Saturday, October 08, 2005


Now that I live much closer to work, I have been blessed with the gift of an extra three hours per day. What better way to use this time than to explore new opportunities and activities I never had time to in the past. One such activity I have chosen is volleyball.

I've always loved the sport. I was an 'ok' player in school. Lately I have been wanting dig deeper, to expand my ability, to improve my skills, and to increase my social circle in the process. The perfect opportunity manifested itself in the lunchtime league hosted by my company. I signed up as an individual, and somehow, was placed on a Division 1 team.

Division 1 is the hardcores.

My teammates have been playing for a number of years. I found out very quickly that they all have skills on a level well above mine. In the first two games, as is my custom, I played my heart out as best I could. I watched my teammates, took note of their style and where they were expecting me to be, often sacrificing my body in various aerial horizontal positions to keep the ball off the grass. I thought I did a relatively decent job, however, it was obvious that I was not quite at their level.

Still, I was ready to play my heart out, and to ramp up as quickly as I could to contribute to my new team. Until I received this email before this week's game:

"Today, I was told we are playing against the strongest team. So, I need to put the 6 strongest players on the court to beat them.

"You are welcome to come and cheer for the game."

Those words hit me like a stab in the gut.

The logical, engineering side of me immediately kicked in and started rationalizing. My team is in D1, which is more competitive than the D2 league. I am the extra, the add-on, and am obligated to do whatever the team captain wishes. And let's face it, the last thing I ever would want to do is to be the cause of the team losing the game.

I can convince myself of all the reasons why I shouldn't play this game.

But I can't deny that my feelings were hurt.

Competition. It is the very core of the sports and games we play throughout our lives. It is what drives us, what motivates us, what inspires us to play our hardest and to improve our skills. From the intellectual stimulation of chess and poker to the hardest-hitting of physical combat, the spirit of healthy, friendly or downright adversarial competition is what propels us to keep coming back for more.

Sometimes, however, we take it a little too far.

A perfect example is the youth sports of today. Organized sport, once a healthy outlet for kids to burn off energy, play a game, and interact with one another, is infused with parents attempting to live their lives vicariously through their children. They stand on the sidelines, screaming at their progeny for every wrong move, arguing with the umpires or referees, even fistfighting with each other. And while many of the coaches are positive, encouraging and fair-minded, there are some who mimic the actions of the parents, creating a pressure-cooker of contention between themselves, the coaches and the players.

All for a game. A kids' game no less.

How much fun can one truly have in such an environment ? Surely, the tougher kids can tolerate, endure and even excel when surrounded by this testosterone-driven hostility. However, most cannot, and would not if given the choice. More than once, I have heard stories of kids who simply want to play and have fun. They do not need to be the best player or to win the championships; they play for the pure love of the game, and the camaraderie amongst other players their age. Yet the vitriol of the parents and coaches, and the single-minded focus of winning at all costs, became the dealbreaker that turned them off the game for good.

What ever happened to playing the sport just for the sport itself ? That concept appears to have been lost. Muffled by the screams of negativity from the coaches and parents. Drowned out by the myopic vision that all that matters is the score.

Long ago, I made a pact to compete only within myself. I promised myself that I would always endeavor to reach higher, to play harder, to be a better teammate and player. I vowed that it would always be about the game and the people first, and about winning last.

Now, as an adult playing in various recreational leagues, I still keep that vow.

This week, my volleyball team put its six best players on the court. The other team only had four, and was forced to play shorthanded. Even so, my team was defeated in two straight matches. Decisively.

In a way, I'm relieved I was called out for an ERT emergency and was not able to spectate. Deep down, I wish they had just given me the chance to improve. But I know that winning the game is more important to them than building the skills of an enthusiastic but still-learning teammate. So I resign myself to sitting on the sidelines when I'm asked to.

As much as I love competition, as much as I enjoy the challenge of playing with those at a higher level than I, as much as I want to contribute to this team, I think I'll stick with the recreational D2 league next season.

Sitting on the bench, even if it gives the best chance of a win, is a lonely place to be.

I don't wish that feeling on anyone.


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