This past week I played kickball for the first time in a decade. It was a pick up game, organized by a classmate to inspire a conversation about the role of gender in sports, so I went into it knowing full well that I had nothing to prove. Surprisingly I did much better than I had anticipated; I actually made contact with the ball! I felt a rush of excitement playing the game, one I hardly ever feel anymore, and I couldn’t but think about my past experiences with sports and how I became a self described “anti-athlete.” It made me reflect on my bitterness, my utter disdain and disinterest in sports, and how something I dislike so much could actually be fun.
I grew up as an abysmal athlete. I couldn’t catch, I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t pay attention long enough to be of use to anyone in a team setting. I was the token “bad kid” on the team, the one people ignored and disliked for dragging the rest of the team down with his mediocrity. And it sucked. It sucked being the worst one on the team. It sucked feeling like you were letting people down, and it sucked to be disliked for not being as naturally good at something as the other people around you. It sucked not being good at the things boys were expected to be innately good at, and it was frustrating to be forced to do something you were horrifically bad at solely because there was no alternative activity for a young boy to do.
I could never enjoy myself while playing sports because I always felt like I was a burden on the team. I couldn’t feel happy for a teammate when he scored a goal because I didn’t feel like I had the right to associate myself with his success. I told myself that I wasn’t good at sports and that I would never be good at sports, so I simply quit playing them. As long as having fun and winning were synonymous, I had no business playing. It’s also important to note though that beyond being just bad, I fundamentally didn’t care for sports. I was far more interested in drawing and performing than I ever was in hitting a home run or impressing the people around me with my unbridled masculinity.
The thing is I was lucky to have loved something in my life outside of sports. There are so many young boys out there who fucking love sports, but never get a chance to participate because they won’t help the team win. There are so many young girls who are discriminated against and ignored because of the idea that sports are a “guy thing” or the misconception that girls will keep them from winning. I’m realistic enough to know that people love sports because they love the competitive and skill based elements of them, but when we focus all of our energy on winning we lose all of the positive life lessons and experiences children can have. Being obsessed with winning sends a message to children that important life skills like communication, teamwork, and perseverance come second to taking a home a trophy or winning at the expense of someone else. It’s important for kids to learn how to cope with failure, but we shouldn’t make them feel like failures.
Call me an idealist, but I think that sports should focus on teamwork and personal growth. I think they should be about identifying each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and devising a strategy to reflect those two things. I may be a terrible athlete, I may tell people I hate all sports, but I have to admit that there’s no feeling greater than succeeding on the field. There’s no feeling greater than scoring a goal after fifteen misses, of feeling like you overcame some personal obstacle. And that’s what sports should be about- personal growth, that’s what success should be defined by- how far you’ve come as an individual. You shouldn’t be expected to be the best, you should be expected to do your best.
This semester I’ve started taking group fitness classes at Northeastern, and I am kind of embarrassed by how much I love them. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I love cardio boxing, surprisingly more embarrassed than I am of the fact that I’m usually the only boy in the class. I know I’m generally the worst one there, I know my form is awful and that I’m usually half a step behind the rest of my classmates. But I also know how great it feels when I nail a combo; I know how satisfying it is to finally get something after failing at it countless times. I know how rewarding it is to push yourself past your limit and come out alive on the other side, and I wish that was something all people could experience. I think it’s something all people need to experience, and maybe, just maybe, if we can put winning to the wayside, if we focused on making people feel like winners even when they lost, sports wouldn’t be half as daunting. Hell, they could even be fun.