Varsity

At this point, I’m going to go ahead and interrupt my tidy narrative timeline for a second. Basically, I need to address something I haven’t really talked about, but which is indisputably happening. And that is soccer.

I started playing soccer when I was five, and for the next, oh, six years maybe, I was really, really bad at it.

rec soccer

I was tiny and shy and way too timid to function. I would bound along beside the ball, skipping like a baby deer, never getting close enough to actually touch it.

But then something happened. I hit eleven or twelve and realized that despite all evidence to the contrary, I actually understood the game a little. Or maybe what happened is just that they started playing us in permanent positions instead of all over the field, and it turned out that I was kind of good at defense, because what I was really good at was following instructions.

For whatever reason, the next few years quickly evolve into a flurry of summer camps, try-out teams, pick-up games, jerseys with my number on the back. I get home from practice … and then go running. By fourteen, my goal is very simple. My one earthly desire is to be as good or better than any boy my age.

Let’s be clear—during all this time, I never consciously think of myself as a Soccer Player. Not even when I’m playing for three hours every day. Not even when I’m playing for the crazy German guy who spent eight years in the semi-pros. Not even when he makes the strikers practice taking free kicks at our faces so we’ll be conditioned never to duck. Not even when I run my arches flat. Not even when the day-camp boys start picking me first whenever it’s time to choose up teams.

Because even when it’s exhausting and demanding and kind of brutal, it’s still just something I do.

During sophomore year, I don’t spend a lot of time writing about soccer. Or thinking about it. I play sweeper for the JV team. I spend the season in a comfortable state of suspended animation. The practices are easy (remember, I’ve just spent the previous year playing for the German guy), I start every game, we have an undefeated season, and I round out the spring with a pulled quad, a broken nose, and an MVP certificate to prove it.

JV is fun. It’s low-key and something interesting to do, and two days a week, I get to leave Spanish III early for away games.

Three times over the course of the season, the head coach pulls me aside to talk about varsity. Each time, she sounds tender and sympathetic, like she’s apologizing to me.

The things she says are nothing I haven’t heard before:

It’s not a question of your skill-level.

And, I just don’t want you getting hurt.

And finally, Well, you’ll be bigger next year.

All this is irrelevant, however, and here is why:

I am short

My build is not going to change.*

On an intellectual level, I get what she’s saying. Despite the MVP certificate and the travel teams and the camps, I am exactly the kind of person you look at off the field and assume will be useless. I’m exactly the kind of person you look at ON the field and assume will be useless. I drift aimlessly. I shamble. I drag my feet when I walk and even when we’re all lining up and the game’s about to start, I have a tendency to look vague and kind of tentative. Exactly the kind of person who gets hurt.

slidetackle

But I am not tentative.

I’m aggressive and territorial and stupidly indifferent to any sort of physical peril. On the soccer field, I am the exact opposite of real-life-me.

And now it’s next year and tryouts are looming and I’m not bigger. I’m exactly the same size I was in 10th grade. And 9th grade. And … you get the picture.

If I cared more about sports as status symbols, I might worry about spending another year on JV. But because I am both ill-motivated and prone to ignoring anything I don’t want to think about, the possibility doesn’t really register.

There are girls who get nervous before tryouts. They shake and fidget and pace back and forth, wringing their hands. I’m not one of those girls. I sit on the grass and read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and wait for someone to pin a paper number on my back.

This isn’t because I’m particularly confident. In the realm of competitive soccer, I’m content to rest squarely in the middle, capable but not a stand-out, skilled but not spectacular. My intention of being as good as a boy was satisfied years ago, and now I don’t really care anymore. This is just one more example of that disturbing characteristic that defines high-school Brenna. It’s not that I’m lazy, exactly. I’m just completely indifferent.**

As far as tryouts are concerned, I have one saving grace. I’m not very big or very strong, or even especially good at showcasing my own abilities, but I can run.

I can run for miles.

For hours.

For as long as I have to.

I can run until someone tells me it’s time to stop.

