Benchwarmer

I was twelve the first time I was hit in the face with a basketball.

It was seventh grade gym class. I’d long been a non-enthusiast when it came to sports, and spent the lion’s share of my effort in gym class trying to get out of whatever activity was proscribed that day. On this particular day, in January of 1998, I was sitting on a long wooden bench at the side of the gym, not quite directly under a basketball hoop but certainly not a safe distance away, chatting with my friends as I ostensibly “waited my turn” to practice basketball.

At the time, I wore glasses. Not your average children’s glasses, but large, owlish frames with lenses as thick as beach glass. They were heavy, and the bridge of my nose was always sore from the weight of them. When I was hit in the face with a poorly-aimed basketball, my glasses — bless their rugged construction — were undamaged, but the bridge of my nose was not.

This mishap — along with another similar one that same year, also with a basketball — gave me the bump on my nose that is now characteristic to my face. I came away with only one lesson. Unfortunately, it was not that I should pay attention in gym class; nor was it that I should avoid sitting under a basketball hoop. I learned only that I hated sports. Sports were not for me.

Volleyball? Absolutely no; it hurt my wrists to serve and bump the ball. Track — certainly not. I’d halfheartedly jog the first quarter of our run and then walk the rest. I cared nothing for the kilometre run times our phys ed teachers encouraged us to improve upon. Badminton I could enjoy; my small, ungainly arms usually made me feel uncoordinated and weak, but the easy swoosh of the racket, the click of the feather-light birdie, and the distance I could send it was delightful to me, regardless of my accuracy. But when a rare successful serve finally landed me a point, and my opponent condescendingly remarked “Good try,” I wanted to give up on that, too.

I was eager enough to be measured at any academic pursuit. I excelled in school, my report cards littered with easy As in English, Social Studies, Math, and Science. I think that because these subjects came naturally to me, and I didn’t have a fear of failing or being — god forbid — corrected, I enjoyed them. The effort I put in was rewarded immediately with good grades. I was, in fact, often ahead of the class, and it fed a feeling of superiority and specialness that satisfied me.

As far as gym class went, however, I justified my apathy with a grade I received at age nine: my gym teacher gave me an A for effort, but a D overall in the class. It kept me off the honour roll and made my parents livid. I stopped trying. Why try if it didn’t matter anyway?

I realize now that less academically-inclined students must have felt this same resignation in English or Math class. Because I excelled in those things, I enjoyed them, but my privilege and arrogance was such that at the time I did not see my own difficulty in gym class reflected in other students’ academic frustrations.

I wasn’t totally inactive. I did enjoy riding my bike to school — the feeling of freedom, of speed, and of having only myself to answer to was intoxicating. Nobody was there to laugh at me when I was clumsy or couldn’t make it up a hill. It was just me and the breeze. Then, when my bike was stolen from outside the school in grade six, I stopped riding. I was very easily discouraged.

All this serves, I hope, to illustrate my lack of aptitude and profound lack of interest in athletics during childhood. This attitude carried through to my teenage years, when I got into vampire books and casual smoking, and into my goth phase, when being weak and pallid was the ideal. At eighteen, I moved out of home and to another city a twelve-hour drive away; with no computer of my own and very little else to do indoors, I did gain an appreciation for spending time outside. Still, however, I’d have been hard-pressed to run a block to catch the bus.

I was twenty-one when I got my first bicycle since my childhood one had been stolen. I’d been dreaming about it, about the feeling of speeding down suburban streets, wind in my hair. I’d been away from home for four years and away from my elementary/junior high school for ten, but in my dreams I’d retrace the familiar route from home to school, that feeling of independence and joy. It reminded me of a time before my cynicism, before even atheism, when the world was a beautiful thing I wanted to hold in my hand.

I’ve never been a driver. Even now, in my thirties, I’m still “in the process” of getting my license. The bicycle, for me, meant freedom. I could get where I wanted to go on my own schedule, as quickly as I could push my body to get me there. I was not beholden to bus routes and transit times; I was in control of my own movement, and that felt like being in control of my own life. Suddenly, I had the motivation I needed to invest in my body, to get strong. The stronger I was, the faster I could go.

Still, though, I hated the idea of organized sports. One of the most appealing things about cycling, for me, was that I was not being measured by anyone else. I had no-one to disappoint, nor to impress. I could go as fast or as slow as I wanted, I could have bad days, I could choose when to ride and when not to. I didn’t even particularly like riding with friends, and I certainly would never have participated in a race or relay.

I’m an incredibly proud person. I hate failing. I hate making even simple mistakes. Worst of all, I hate the idea of letting down a team that’s counting on me. I’m sure it’s partly trauma from growing up terrible at sports and enduring the cruelty of other children, but also, it’s my personality. I’m an ENTJ, a Leo sun/rising and a Cancer moon, an Enneagram 3 — the Achiever. All of that is just shorthand to say that I’m driven and success-oriented. It’s very important that I’m respected by the people around me, but I’m also incredibly sensitive to criticism. Without regular praise and positive feedback, I crumple, I shrink like an orchid, I lose faith in myself.

It’s my opinion that growing up is about learning who you are, recognizing your own flaws and weaknesses, and then trying to compensate for them as best you can. I can’t become a different person, and I can’t change my personality, but I can try to recognize when the worst parts of me are surfacing and try to talk myself down.

