Our fourth grade class had just returned from recess or PE when a classmate–nominally a friend–looked at me with disdain and said, “Betsy, you sweat too much.”
It’s true, I do sweat a lot. From what I’ve heard, it’s the body’s ingenious way of keeping itself cool while exercising. And at the time, it was perfectly reasonable that I’d be sweaty. We’d just been outside–exercising. But of course I didn’t point that out to her. I was just stunned by the way she’d taken a natural human bodily function–which of course I had no control over–and made it–and me seem disgusting. Thirty-two years later I can still picture the look of revulsion on her face.
Add to that my addiction to books as a kid (which happily continues) and aversion to sports, and that I was made fun of for years for being uncoordinated and lacking any athletic skills. I never joined any teams. I didn’t even learn to swim until I was 12, embarrassed by so many years of taking beginners lessons with five-year-olds.
So what am I doing on a 40+ women’s soccer team now?
When I first met my husband, I joined his co-rec soccer team because I wanted to challenge myself and because I was in love. His teammates were friendly and welcoming but I was consistently terrified at every game because I didn’t know what I was doing and everyone else did. Sometimes they would shout across the field, “Betsy, I’m passing to you!” just to give me the chance to participate (I’m looking at you, Chris Newton), but whether I would make contact with the ball was anyone’s guess.
My husband left the league because too many opposing players were trying to knock him down as if they were in the World Cup, so I joined a women’s team. They were, for the most part, insane. Everyone had played soccer in college and I was WAY out of my depth. I only lasted one season. I had kids. I wished I would someday find a team that was basically soccer moms, who didn’t necessarily know what they were doing, but who maybe had a coach or someone kind and patient to offer guidance.
A year ago I signed up for an adult beginner soccer clinic sponsored by the parks & rec department. Aimed at soccer parents who wanted to be able to keep up with or play with their kids and get a little exercise, it was tremendous fun and no pressure. I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn and play and the fact that I was surrounded on the field by other novices and there was nothing at stake. Not scary at all!
Unfortunately, after the clinic ended I signed up for a parks & rec sponsored pickup game, where I was knocked over twice within the first five minutes by giant steamrolling men who left me with a bruise on my leg that lingered for weeks. I took a hiatus.
During my first game I messed up two throw-ins, prompting the referee to blow the whistle and award the ball to the other team. Playing left defender, I froze as a striker from the other team blew past me and scored. I assumed it was all my fault. I felt slightly better when the same played blew past other defenders when I was subbed out on the sidelines and scored three goals. It wasn’t just me. Still, I felt clumsy and unfocused and embarrassed. After that game I went home and cried. My soccer-loving husband reassured me that everyone has good days and bad days and that I hadn’t humiliated myself or cost the team the game or done anything terrible, really. I decided to go back.
And I got better, and our team got better, and I started having a lot of fun. I was proud of myself just for playing the whole game. Actually I was proud of myself for showing up. And I wasn’t terrified. It turns out these women were extraordinarily friendly and kind. Most, if not all, of the opposing teams told our team that we were nice to play with and that they were glad we had joined the league. Everyone on the team–to a person–was encouraging and patient with everyone else. Only a few of us had serious soccer experience, but it did not matter. Those of us who were new gratefully took direction from those who had more expertise, always offered in the most helpful and constructive way. When players got injured, everyone else rallied around to offer support and see how the person was doing. After one game we celebrated someone’s birthday. We had a family night where all the kids and some husbands and even a dog or two came out to watch us play. We went to a Legwarmers show and got our 80s dance moves on and afterward half the team stuck around to keep me company while I waited for my Uber to arrive. I got knocked down (maybe tripped? Who knows?) a couple times, bruised a rib, but I recovered. I looked forward to playing every Monday night and felt exhilarated afterward.
At the end of the season I wrote an email to my team telling them a little about my previous fear of organized sports and utter lack of confidence in my abilities. One of my teammates–who I’d seen in every game run hard, kick well, evade opponents, and generally play fantastically–said this about her own history: “I was the scrawny, skinny kid who was picked last EVERY DAY on the playground for our daily kickball game.”