The coach starts conditioning us in February—50 or 60 girls with paper numbers on their backs, lumbering around the track or the practice fields while she stands on the sidelines and marks things down on her clipboard.

And when she takes me for varsity three weeks later, it’s not like I wasn’t expecting it. But it’s not like I was expecting it, either.

Immediately, I am gripped by a ferocious ambivalence. I like that I’m on the team. On the other hand, I don’t really feel like doing any of the actual work involved and in fact, I’m not even sure that soccer is my thing anymore. I kind of just want to curl up in my room and write short stories.

My ambivalence at being picked for varsity is just the beginning. Junior year will prove to be the weirdest, most in-between season I’ve ever had. The thing is, I’m not any bigger than I was. I’m not any better. But the varsity team graduated some forwards last year, and the coach just thinks what everyone thinks—that all short, twiggy girls with bony ankles and decent footwork have to play striker. She informs me that with my speed, I should be carrying the ball more, putting together plays and scoring goals.

It’s weird to play in the front. I know all the defensive tricks—how, in order to distract you, they’ll kick your heels, just lightly. How when an air-ball comes, they’ll wait til the last second, then shove you forward right as it drops so that it lands behind you.

I wait for them to tap my heels, then lift my foot just in time to step on their toes. I let them push into my shoulder blades as the ball comes towards us, and then, when it’s about to drop, I shove myself backwards as hard as I can and trap it on my chest.

I know the tricks, but I don’t actually know how to play forward. Even when I’m ten feet from from the goal, dead-center, I never remember to shoot. In the back, it’s easy: recover the ball, protect the ball, then feed a pass to the line or clear it as hard as you can to the corner.

In the front, I recover the ball, protect it, then can’t think what to do next. [My coach] keeps yelling at me to quit dicking around and put it in the net.

I literally do not know what to do. Which, since I’ve been playing this sport since I was five, is a very weird sensation. I mean, I understand the general principle of playing striker, but it’s not something that makes any sort of sense on an intuitive level. I’ve spent the last six years in the backfield, drifting surreptitiously into someone else’s space, reading their body language, standing on their heels. It’s the only place I want to be.

During the course of the season, I’ll score zero times. On the plus side, our coach doesn’t seem to mind much, because I make up for it with assists. Which is to say, I suck, but according to the stats, I’m sucking at a competitive level. On the minus side, she just keeps playing me there.

When I look at my numbers, it’s disorienting. They’re okay, nothing great. But they exist, and that’s the thing that confuses me, because I can’t remember any of these crucial plays. Some part of me still thinks I’m just clearing the ball out of the back. Only, I’m not in the back, and the place I’m clearing the ball to is a girl named Emily, who happens to be standing right in front of the other team’s goal. When she buries it in the net, I think oh, that’s good, and then trot back to the center circle to line up for the kick-off.

All I want, all season, is to not be doing this. All I want is to be in the back where I belong.

*****

So, I’m really interested in people’s hobbies and extracurriculars. I think they can tell you a lot about a person, and not always in the most obvious ways. With that in mind, talk to me about sports, about projects and volunteer work and clubs, but especially music, because that’s something I have not the faintest clue about.

I’m curious to hear how you feel about these things. Are you passionate? Dispassionate? Do you identify strongly with your chosen interests, or are you only going through the motions? And if you are going through the motions, is there still some value in that?

*Actually, I wound up growing almost two inches after I hit 21. Regardless, I’m still short.

**And kind of lazy.

16 thoughts on “Varsity

  1. I am not all that good at sports. I liked to run in elementary school but as my back started to get worse, it wasn’t all that conducive to running. My immediate family never had any interest (Besides my mom. She likes watching football.) in sports so I don’t think I was ever really exposed to it until later on when I was forced to play in school. I liked playing the games in elementary because it seemed to be more about having fun than actually being any good. But when I got older and the girls started being overly competitive, I didn’t really like sports.

    I don’t have many hobbies. That’s partly because I’m lazy and partly because I want to be perfect at it right out of the gate, which isn’t good because a lot of hobbies take a lot of work and time to become really good. I like to write and read and try to draw and collect hats. I like playing with my animals. I used to teach them tricks. It’s a lot of fun teaching a chubby dog how to pirouette with their stuffed lamb toy :). (That sounds more complicated than it actually is. I just taught my dog how to twirl on her hind legs :).)

