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.
I’m jealous. Missing out on high school team sports is a huge regret!
It really was so much fun. The only time it was ever ruined for me was when I had shitty coaches which did actually happen once.
You know, I keep thinking there need to be more options for team sports for grown-ups! And not semi-pro stuff, but fun recreational stuff for the average athlete.
I also agree that there should be more informal team sports options for adults! I hadn’t been involved in sports while growing up… well, outside of gym class anyway. So it came as a shock to me a few years ago when I found out I could actually play volleyball (and even improve my game with practice!). I had been working for a remote NPS unit, and one of the weekly social events for park employees was an informal volleyball game. It wasn’t quite like joining a formal team (more like “pick up volleyball”), but it was so much fun that I’d been looking to play the sport with others ever since. Short of convincing at least 3 other friends to play, the only other game options I see are those for the more serious (semi-pro) player.
When I was in college a few years ago, I took part in the intramural sand volleyball league and it was one of the highlights of my week.
If you don’t mind getting a suggestion from a reader on a topic that I’d like you to write about, could you write about your perspective on all women’s races? Do you think they’re discriminatory? My bf and I talk about this. He thinks they’re discriminatory and unnecessary because overall, men and women are participate in about equal numbers (there are actually more female runners in the 20-40 age group). He would understand the purpose of all women’s races, if women weren’t out there running, then it’s necessary to have these sort of events to drum up support. He’s quite supportive of my women’s weightlifting group for this reason. On the other hand, if there were an all men’s race, then women would complain that it’s unfair and discriminatory (I know there’s a men only 5K in the UK).
Personally I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I see his point and I can’t say that I’m crazy about the “girliness” that these races can be (as much as I love pink, I don’t know why pink is the only “legitimate” color that these races can have) and they can be construed as supporting stereotypes of women (“Oooh, I want to be a princess”). On the other hand, I don’t believe that there is full equally in men and women in the US. On average female athletes don’t receive nearly as much media coverage and sponsor support as male athletes do. If these races are a way of increasing and maintaining women’s participation in sports and also creating increased support for female professional athletes, I’m all for it. It’s just unclear to me that this does occur.
Good question! I’d also like to hear Caitlin’s take on this. Like you, I have mixed feelings- on one hand, I can see how there might be women who would be reluctant to participate in a mixed gender event (for various reasons), so these events might lead to greater athletic participation for women overall, which is a good thing. And while the overall pinkness is off-putting to me as well, I can’t knock those who do enjoy it. However, it does seem discriminatory (and I wonder how strictly it is enforced- how do these events treat trans women?). I’ve never participated in one of these events- perhaps it would be helpful for someone who has to weigh in?
That’s a subject I definitely have many opinions about! I will take your suggestions and write a post about it, and maybe we can get a conversation going about it. I definitely feel conflicted, that’s for sure.
My soccer days are some of the highlights of my life. Some – no all – of my closest girlfriends to this day were soccer teammates. You really bond after napping in sweat together on hotel beds during tournaments. I sucked at volleyball. Hung on through sophomore year, then let the dream to. I blame my tiny hands!