Okay To Play: Sports Edition

This is a new series around the concept of play, how it can alleviate anxiety, and why we should continue to freely play, in one way or another, well into our adult lives.

Michael Bird
Oct 11 · 13 min read
2008 New York Knights

In my first story for this series, I introduced myself and my long relationship with anxiety. I talked a bit about sports, games, art and even touched on play as a philosophy.

In this edition of the Okay to Play series, I’m going to unpack how getting back into playing sports and engaging in demanding physical activities saved my skin in my twenties and how it continues to be a vital tool in the fight against my anxiety disorder today.

Growing up as a kid, I wasn’t that into the popular sports that most kids were playing. The alternative action sports were more my speed. I was idolizing Don Brown, reading BMX PLUS and drawing the T&C logo over and over again every chance I could get. I was skateboarding and snowboarding through high school but even still, my parents had me involved at a young age through the local youth organization which covered soccer, baseball, basketball, wrestling, and eventually lacrosse. With the exception of wrestling, I played a mix of those sports on and off for years. I didn’t really like soccer until I played indoor and you could check people into the boards — or at least I thought you could. Baseball was kinda cool but I didn’t really enjoy that until I was in my last eligible year of the Minor A division playing catcher. I remember having fun playing basketball for a couple of seasons in the height of the Jordan era and even went to camp over the summer where my team won the final. Don’t think I touched the ball more than five times but who’s counting. Then I got into lacrosse for a bit. That was fun and relatively new at the time. It was hard as hell at first to catch that stupid little ball in a basket attached to the end of a stick but after a while I got the hang of it and ending up playing for a few years. Went to camp for that too. After a while though I gave it up just like the rest of them. It was getting more and more serious as I got into high school and wasn’t as fun, plus I was sick of the headaches — not from getting checked or anything, but due to the fact that my head was so damn big none of the issued helmets fit me properly. I had to pop a few Advil every time I put it on. Not cool.

Overall, I remember just feeling nervous before games, perhaps even a bit scared and not very confident in my own size or skills. I didn’t want to play anymore. I traded the organized sports for smoking weed, taking hallucinogenic drugs and hanging around till that lifestyle came around and bit me in the ass years later.

It’s now 1999 and I have my first panic attack. I can remember it perfectly. I was sitting around with my then girlfriend and a bunch of her friends who worked at the I. Goldberg. I took a giant rip off a bong and as I exhaled, something didn’t feel right. No, it wasn’t the effects of the smoke that I just forced into my lungs — this felt more like a heart attack. I sat back against the wall and as everyone continued talking, I began to have what felt like an out of body experience. I felt like I was looking at myself from above and a wave of dread rushed over my body. My limbs were tingling. I couldn’t breathe and I started hyperventilating. I sat there and tried to hide my distress from the group. Nobody noticed and after a few minutes it went away. I brushed it off thinking it had something to do with the weed.

In the following months, I start having a “stomach ache” that just didn’t go away. I had it checked out by our family GP and he said I was fine. I went back a few weeks later and he sent me to a gastro specialist. Specialist checks me out and offered me an antacid. Brilliant. I go back to him and he sends me for a CAT scan. Results are clean but I go back again because I think they might have missed something. He says the last thing to do is to send me for a colonoscopy. We do it and he says it was the most boring thing he’s done in his career. He suggests a psychologist. I go one time and never return.

At this point, I’m physically and mentally going downhill. I’m in a toxic relationship, working in a gas station, barely attending community college and putting on a shit ton of weight. I’m at rock bottom.

What at the time felt like a knife to the heart turned out to be the greatest thing that could happen to me. My girlfriend dumps me and I move to Boulder, Colorado with my friend Jed for a while. I pick up the pieces, stop smoking weed, get back into the gym and score a job as a cook at one of the top restaurants in town, HAPA Sushi. I never cooked for anyone in my life but they give me a shot and I pass the test. I’m going from a sedentary life to one that is active. Movement has become part of my life again. My phantom stomach symptoms have gone away entirely. I couldn’t see it back then, but the two were directly related. The stomach issues were a result of anxiety and now that I was moving again, looking out instead of in, the levels drop and fade away.

I’m going from a sedentary life to one that is active. Movement has become part of my life again.

In the spring of 2000 I’m back in PA, working my ass off landscaping and going to college part-time with the hopes of earning credit towards an acceptance as a full-time student. I’m in the gym 5 days a week and by my 21st birthday in April of 2001 I’ve dropped 40 pounds and am in the best shape of my life.

