Dirk Smith: “As much as sport kind of kicked me out, it was also the thing that saved me.”

When Dirk Smith is coaching athletes, he approaches it from a place of knowing exactly what it is like to lose all motivation.

Smith wears many hats. He is a personal trainer, he works with a football team in Germany, he is an avid swimmer and he is also an academic in sports psychology.

Dirk Smith’s work has taken him around the world.

That gives him a lot of different perspectives, but he can also draw on real life motivation. There was a time in his teens when he felt swimming was not accessible to him – whether directly or indirectly – because of his sexuality, and that meant he lost the desire to train.

The idea of those internal steps that have to happen before taking physical action to change something about your life is one of the key areas of Smith’s research, and he always makes a point of sharing his own past struggles with clients.

“I try to be open with my clients and say yeah, I have body image issues too,” Smith said.

“When I first got back into swimming, I was overweight and I was very unhappy with how I looked. I tried to do the whole going to the gym and lose weight thing, but I was the guy that would go to the gym and then have a bag of M&Ms in my car afterwards. This was a time before I even knew anything about exercise, so I got to the gym and I didn’t know what to do because there’s all these machines and the gym space is huge.

“That’s why people hire personal trainers, but then they don’t really shift that mindset. I would come in as a personal trainer and to shift that mindset a little. Yeah, you want to lose weight, you want to tone up, okay great.

“If that’s your goal, how much weight do you want to lose? Why do you want to lose that weight? Why is this important to you? What do you like to do? Do you like to do like weightlifting or box jumps? What do you not like to do? Those feel like such simple questions, but it was so complicated for them to answer because they feel the need to exercise – and that alone is not sustainable enough.

“They maybe get through half of the sessions and then stop showing up, and that’s because these reasons why you want to exercise are not sustainable enough for you to keep going or to push yourself.

“Research has shown us that when you have that – an intrinsic motivation, that guidance to say ‘here’s something specific I’m trying to achieve’ – then you’re more likely to put in the effort. Then you’re more likely to see the results.

“That might just be going up the stairs a little quicker now, or being able to carry an extra grocery bag from the car to the house. That’s still performance, and that’s what builds confidence and self esteem.

“It has to be specific to them, if I get a new client I can’t just say I’m going to train you for a marathon, right? That’s great and all but if you aren’t interested in running the marathon, it doesn’t matter, so that direction has to be unique to them. You have to find that guidance that is meaningful for yourself.

“I’ve had people that have come up to me and say ‘my dad just died of a heart attack at 55, and that means I’m predisposed to that, so I’m here to stay alive’. Great, that’s a good motivator. Those who succeed are the ones who find their own internal sense of purpose in it, and that’s where it comes down on the right side of the spectrum of intrinsic motivation because it’s something that they enjoy doing, or it has such internal meaning for them.

“Through that I’ve seen some people through some amazing accomplishments in their life, and it’s been so inspirational for me to watch them be able to achieve that. It’s so powerful, and I’ve seen first hand in many different ways how this has affected people’s lives and influenced them, which is why I get so passionate about it.”

Swimming has been Smith’s sport of choice since he was a little kid.

An Olympic dream

Again, part of the reason Smith gets so passionate about exercise and sport for the LGBTQIA+ community in particular is because of how much he has benefited from it personally.

Although there were a handful of years around high school when he was not an active swimmer, it did not take too long for inspiration to strike again.

That came in the form of the Olympic Games and watching Michael Phelps in the summer of 2008, leading Smith down a path that would generate some of the best memories he has.

“At the time I just really wished I would have stuck with swimming,” he explained.

“I would have loved to have been on the swim team in high school. I did marching band instead, and if I had taken swimming as seriously as some of those band geeks did with band, who knows where I could have been by that point? It’s like I never really gave myself the opportunity to do that.

“I was really at a low point, mental health wise and socially – I was like 20 years old, trying to be a kid that’s going out and dating for the first time – so I really needed to find some kind of outlet.

“That was about the time of the 2008 Olympics, so of course Michael Phelps is on the screen with all of his medals. I was like ‘I used to be a swimmer, maybe I can find a swim team and join’, and then I got really motivated and thinking I really want to compete at the Olympics.

