I did try team sports though I had resistance. And I did find some enjoyment in the experience, but in the end, it was clear, team sports are not for me. I was not a jock (what we called people really into sports when I was in school), or a geek (smart), or popular, or anything else. In school, I was a zero, a nobody that would never be missed. Team sports did not change that. Yes, I was that guy who was picked last when choosing sides. Ugh! It became so common for me to be picked last that the few times I was not picked last were disappointing. Of course, it also meant there was another boy who was even more pathetic than me. Looking back, this was a good exercise in compassion.
One example that clearly stands out in my mind as a turning point, was the rag football league. It had many of the elements of real football, the running, scoring, kicking and all the rest, but without the pads and tackling. We had small rags (some people call these flags) tucked into our pants at the waist. The other team could pull this hanging piece of cloth instead of physically tackling you when you had the ball. It was fun and with the rags, since there was no arguing if you touched someone or not, as in another soft football version called touch football. Endless arguments of “I touched you.” And “You missed me.” made the game boring and un-fun. I liked the definitive holding the rag in your hand as the proof you ‘tackled’ the other person.
Being not very fast, my job was to defend the line and specifically the guy with the ball beginning with the quarterback. On one play just before the snap of the ball, there was some confusion about who was in which position and I was instructed to change to the other side. But the center snapped the ball back to the quarterback at that moment and the ball bounced off me and ended up on the ground. We now had to kick the ball to the other team. I was immediately blamed and shamed for my terrible blunder. You would have thought I just lost a great battle. It was terrible to feel the judgment of my teammates.
I believe all people possess a need to prove themselves, but in me, this seems especially strong. In time I discovered this proof was not for anyone else, it was for me. So on the next play when we had to kick the ball to the other team, I ran faster than I have ever run towards the other side of the field where a young boy was going to catch the kicked ball and run back towards our goal. I saw myself out ahead of all my teammates who were mostly taking up strategic positions to ‘tackle’ the runner as he ran upfield. I watched as the ball came down towards the receiver. With an even more astounding burst of speed, just as he caught the ball, I leaped towards his rag in a graceful stretch with me ending up crashing to the ground. The runner continued down the field a long way eventually someone grabbing his flag. I stood up and realized I had his other rag in my hand. Holding it up for all to see, my team was elated as the other team would now be starting all the way back near to their goal line.
Now I was the hero, the avenging player who would lift the entire team to a transcend level of success. I found the whole blaming and then hero cycle to be annoying, boring, unhealthy and something to avoid. So I did. I was done with team sports. I am sure people have other experiences as well as I have made on other occasions. I believe you can recognize the emotions I am talking about and can relate through your own experience. Yes I know there are aspects of team sports that builds character and blah blah blah. Yes it is true, but building character does not have to include blaming and shaming. These are destructive and go against our true loving nature.
I have made other interesting experiences with sports. I was always an avid water skier. Living on the bay and having a boat made this much easier. I was quite athletic and could even do some completely useless tricks mostly for my own amusement. I eventually took up jogging when I lived in the mountains and could run completely in nature. In truth, I have never had the body of a runner, so it was more for joy then overall fitness. Parts of me complained about the running. Overall, I loved it and even continued while living in Heidelberg.
Then was my tennis experience. Both my parents were tennis players and involved with the local community which sponsored the Junior World Cup Tennis Tournament every year. This was quite a lot of fun as we also sponsored two men each year from another country. Over the years, we had players from South Africa, Mexico and the Netherlands stay with us. I also took lessons and enjoyed playing tennis. This does require another person but not necessarily a team. In college I played with my fraternity brothers and would win most games. My brothers seemed to react quite negatively to losing to me on a continuing basis. We remained friendly and such, but I could feel their anguish at the difficulty to win. Later I would learn this was a co-dependent weakness on my part, I felt bad that I was responsible for making them feel bad. In an effort to not make either of us feel bad, I began to play less than my full potential. It worked for they began to win more games and felt better. But I stopped enjoying to play tennis. Many years later, I came to understand that when giving my best, I felt my best. So although my brothers felt better I did not, so I stopped playing. These understandings came much later as I learned about myself and who is responsible for our emotions in a relationship.
I also had a funny experience in a bowling league. I was about 13 years old and by mistake, they put me in with the group of older boys for a few weeks. Playing with the older boys I had the highest scores I ever bowled. I rose to the challenge of playing with the older boys. It was fun. When I was back with my own age group, I never played as good again. At the time I found this to be strange and frustrating. I now understand my own nature thrives on challenge and the pressure to perform. But this is not something I see in myself across all areas of my life. It seems when the challenge is unexpected, I can adapt. If beforehand I agree to the challenge, it is more difficult. It brings up the idea that it is often better not to know what we are getting into. The word surprise does contain the sound of the word ‘prize’ for a reason.
My whole life I have enjoyed bicycling. I used to bicycle to school when I was just as young as 6. Bicycling around the neighborhood and to local events was natural and as kids, we did this often. It was easy in south Florida since it was mostly warm and always flat. When I moved to New Mexico, this was a bicycle of another color. (to adapt a phrase from the Wizard of Oz) There were hills and even mountains. it was a great practice to navigate these. My most memorable route was going up the road to the ski basin, usually to the upper parking lot. It took about an hour and a half to make the trip. Then the going down part took less than 20 minutes. It was a wild hairy and exciting ride. I always did a check of my bike before this mad dash down the mountain to avoid any mishaps.
I finish with a story I read in a book from the Dalai Lama about his life as a young boy in Tibet. He described a visiting American volleyball team playing a local team. It was an exciting event for this small nation to have American players. As the game progressed the Dalai Lama found the behavior of the American team confusing. The American players liked smashing the ball over the net in an effort to win the point. He did not understand this since his own belief was playing the game was a lot more fun than scoring points.
This sort of sums up my own belief. As children, we play for fun. Somewhere along the way, we learn to play to win. I am not against improving yourself. But that is something between you and you. I believe it is time to restore the fun of play not just for children, but for adults too. My six year old grandson is in a baseball league where they do not keep score and the children all get to play every position at least once. I find this to be a huge step forward to a more kinder way to experience sports. It is interesting to note his league is the exception. We need more of this sort of frame to keep joy of playing (sports) fun and healthy both physically and mentally.
photo: me ready to water ski. solo. July 1958