Last Saturday, Brian and I went to the local rec center to swim some laps, and when we arrived, we found ourselves in the midst of a horde of teenage girls in matching tops, short spandex shorts and knee pads. I didn’t even have to see them bumping and setting balls to each other to know that I was looking at club volleyball players.
Seeing them made me feel wistful for my own adolescence, when I played volleyball on my high school’s varsity team. It’s difficult for me to express just how much I loved being on that team. Even the awful things, like being yelled at by our coach or losing by an embarrassing number of points or being forced to run the stairs in that swampy field house in Oklahoma in August…the awfulness of those things paled in comparison to the sense that I was part of something a little bit bigger than I was. When we suffered, we suffered together. When we triumphed, we triumphed together. We were a team.
Now, don’t be thinking that just because I was on the varsity team, that I was any good. I can’t overstate just how mediocre I was at team sports. Actually, “mediocre” is a really generous way of putting it. It would be more accurate to say that I was terrible with the exception of a few shining moments of brilliance – a string of ace serves or blocking superstar hitters who were destined for All-State. The one thing I was good at – blocking – was also the one thing that took the least amount of skill.
But I learned early on was that I didn’t have to necessarily be amazing at sports to love playing them. I loved having practice after school. I loved watching the bruises bloom like depraved flowers on my knees. I loved wearing uniforms and team parties and bumpy two-hour bus rides across the Oklahoma plains. I even loved getting up early on Saturdays for tournaments, even though I would have never admitted that out loud. There was so much to love about playing on a volleyball team that I could be mediocre and I could even suck and it was often embarrassing, but as long as I was part of a team who played the sport I loved, I was just fine.
I know that I’m supposed to talk a bit about the positive impact of playing sports on the lives of girls, how they are less likely to use drugs and to get pregnant while they are teenagers and all of that. That’s all really important, no doubt. But can we talk about how fun it is? How excellent it can be to be on a team? How it can be so life-affirming to be surrounded by teammates who are going through the same things as you? You don’t even have to be best friends with all of them – hell, you don’t even have to like them – but you do have a connection with them that no one else understands.
And sure, it could be hard at times. When the coach is spiking balls down at you from a stepladder so your forearms will toughen up or the whole team has to run suicides because every single one of you watched as the opposing team dropped serve after serve right in the same spot with no one so much as moving, it definitely sucks. But I never wanted to be anywhere else.
Sometimes I feel like the way we talk about girls and sports is a bit like talking about eating one’s vegetables. It’s good for you, it will make you strong, it will make you tough. Like it’s this thing you hold your nose and do even though you’d rather not for the simple fact that it’s “good for you.” I want to talk about the pleasure inherent in these things Just as I think broccoli is delicious, I also think playing sports can be so damn fun. I mean, they don’t call it “playing” for nothing.