. It becomes a lifetime opportunity lost. Something we’ve forgotten is that we aren’t raising elite athletes in our schools, although I’m sure there are a few. But we are trying to raise healthy adults.

I continue the fight to stay active in volleyball and to ensure access for my kids. I have found a few inclusive camps through city or provincially run recreation initiatives, and lately I’m feeling elated because I found a not-for-profit volleyball club that prioritizes sport for every child who is interested! If you are the loving guardian to a child who enjoys sport but struggles to make the cut for teams, do not give up hope. Keep advocating and seeking out other opportunities for your child to engage. The health benefits are so astronomically great, it’s worth all the agony and extra effort you will put in.

For me, I look ahead 20 or 30 years and see myself still playing sports, even if it’s “sitting” or “balloon” volleyball with the other residents of the retirement community. I can’t wait! It’s going to be so fun! I can assure you we are going to have the coolest jerseys and merch around.

About the author

Nicole Richard is a mental health advocate, mediocre athlete and musician in West Kelowna, BC. She pays her team-sport bills as a corporate headshot photographer whose main goal is to make sure every single one of her clients knows how beautiful, valid and worthy they are

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