I’ve discovered that playing sports is a little like eating vegetables. When I was a kid, it was awful. But as an adult, I’ve learned to like it. A little. I don’t know that I’ll ever really love sports or cauliflower, but I can appreciate them a bit better than I used to.
A big part is control. As a kid, you don’t have it. You eat the vegetables the way they are prepared and put onto your plate. You play the sports you get enrolled in. Not to your liking? Life’s rough. But as an adult, you can avoid certain vegetables altogether. You can make them yourself and discover the joys of fresh spinach that doesn’t come from a can. You don’t have to play a team sport, in which many other players are penalized for your complete lack of athletic skill.
But the real breakthrough for me was realizing that I don’t have to be good at sports. I have a bit of a perfection problem. I have this need to be the absolute best at everything I do. And as a kid playing sports, that was never going to happen. And kids always have to play team sports, so I felt the added pressure of fucking up everyone’s game and not just my own. In elementary school, my stepdad was helping me pratice softball for some school team I was on. He was pitching me balls and I was attempting (and failing) to bat. He finally told me, “you’re just not athletically inclined.” A mean thing to say to a small child who couldn’t do anything with the information other than get even more depressed at the forced participation in a sport that clearly, she would not improve at? Probably, but he had a tendency to say whatever was on his mind. (Hence my complete avoidance of salt, beginning in junior high and not ending until a few years ago, after he told me that my thighs were fat, likely because the salt was causing me to retain water. Possibly that’s why I’m so into salts now – to spite him.)
Anyway, when I was growing up, organized sports were stressful. I couldn’t opt-out; I sucked; I felt all this pressure to do well, because I felt pressure to do well at everything; I knew I would never do well (the “not athletically inclined” comment rang in my ears for years after); I was letting down my entire team by sucking.
I had to player soccer, basketball, the aforementioned softball. In junior high school, I warmed up to sports a little when I started running track. Non-team sports were infinitely better. No one was relying on you; you weren’t relying on anyone else. I was never much of a team player. Of course, I preferred math competition to any sport, and I was able to move away from anything athletic.
In high school, I returned to sports, but as a spectator, due mostly to boys. I wasn’t interested in watching, but my boyfriend was a wrestler. And wrestling was big at my school. I ended up as the sports editor of the school newspaper. I loved it because although I wasn’t into the actual sports, I got to do a bunch of researching and learning new things. Sure, they were sport-related things, but I never pass up a researching and learning opportunity.
My last year in high school, I dated an actor, so I got a reprieve from sports watching, but it was soon revived for later boyfriends. Years of watching mind-numbing basketball and hockey and football followed. Again, I made the most of it by learning all about full-court presses and icing and running backs. (These were the years during which I molded myself based on the interests of the person I was with, and thank God those days are mostly gone.)
P. doesn’t watch sports, so I don’t have to worry about running into that these days. But as I was snowboarding last night, going down the mountain by myself, at my own pace, I realized that I’ve made my peace with sports participation. I still don’t go for team sports, but I enjoy more individual sports on my own terms.
Since I absolutely know that I will never be good at sports, it’s the one time that I don’t put any pressure on myself to be the best. Maybe that’s giving up and probably it means that I’ll never be as good as I could be. But you know? I don’t care. I’m a crappy snowboarder and I’ll always be a crappy snowboarder, but I’d rather go at my own speed and enjoy myself than push myself harder and have a terrible time. For some people, the enjoyment in a sport like that is pushing to the limit, but I’m not one of those people. So, I board along and P. tries to explain how I should go faster or try this other thing, and maybe I should try harder to get better, but I’d rather go slow and enjoy the scenery.
It was the same when I used to play golf. I’m truly a terrible golfer. But it’s fun to drive the cart and enjoy being outside and who cares if my balls ends up in the water every so often?
There’s no other area of my life in which I feel this way. I’m generally not at all satisfied with mediocrity. But it’s fun to relax and not put so much pressure on myself. Should I take the lesson with me to the other areas of my life? Maybe. But while I can have fun being bad at things I can never be good at, I can’t see myself enjoying being mediocre at things I could be great at. So, outside of sports, I’ll likely keep striving to be great.
I mostly fail at being great at sports, but I don’t worry about it so much, so can still enjoy them. And I probably mostly fail at being great at other things, but I know I’m trying, so I enjoy all those other things too. Contradictory? Possibly. But it seems to work OK for me.