“Then I was like, ‘well, I want to find an LGBT+ group’. I needed to find a LGBT+ social group, and ultimately that’s what I found. I emailed them and they said I was welcome to come and join, but it was still nerve wracking.

“The first time I showed up to practice, I had so much nervous energy. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew I’d be okay with the actual swimming. Everybody was super nice and welcoming, the coach was really helpful and I had enough competence with swimming that I was able to just jump in with the team workouts.

“I’m a little competitive, so if there’s somebody swimming in front of me I have to catch up. I’m always pushing myself, and I was really motivated because I had these Olympic dreams in my head at this time – if I wanted to get there, I needed to really push myself and the team gave me the structure and guidance that I needed at the time.

“Within a year, like they said they’re gonna go to Salt Lake City because the queer Utah Aquatics Club was having a big swim meet. It was like parties and skiing and swimming and all these other things.

“Then they were telling me about Gay Games. I had no idea what that was, but they told me it was this huge, international multi-sport event. It’s so crazy and so big and it’s going to be in Germany – that sounded frickin’ awesome. That was everything I dreamed of about the Olympics right there, and I could actually go to that.

“That year was so transformative for me, because I was having so much fun with the group and I was just enjoying myself so much. I was challenging myself, I was making progress. I was doing all these things.

“That was probably one of my favourite times as an athlete ever, because there was so much going on, there was so much progress, everyone was so supportive and everything was just so fun. That period up to that Gay Games really set the stage for literally my entire professional career since then, because that was so transformative for me to see that this is what sport can be.

“As much as sport kind of kicked me out, it was also the thing that saved me in a lot of ways. It offers so much inspiration and so much power in that regard.

“I tell people the social, physical and mental power of sports – you can’t even like describe it fully. Whether it’s Commonwealth Games or Gay Games or Olympics, or even just local community level events, people realise that there’s so much you can get from this and how that affects your community.

“I want to make sure everybody can experience what I experienced when I did my first Gay Games when there was 10,000 people going in, from the organisers to the athletes that are competing to the random people in the city that are there just because they live there.

“This is the power of this kind of stuff, and we need to take advantage of it as a community and as individuals to say here’s what we can achieve, here’s what we can do more of, it just takes that effort.”

Moving the conversation on

With Smith throwing himself headfirst into the world of LGBTQIA+ sport, he found himself beginning to be a part of the wider conversation.

Within the space of a few weeks earlier this year, he was involved in events in Scotland – Authentic Me and LEAP Sports’ conference (part of the programme of the Erasmus+ project Sporting (S)Equals, funded by the European Commission), Germany and the Netherlands sharing his perspective and research.

However, activists will always want to see more progress being made more quickly, and Smith feels an element of frustration when it comes to the topics discussed at such events.

“A few people came up to me when I was in Scotland and talked about having a really hard time recruiting new members and retaining new members,” Smith recalled.

“New members will come, maybe do a few sessions and then leave and never come back. A lot of people are so focused on participation – a lot of people are talking about the need to focus on trans representation and this and that. They are important, but nobody was talking about the actual sports.

“I know it’s grassroots and we’re not talking about elite level competitive sport. We’re talking about people that just want to play soccer or do whatever, but it’s something I’ve noticed.

“For me, we need to really work with an emphasis on the sports because in the end all those other things will happen. Those shouldn’t have to be the focus of what we’re doing, they should just automatically occur as we try to pursue things that are more involved, more in depth and more ambitious.

Smith can find the focus of discussions around LGBTQIA+ inclusion in sport to be frustrating at times.

“These things are important to have to discuss issues, and sometimes we need conferences that are just focused on these topics, but you have to remember this is a sports conference, so we need to remember about the sports.

“Looking purely from the sports side, it’s like how do we develop the coaches? There are two ends of it. There are coaches that really want to start an LGBT+ sports club, but have no idea of anything about sports – how do we help these people actually learn how to coach? On the other end of that, you have coaches that have maybe been part of this team for a while and are a gay person who wants step up, but maybe they don’t have quite the training for diversity and inclusion.

