I never played a team sport in school. Nothing beyond the mandatory PE sessions which you could conveniently miss if you were on your period or faking a period, and I may have been guilty of this on more than a few occasions.
When I met my Anglo-Australian husband, Casey, he had been playing soccer every weekend from age four. “So your parents carted you and your two brothers around all over Sydney every weekend to play sport” I asked baffled. “Of course,” he replied, like it was the most normal thing in the world.
I looked at him like he was crazy. My childhood was very different. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents. We lived in a high-rise apartment building in Saudi city of Al Khobar. Our home town was a place where most play grounds were filled with sand and only cool enough to play at in the evening. Darkness doesn’t make for great hand eye coordination or foot eye coordination for that matter, as I was soon to discover.
In my childhood home, sport was valued only as something to experience through the fluorescent glow of the television. My father is an enthusiastic fan of NRL, tennis, football, and cricket. I grew up convinced that team sport was for the elite few, the magical beings blessed with amazing talent and chiselled abs.
A few months ago, I unexpectedly ran into my friend Sarah from my daughter’s school. We were talking all things parenting and life when she suddenly paused and looked at me with an inquisitorial air.
“What do you do on Sundays?” she asked.
Wondering whether I would have to gracefully side-step a church invitation, I answered unconvincingly, “Not much?”
“You have to join our soccer team!” she exclaimed.
“I don’t know how to play,” I laughed back.
“Oh we aren’t very good, it’s just for fun,” she said.
I thought doing something completely unfamiliar and difficult seemed like a very un-enjoyable way to spend my time and I was starting to feel sweaty just imagining it. I looked over to Casey and he was grinning ear to ear, “You have to do it,” he said. I don’t know if it was the sunshine, the pie, or the fact that said pie came with extra mash potato and gravy, but I found myself agreeing to join the all age ladies team with Norwest Football club team.
Before I knew it, the first trial game came around and we were playing a team which was a much higher division than us. To say it was a shock to the system is an understatement.
The ball got kicked around me faster than I could follow, and I alternated between standing glued to the field in nervous paralysis or jogging half-heartedly after the ball. I was counting the seconds until it was over. At the end of the game I shared a harrowed look with my teammate Carol, a lovely Irish woman who also just experienced her first football game. I was grateful to not be experiencing this special kind of hell alone.
Despite this baptism by fire, I kept going back week after week. In that time, I got to know the girls on the team. We are a mixed bag of mums who are also teachers, engineers, doctors, nurses, mortgage brokers, and academics ranging from early 20s to late 40s. Whilst we are all at different stages of our lives, there is a shared sense of humour, openness and mutual support which brings everyone together.
What I found was that there is a sense of community in team sport that I had never really experienced before. Our coach, Adrian, never made me feel incompetent and kept the instructions simple and manageable. The ladies on the team were very patient with me during the games and helped me develop specific skills like throw-ins which, can I just add, are way more complicated than they look!
Trying something new as an adult feels awkward and I think we spend most of our lives feeling confident in our bubble, preferring to play it safe. In joining this team, I was out of my comfort zone, so much so that I nearly never came back after my first match.
By sticking it out, I realised that new experiences that start as anxiety-inducing, can transform into rare opportunities to redefine ourselves.
Society shuns imperfection, the unspoken rule is, “If you aren’t good at it, don’t do it”. But this is the wrong advice. Doing something you are bad at, can actually unexpectedly be your ticket to freedom.
Maryam Johnson is a freelance writer. You can follow Maryam on Instagram @featherandfable.
This article is part of SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have a pitch, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.