In the summer of 2003, my friend Corey and I move into a small apartment in town a few blocks from campus as I’ve recently been accepted full-time for the fall. Things are going great until one night I end up in the emergency room after experiencing a major panic attack that seemed to come out of no where. I remember just laying there on the couch and then suddenly not feeling so well. Next thing I know it’s 1:30AM and I feel like I can’t breathe. I wake up Corey and have him drive me to the emergency room. My parents come and pick me up at like 3:30AM. I stay with them for a week. This kicks off what seemed like an entire summer of sleepless nights. I don’t go to bed before first light. I can’t relax until I know it’s the next day as I’m afraid to fall asleep thinking that I’m going to die. I remember thinking that I could call my mom because she was already up by the time I was allowing myself to fall asleep.

With the fall semester right around the corner, I start to look at extra-curricular activities to round out my experience as a student and hopefully alleviate some of my struggle. I want something physical, something with a community and something different to anything I’ve ever done before. I don’t remember really how I got word of it but the game of rugby seemed like a good option. At the time, men’s rugby at West Chester University technically isn’t even an official school sport, it’s a club playing at a Division 1 level. We share the field with the band camp and they have the priority. Even still, the club plays amongst the best in the region, Penn State, Princeton, Kutztown, Virginia Tech, etc. There are no tryouts so I just show up to the first practice and start working out. I know nothing about the game. Due to my size and speed, or lack there of, I’m put with the other forwards. In rugby, your forwards are typically the larger players who carry the ball up the field grinding it out. Our job is to run the ball and tackle anything that moves. The backs on the other hand are typically your more nimble runners and better ball handlers, perhaps even a bit more athletic.

With about 3 weeks of practice under my belt we have our first game. I’m placed on the “C side” which is basically a team made up of all the rookies with a few older degenerates who are barely holding onto their spot. I do fairly well and within a couple of games I’m playing on the “B side”. I’m moving up and getting more confident. You are only as good as your last game so if you are working hard and making improvements you get bumped up.

A vintage photograph — WCURFC picture day 2003

I remember that the game just felt fun. I wasn’t afraid and I wanted to be there on the field with my teammates. I had worked hard to get back into shape a few years earlier and this was the ultimate test. It’s a game of mental and physical strength. True grit. I watched guys who spent days in the gym getting as big as they could, walking around like they own the place turn soft right before my eyes because you have nothing to hide behind running the ball or going into a tackle. It’s you against your opponent and often there was more than one. It doesn’t matter if you can bench 315lbs. If your head isn’t in the right place when it’s game time you’ll be exposed. I know because it happened to me a few times.

During that first season, my anxiety was completely gone. There was nothing to worry about because I had nothing left in me. I left all the broken bits of me on the field. All the doubt, all the fear, all the strength and all the confidence are there with you at the same time firing at once. It’s your choice as to which emotions you’re going to activate. You turn off your self preservation and run as hard as you fucking can because if you don’t, you get hurt or you get put on your ass.

I left all the broken bits of me on the field. All the doubt, all the fear, all the strength and all the confidence are there with you at the same time firing at once. It’s your choice as to which emotions you’re going to activate.

My senior year, I finally get a shot at the “A-side” as a starter as a starting player. We’re playing in a tournament on Randall’s Island here in NYC. We kickoff and I go into the first tackle as hard as I can but I’m losing to the opposition as we fight for position. I look over my shoulder behind me and see my second row, the largest player on my team, running and putting his shoulder down as he prepares to make impact. He makes contact on the back of my arm which is across my opponents chest and crack, he breaks my arm. It sounded like knuckles popping and felt like the muscle was ripped off the bone. I stay in the game for another minute but walk off the field when I realize there is something really wrong. Within 30 seconds of my first varsity level game, my time with WCURFC is over.

I’m in a cast for 6 weeks and when we go in to see how it’s healing. It’s not, so I’ve got to have surgery. 1 plate, 6 screws and a bone transplant to make it all come together. I’m in a cast for another 8 weeks. At this point I’m thinking that I’ll never play again.

