When I was 13, my mum decided that I needed to pick up a team sport. “It’ll be good for you,” she reasoned. “You’ll make friends there. And people play basketball everywhere, so you can make friends wherever you go.”
At the time, I was a slightly chubby, very introverted girl in the midst of her emo phase, which meant that the concept of taking up any kind of team sport – with the singlets, socialising and need for hand-eye coordination – was a unique kind of terrible. True to form, I hated everything about that brief season I played basketball. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing was that when we were winning a game by a large enough margin, the well-meaning coach would encourage the other kids to pass to me so I could have a go. I was the mercy rule.
I didn’t recover from that foray into team sports for years. The flush of embarrassment when you drop the ball, the disappointment of losing, and most of all, the feeling of letting people down; why would anyone want to play a team sport?
Through uni, I was friends with musicians and writers, not goalkeepers and rucks. We called team sports ‘sportsball’ smugly, often with an eye roll. What’s so exciting about kicking/throwing/hitting a ball from one end of a field to another? I enjoyed solo pursuits – swimming, climbing, Crossfit – because of their insular nature. No one is relying on you, and you don’t rely on anyone. No pressure.
Then in 2017, a friend messaged me. They needed extra players for charity AFL match – no experience required. I agreed to play, and spent most of the match trying to be helpful but not so helpful that I might actually get my hands on the ball and need to actually do anything. We didn’t win.
I figured once the game was over, that was it. But, despite the loss, the team stayed in contact, plotting for next year’s rematch, drinking together, and organising social events. I was taken aback by the instant camaraderie that had developed, and in a moment of blind optimism, decided that I was going to play footy for a local club as well.
The optimism quickly faded. My first few training sessions were awkward and difficult. I forgot everyone’s name instantly, I didn’t have the right boots, and any kind of drill that involved both running and kicking sent me into a silent panic.
As the weeks went by, I got better, but I wasn’t getting picked for games – I had voluntarily subjected myself to my worst childhood fear.
Still, I had friends there now, including a colleague that played for the same club and who became my encouraging soccer mum. Being part of the team meant I felt a strange sense of obligation, and couldn’t bring myself to just quit. On Saturdays I helped out at the field, and in the evenings I went to presentation nights. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we trained. I even started practising at lunchtime.
There’s a camaraderie that you only develop when your team trains in the rain, wins against an old nemesis, and commiserates at the pub after a loss
Eventually, I got my first game, and singing the team song after winning was a novel thrill. I learned people’s names, and went out for social events, and got a little better each week.
My footy skills still aren’t great, but I get it now – there’s something special about being part of a team that I didn’t understand when I was 13. There’s a camaraderie that you only develop when your team trains in the rain, wins against an old nemesis, and commiserates at the pub after a loss.
I think I understand why people put themselves through competition, too. I used to think caring about a team meant inevitable disappointment, but I didn’t realise that winning actually means something when you’ve worked for it – putting in the effort and dedicating yourself to a team is hard, but also immeasurably rewarding.
I still love my solo activities, but have come around to the benefits of team sports. And in a country in which one in four adults feel lonely and over 50 per cent of adults don’t exercise enough, I think it’s time that everyone embraced sportsball.