Our goalkeeper, who thankfully came to us already armed with mad keeper skills, said this: “I don’t think there are many things more powerful (except for perhaps your faith and your family) – than the sisterhood of a TEAM. You meet, from all different paths, and you work TOGETHER. You figure it OUT. You celebrate each other. You laugh. You help. You are a cheerleader, you are a grinder. You sweat. You hustle, and you try to shine and you try to make you teammates stars. Why?
So that you win together.
You grow together.”
Another player, who ruptured her achilles tendon in the last two minutes of the first game, but nonetheless cheered us on in person or virtually for the rest of the season, offered this: “I am also in awe of the courage all you newbies have shown, and not just because of the, ehem, element of danger involved. I thought it took guts to get back out there after 17 years, but it’s nothing compared with the guts it took to get out there for the first (or nearly the first) time after 40. Your ferocity was a joy to watch.”
Did I mention the team is called Ice & Ibuprofen? And that we had jerseys printed up with nicknames on the back? A self-described intense and perfectionist teammate called Sparkles said this, which I would never in a million years have guessed after watching her energy and tenacity on the field. “I decided to take a risk and play soccer for the first time since college intra-murals. And I was scared.to.death. What if I sucked (I did)? What if it was too hard (it was)? What if everyone was better than me (the majority of you are!)? What if I wanted to quit (sometimes I do because of all the reasons listed before this)? But five minutes into that first game I knew it was exactly the right place to be and this group is like a warm, cozy blanket of positive energy, support and crazy-ass enthusiasm.”
Which reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about and struggling with for a long time–this idea of not being good at–or good enough at–something and therefore not doing it. This is an idea that we grow into as adults. When you’re a kid, you’re typically encouraged to try everything and (until or unless you have teachers or parents or coaches who unintentionally destroy your little developing ego) it’s ok to do something that’s fun even if you don’t excel. But then we decide that if we’re not excelling at it, we can’t do it. Maybe we’re told that or maybe we just turn our back on a thing that may have brought us joy because we’re not the best at it. I was taught to excel, and be the best at whatever I did. In my mind that meant, if I wasn’t the best, I might as well move on to another arena where I could be.
In one of our games late in the season, my teammate Jonisaurus said I’d played the best game of my life. While the bar for me may be low, she was only commenting on what she’d observed and that she’d seen me working hard and playing well. I have to say that felt pretty good. I know I am not going to become some kind of all-star athlete. I am not fast, as Baymax says in Big Hero 6, and I am overweight and I love junk food. But I am also strong, fierce, and determined. And it is so much fun to play soccer with these women.
For the past couple years I’ve been trying to change my definition of myself from the kind of person who…always returns calls and emails, always gets things done by the deadline, always remembers birthdays, always does the right thing, etc etc etc. The more mistakes I acknowledged making, the more I thought, “oh no, I’m not the kind of person who…” I didn’t give myself permission to make mistakes until pretty recently. I am working on eliminating this idea of being a certain kind of person from my identity. I am a human who tries hard to return calls and emails, get things done by the deadline, remember birthdays, do the right thing. But because I am human–and the mother of two kids and an entrepreneur and a daughter and a friend and a volunteer–I don’t always do it right. Things slip through the cracks. If you look closely at the cracks, you’ll find a lot of stuff stuck in there. And that is ok. It does not mean I have failed or am failing as a person.
In celebration of the Summer Solstice, on Sunday (and Monday at a special service) at church we had fire communion, where we symbolically let go of something that was holding us back by lighting it on fire and throwing it into the air. You might think this is dangerous and a fire hazard, but Rev. Aaron has all these tricks up his sleeve, including using flash paper (technically nitrocellulose) in church. This is a little square of translucent paper that burns into nothing after you light it on fire. It’s used in magic tricks and theater. What we did was write down the thing we were letting go of and burn it up. I am letting go of this script that I am a certain kind of person, that there’s any reason to deny myself the opportunity for fun and joy and to try something I might love and never excel at. I am letting go of the absurd notion that I can avoid making mistakes.
The mantra on this t-shirt runs through my head a lot.