After graduation I move NYC and it’s not long before my anxiety symptoms return. I go back to the gym and that helps but it’s not cutting through the way it used to. I get by for about a year or so but need to find something else. I think about rugby again but don’t want to play union anymore. During one summer in our off season in college I was introduced to the game of rugby league. League has slightly different rules than the union we played in college but in my opinion it was even better. A faster paced, more open field style of play. The idea of playing league in the coming summer excites me.

The New York Knights were the local club here in the city so I go and check it out. I start practicing and before I know it, I’m right back into the swing of things — I can feel the anxiety symptoms slowly fading away. The Knights were part of the American National Rugby League(AMNRL) and at the time, the AMNRL was the premier rugby league in the country with corporate sponsors. So technically we were semi-professional. We traveled up and down the east coast playing teams from Boston, Jacksonville, Philly etc. They picked from our league to play at an international level as well for events as large as the world cup. So ok yeah, the guy who couldn’t make it to the majors in youth baseball is now playing rugby at a semi-professional level. What?

That first summer with the Knights was fantastic and I even earned myself the “Most Improved Player Of The Year” award. Cool. After the season I keep active in the gym and try to focus on the coming season. Everything is going well until one Friday night in March my cell rings and it’s my dad on the other end. He tells me he has stomach cancer but it’s not a death sentence and will have to start treatment right away. I’m floored and lose my shit in front of my roommates. I go home the next day to see him and we talk about what the treatment plan looks like. I remember my parents saying that they don’t want my sisters and I to change anything about our lives now that my dad was sick. They said to keep on living as if there is nothing wrong and to try and not worry— we were told he could beat it. I take that with me and used it as motivation, use it as a tool and for a while, it worked very well.

I remember at the start of the next season, ahead of the first game, I thought about my dad being sick and built up an insane amount of rage. I was going to kill whoever stepped in front of me on the field that night. I didn’t care who it was. I prayed and asked my dad to give me the strength that I need to play well. We kickoff the ball and the receiver runs right towards me — it was like a gift from the man himself. I line him up and whamo! I did what I was supposed to do.

Throughout the rest of the season I apply the same philosophy with varying degrees of success. Looking back maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do, to leverage the emotional pain I was going through to create rage but I needed motivation to get my head in the right space. I was too distracted otherwise.

2009 War At The Shore

My dad passed away the following December and all things considered, I oddly manage the experience fairly well. It’s now been almost 13 years and I don’t recall having a single panic attack during those last few months. There were definitely bouts of crying, anger and an overall feeling of being helpless followed by a tremendous sense of loss but I never went down into a dark place fortunately. Maybe I had a strong enough foundation and the right tools to keep me from falling apart. It wouldn’t be until the following years that the traumatic experience would take its toll.

After my dad died my only motivation when playing the game was him and his memory. I would think about him every time I stepped on the pitch and I always asked him to help me to be strong. That season we won the championship and afterwards I decided that I had given everything that I could give to the game at that point. I was 31yrs old and it was over. I wanted my summers back and was tired of icing my legs and taping up my ankles just to make it through practice.

Playing the game changed the way I look at myself and other people forever. It shaped and molded my perspective entirely. I wasn’t a “tough guy” growing up and I don’t try to be one now, but I can tell you that I was never intimidated by another man again after years of slamming into people at full pace.

I was never going to be great, but I was good enough to contribute to the team and do my job. For me, I knew that it was more for fun than anything else and that the level of play had kept my anxiety symptoms at bay. I was in control and that was the most important thing. It’s probably why I played for as long as I did even when I felt like giving up. The game and everything it provided was a tool for me.

Now that it’s been about 9 years since I’ve been part of the team I know that I was my best when I was actively involved in something larger than myself. During the pre-season and regular season I had no symptoms but come about January or February I could feel myself slipping. I had to get back to it as fast as I could.

These days I surf as much as I can and I try to stay active in the gym but the gym is boring as hell. I use health and longevity as my motivation. I want to be healthy throughout my life so I can keep up with my son when he gets older. I don’t want to be an old dad. I want to be involved and I guess I’m driven a bit by the fear that I’ll die early and Theo will be just like me.

So I guess I can say that getting back into sports in my 20’s has shaped who I am today. When people ask me if I watch football or “do you like sports” I often say “eh, not really but I like rugby and surfing” as if that mattered to them.

I’m not a “sports guy” but continuing to play is how I survive.

Michael Bird

Written by

Daydreamer and master tinkerer living in NYC. I’m here to share thoughts on personal development and mental health. www.michaelianbird.com

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