At the school where I work, the staff sometimes organizes games against the students. If anyone asks me why I don’t participate, I’ll explain, “I have a medical condition.” If they press me further, I’ll say, “I’m allergic to humiliation.”
Or sometimes I’ll convince myself that I’m simply not competitive. It’s easy for a man who’s not good at many things to say he’s not competitive until he finds that thing he’s good at. I play Trivial Pursuit like lives are hanging in the balance. My wife likes to remind me how I forced everyone into Monopoly bankruptcy rather than make deals, even though that’s the whole point of the game and it happened one time!
So I am competitive, and I do hate humiliation and I am bad at sports. The solution, therefore, is to avoid sports at all costs, unless it’s against people who are worse than me, i.e. my children… when they were much younger.
But when my wife asked me to be on her workplace volleyball team for a one-day tournament, what choice did I have? “It’s just for fun,” Deb said.
Sports, of course, are never just for fun. If they were, they’d be called “sprites” or “athletickles” or “darts.”
Besides, a small part of me thought maybe this would be the sport I’m good at. Maybe, on the cusp of 50, I would discover I’m a serving specialist, a volleying virtuoso, a spiking savant. This could be my greatest athletic moment since I was the fastest rope climber in Grade 8.
I’ll kill the suspense: it wasn’t.
Oh, I started out okay. Even though this was probably the first time I’d played volleyball since senior high (by which time my rope-climbing exploits had been overshadowed by countless floor-hockey debacles), I accomplished my one major goal: I served the ball over the net.
In fact, in our first game, I made some points, blocked some shots and was a solid average in most positions. I learned that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether you make the play as long as you fall spectacularly trying to do so. I also learned that calling “I got it!” is much more helpful than shouting, “That’s yours!”
I can’t remember if we won that first game, because it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; it matters that I didn’t suck.
I do know that we caught a break by playing a team that, like ours, was more or less thrown together. There wasn’t a whole lot of athleticism going on. It was no darts, that’s for sure.
Our second game, though, was against a team that had obviously played before. They had moves. They had skill. They had T-shirts.
They pounded our team, which, again, isn’t important. What’s important is that I could no longer serve the ball. My one goal!
I had been using an overhand serve because it looks cooler and is less grandmotherly than underhand. And I had been managing it. But then this happened: I threw the ball up with my left hand, and it just kind of squibbled off my fingers into the air, leaving me no choice but to punch it forward with my right hand. I lurched and twisted and the ball flumped well this side of the net. Laughter and humiliation, right on cue.
After that, I was done. I didn’t make another serve. I flubbed saves, I sent balls out of bounds, I collided with players. At one point, I got so excited when I scored an actual point that I high-fived myself.
Mostly, though, I wallowed. I hated not being good. I hated being embarrassed. Fun? I wasn’t having fun at all. Why did I agree to this?
Then I realized that no one cared. In fact, no one probably even noticed. Humiliation is a product of ego and the belief that you’re important enough for other people to judge, let alone pay attention to. But people have their own things going on. Some of them are thinking they suck at volleyball too – except for that T-shirt team with their freaky Ninja moves. Others are focused on having a pleasant afternoon hanging out with families and friends, listening to live music, playing a little volleyball, chuckling at people sprawling headfirst into the sand.
That should have been my goal: not to let my ego get in the way of a good time. In the end, the only person who will remember those flubbed shots is me – that is, until next time my wife’s team is looking for players.