The difficult juxtaposition in my personality led to some dark times for me, from childhood all the way through to adulthood. Depression, suicidal ideation, and self-hatred were my longtime on-again off-again bedfellows; being as sensitive as I am, but also as attention-craving, means I am constantly exposing myself to the very criticisms that break me. Eventually, however, when I was twenty-six or twenty-seven, these dark times started to subside. They happened less and less often, and with less force, until they felt — for the first time in my life — manageable. I cannot overstate how important it’s been that I’ve also won the love of a person I deeply respect and admire; knowing that to her I am worthy of love helps me love myself. I am sure it’s been instrumental in my self-growth.

It was an incredible leap for me when, four years ago, on the high that comes with a couple of drinks among new friends in the summer, I joined a dodgeball team. I’d been cycling for six years at that point, and it had become a way of life for me; I’d made lifelong friends through it, and had come to appreciate the capabilities of my body, my strength, my determination, my perseverance. I knew, for the first time in my life, that I could learn to do something with my body, and get good at it. I was still deeply insecure and fearful, but I felt bold that night.

We were on the porch at an end-of-summer party, the night cooling the air outside, and some friends were discussing what to name their newly-formed dodgeball team. Impromptu, I decided to join, despite all my protestations and my firm belief that sports were not and would never be for me; I’d engaged in this type of impulsive decision-making in the past and had found that it had led to some of my better memories. On that summer high, I felt like my deep-seated fear of letting down the team was something I was ready to address.

I immediately regretted it.

The first season was so, so hard for me. Every time I missed, or made a game-losing error, or got a rule wrong, I cringed with my whole body and soul. I cried at least twice, and more than that, I dreaded our games each week. Slowly and surely, though, I got better at it. I didn’t think I would — didn’t think I was capable — but I learned to refine my throw, to stretch properly, to aim. Unlike childhood, when I’d been bullied and judged harshly, here I was my own worst critic. I’d joined a league specifically formed around inclusivity, and each game I was surrounded by supportive adults, members of the queer community, many of whom had been bullied themselves for different reasons. My teammates told me how much I was improving and how proud of me they were. They helped me learn, but only when I wanted it, and they did so gently — as if they knew how easily I could be bruised. And by the end of the year, my team had built up my confidence enough that I was looking forward to those Tuesday game nights.

I played for a couple more years, until it got to the point where I was helping newer players. That felt great. I learned to appreciate how good it was to share the knowledge and skill that was, for me, so hard-won. Then my wife wanted to join a softball league. She’d played a lot when she was young, and several of our dodgeball teammates played for the same softball team. The last few summers we’d been lonely, because so many of our friends would spend their evenings on the softball diamond. Despite the anxiety that rose in me when I considered it, I knew how rewarding I had ultimately found dodgeball — to the point where I’d considered joining another league so I could play another night each week. I decided that we’d only play softball if we could play together, and if we could join the team our dodgeball teammates played on, which wasn’t accepting new players. I put as many obstacles as I could between myself and the softball season.

Our friends argued our case and, after some other players couldn’t commit to the season, we got onto the team. I had been hoping that we wouldn’t make it, but had told myself that if we did, I would force myself to do it, despite how hard it might be.

I was right; I hated it. I was so bad at it, I barely knew the rules, and I kept messing up. I overran third and got out. I missed any balls that deigned to come to my isolated corner of right field. I was so terrified of swinging the bat that I over committed and swung at everything. I dreaded our games, the same as I’d once dreaded dodgeball. I told myself that I just had to get through one season and then I could quit.

But slowly, and surely, with the encouragement of now-old friends and new teammates alike, I learned. We scheduled extracurricular practices with some other friends who were softball experts. I worked on my throws, my catches, and my hits whenever I could. And I got better. Those old fears — that there was something wrong with me, that I’d always be terrible at it no matter what, that it wasn’t worth doing if I couldn’t do it well, that everyone would hate me for being bad at it — were, bit-by-bit, allayed. By the end of the season, I was begging to practice on non-game days. I’d go to games, semi-professional and recreational, and cheer, and watch, and learn. I’d ask questions.

Friends who’d known me for a long time laughed and said they didn’t recognize the new me. What had changed?

The major clue, for me, was how much happier and more confident I felt. This was a change inside me. I had learned how to compensate for those parts of my personality that I hated, and in doing so, had learned not to hate myself so much. I had learned that even when I’m not good at a sport, my wonderful, supportive, inclusive friends would still be proud of those small successes, however few they were, and would encourage me regardless. It was about participating, about trying, and about learning — not about being good at it out of the gate. I know they teach you this stuff when you’re a kid, but it didn’t make sense to me until much, much later.

I’m a naturally competitive person. That’s part of the personality I described earlier, and it’s also why I hated being bad at sports. Why do it if you aren’t going to win?

Well, I learned that it’s about more than that. It’s about spending time with your friends. It’s about encouraging others when they need it, and letting others cheer you up when you miss an important catch. It’s about being a little bit vulnerable, and about seeing your own progress and that of those around you, and about trying your best at something.

I don’t wear glasses anymore. I don’t know if that’s symbolic; I got laser eye surgery seven years ago now, and I’ve only been playing sports for four. I still have that bump on my nose, a reminder of a time when I’d rather have avoided participating. But now, I’m there for it. I’m up for the challenge. I’m proud of myself, of my body, of my skills. And somehow, it doesn’t feel quite as bad when I make a mistake, because I know that I’m learning and that next time I’ll try harder and maybe I’ll be successful. I don’t know if it was sports that cured my fear, or if by my own healing I allowed myself to play sports. All I know is that playing has helped me love myself, and that now, I am a happier person than I ever imagined I could be.

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