“You sometimes have a team full of cis, gay men wondering why there are no trans people on the team. They’re starting to form tournaments specifically for trans people, so the issue isn’t a lack of trans representation in sports – there are plenty of trans people out there that want to do sports.

“How do we build a structure of an organisation that is rooted in this kind of inclusion so that it’s not about going into the trans community and asking how we be more inclusive? It’s saying the efforts we’re making to build this inclusivity will automatically help, so then trans people can see they can actually do this, it’s a safe space for them, so that it’s not even a topic of discussion any more.

“We’re always so focused on these discussions that that’s where the whole sport gets lost in the conversation. You’re so focused on a local level issue, but you’re not doing anything to train the leaders of the organisations and the coaches to build these kind of environments without having to go and make such extravagant statements about how much of a safe space it is. We just let it speak for itself.

“From there it’s kind of like the Field of Dreams thing – you build it and they will come. If you already have a safe space, to the point where you don’t need to be like outspoken about it, then more people will come.

“That’s what we need to focus on. These things should already be enshrined in the identity of the team, so when we have these workshops at these conferences the audience are all there as sports leaders. They’re going to go back to their teams wherever they live, and they’re going to be the one that takes this information and uses it to shape the identity of their club so that they can be more inclusive for different communities so that you don’t have to sit there and try to convince other people that that’s what you represent.”

Ken Felts

Smith knows he has been able to have a profound impact on other lives.

He has seen people embrace their identities first hand, whether with the Pride Cheerleading Association in the US or through a story that went viral in recent years – Ken Felts.

I met Ken in my first year of personal training when one day I had to cover the morning aqua fitness class,” Smith added.

“Ken came up to me afterwards and asked if I taught other classes. They were way more intense, but he came along and kept showing up. He lost 40 pounds by coming to the class, and when I started my independent personal training business he was my very first client.

“We would do lunch afterwards, and slowly but surely I started to put the pieces together that he was gay. I would ask him about his life – he fought in the Korean War, he had a daughter who was a lesbian – and after a while I got him to admit he’d once had a romance with some guy way back, and he really regretted how the way that went down because it was back in the 1940s.

“He was born in raised in super Christian and very conservative parts of the US in a really shitty time to be gay, so he decided to try and pray the gay away and live a happy Christian life like he was raised to.

“Eventually he was able to tell me that when his daughter came out as gay, he was the good Christian man saying ‘that’s not what the Bible says’, but then over the years, he kind of was like you learn to accept it – but it was less about him accepting his daughter and more about him having to confront his own internal feelings.

“That romance he’d had was the secret that he was carrying inside of him for all these years that he was planning to die with. He straight up told me he was planning to die with this thing, but when he was more comfortable talking to me about it I mentioned there were seniors’ groups at the LGBT+ centre that he could attend and meet some other people.

“He was super lonely and feeling socially isolated, because none of the old people at the rec centre could relate to him and they would probably respond poorly anyway. I was the only person that he actually felt comfortable talking to, because he knew that I was gay.

“I ended up moving to Germany in 2018, but for years I had been telling him to write his memoirs. He didn’t think anyone would be interested, but I kept telling him people will want to know about his story.

“During the pandemic, he started writing, but the thing is, that forced him to go through the major traumas of his life again. One day I got a message from his daughter saying he had come out to her – he was emotionally struggling so much that when his daughter went over to visit one day he was crying, and he blurted it out and told her his story.

“He put a post on Facebook, and then his daughter’s wife took the story to the Denver Post and it went viral. He got so much positive support from so many people all over the world. It showed how much it meant to everyone, and he could see that too. It just kept growing into all these amazing things.

“I visited him last year, and he was happier than I’ve ever seen him – that had nothing to do with exercise, that was just the power of social acceptance and being able to finally find his rhythm.

“It’s the same kind of thing I experienced when I joined the swim team, and this all happened because one day I decided to go swimming. That’s why I’m so passionate about this stuff. I’m a living example of how much power this stuff has, so I want to put this out there more and show people what we can do with sport.”

Smith has a close relationship with Ken Felts, who went viral a couple of years ago after coming out at 90.

Follow Smith’s work at Stonewall Performance, and his writing at his author page on the Compete Network website.

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