In high school, most of my friends were actors or artists or writers. These were the people I hung out with on weekends, who I went to parties and played Dungeons & Dragons with. But I was also an athlete, and so I spent every day after school with other athletes at football or track practice. Though I didn’t socialize with my teammates, I liked them in the way you grow to like anyone you share a challenging experience with daily.
However, these two social circles never mixed. If they were a Venn Diagram, I would have been their only overlapping member. Most of my artists’ friends didn’t really like or understand sports, and as far as I could tell none of my teammates liked or understood the arts. I didn’t find it hard to move between these groups, however. I felt they had more in common with each other than their divergent interests suggested. In many ways, the artist and the athlete are two branches off the same tree.
This is why I have always found the trope of Jock as Villain so irritating and inaccurate. I understand why The Jock makes an easy choice for an antagonist in teenage dramas. Usually, the people writing these stories weren’t athletes themselves, and the star athlete, in particular, can become a kind of minor celebrity on campus. Some boys handled the attention well, and some didn’t. Some were humble and some preened. Attention can play strange games with your ego when you get a lot of it all at once.
But the only real bullies I met in the locker room–and I didn’t meet many–were the boys who were not fully committed to the sport. They were uninterested in practice, believing they could excel on physical prowess alone, and they always quit before the season was done. They also couldn’t make friends with the other guys, the ones who were committed. There is a level of humility necessary to get good at anything. You have to accept that practice and learning are more important than whatever natural gifts you possess; you have to accept that you can be beaten if your attention wanders, that focus is an everyday discipline, and you have to remember that your love of playing the game is more important than winning it.
Finally, you have to make peace with the unavoidable vulnerability of competition. Admittedly, this was the part of sports none of my teammates or I talked about, but it was there. I felt it in every huddle and on every starting line. Before every play, before the starter’s gun was fired, the question of, “Am I good enough?” hovered like a specter over friend and foe. Sports, I think, were meant in part to answer this question for young men and women, but the question remained there whether you won or lost, whether you dropped the pass or scored the touchdown.
Though I learned to hate the question, learned to see its suicidal unanswerable-ness, it was the part of sports that most moved me, that most connected me to my teammates. Everyone asks this question of themselves in some way: the actor auditioning, the kids at the dance looking for a partner, the Junior sitting down to the SATs. The athlete and the artist are just confronted with it with ritualized frequency, conspicuously and unavoidably. It is a question that has only one actual answer, though the belief that it has many creates a hole in every dancer or quarterback’s heart that a lifetime can easily be spent trying to fill.
My days of athletic competition ended long ago, but I still feel a thread of connection to them–when I watch football on Sundays or the sprinters in the Olympics. It is a thread that still runs just as strong through all my writer friends and students, weaving itself through workshops and conferences. I sometimes wonder what the arts or sports would be like without that question, if no one ran a marathon or wrote a novel to prove anything to themselves or the world, without trying to seek and know their value. I can’t really imagine it, frankly.
Because in every race I ran or story I wrote, I’d eventually forget to wonder if I was good enough and instead became lost in the experience, in the sheer pleasure of life in full focus. There is nothing better than being completely present for something, whatever it is. There is nothing I value more. It’s so valuable, so immeasurably life-affirming, it is hard to fully understand. It’s simpler, sometimes, to think I’ve discovered my value, a single race or story being smaller than the whole of life I feel when I give over to something completely. It is an experience that doesn’t care if I win or lose if I publish or not, it doesn’t care about any outcome because, just like me, it is enough all by itself.
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