    I’ve always loved to read and from as far back as I can remember I’ve been writing short stories. To begin with, they were mostly just copies of movies I’d seen, but I do remember one day, my dad sitting me at a computer while he worked and me creating a short story about a jewel-encrusted pony :). I don’t remember much of that story but I do think if I read it today, it would be extremely interesting hahaha :).

    • I don’t think I was ever really exposed to it until later on when I was forced to play in school

      I honestly don’t think I would have had a prayer of being good at sports if my parents hadn’t started me early. My sister is a natural athlete, but any ability I have is purely the result of going through the drills year after year until I could do them right. Running is probably about the only thing that comes naturally to me—everything else is acquired, and I was often very bored with the acquisition process. And it’s an absolute shame about your back making it hard to run. (I’ve never really liked running much, but that’s not the same as not needing to do it.)

      I want to be perfect at it right out of the gate, which isn’t good because a lot of hobbies take a lot of work

      I like to write and read

      I really think the best hobbies are the ones that are just your recreational activities—whatever you like to do for fun. Then you’re basically guaranteed to stick with them, and actually invest yourself, because it’s just what you would be doing anyway. I’m very envious of people who can train animals. I’m awful at it! I just don’t have the discipline to stick with it. I have a cat who will mimic sounds, so sometimes I try to her how to talk, but it’s slow going. By which I mean, it’s not really going.

  2. Im a theatre girl myself. I have been in a few of productions both professional and in school and also a theatre summer day camp. most recently “Hairspray” (Im a freshman!) I feel I started to get interested in writing in 4th grade when I wrote a Haiku for the first time! I read it to friends who were having trouble and one of them said “let me see that!” and grabbed it from me. watching her eyes scan and ponder the words was when I realized for the first time that I was good at writing. my favorite things I wrote that year were a poem called “Gypsies Hardware Store”, ( which I wrote in while in a weird over tired drowsy state of mind) a short story called “Deafened Inside a Dream Book” about a deaf orphan girl who likes to read, and an attempt at a musical called “Luke and the Rodeo” (which I have abandoned since then). I had also made up the phrase “Sugar crazed tick-or-treaters” when the class wrote Halloween poems. Passion I feel is something everyone has whether they realize it or not, it isa natural part of the human condition…
    (you like parenthases,I like “…”(its dramatic!) )

    • Theatre—that’s excellent! I was always way too shy and behind-the-scenes for any kind of performance activities, but I find the whole idea of it really fascinating!

      It’s interesting to me how many writers get started at a fairly early age. By the time I was 11, I had a big stack of secret notebooks full of stories, and because I kept mine secret, I just figured that everyone else was also writing stories and keeping them secret. I don’t even remember when it was that I figured out my mistake, but I think it didn’t really sink in until high school.

      And there is nothing wrong with “…” (Or bold. Or italic. I like emphasis, is what I’m saying!)

  3. Well…I very much relate to that whole post up above. I played soccer from kindergarten to 12th grade (and would’ve played in college, but the girls on the team were all selfish and egotistical within their play. You’d think they were men’s basketball players).

    When I was little, I always dreamed of being really really good. (I dreamed of becoming a football QB too, but that got nixed when I realized that I was a short kid with the build of a distance runner. And a girl.) People always, always underestimated my ability, which worked to equal advantages and disadvantages. On the field, I could usually surprise the other team (noone expects the stringy 110-pound kid to attack with vicious fierceness), but that smallness led to problems when I hit the high school level. My freshman year, I got stuck for most of the year playing inside midfield, where, much like you in forward, I just don’t play. I got the theory, but it just didn’t work. But these coaches didn’t know me, so no matter how much I tried to get them to play me on the wing, they just wouldn’t. And I was playing with a bunch of girls who were (see description of college players above) pretty much people I’d never speak to outside of the team.

    With just a few games left in the season (and a tourney), some of these pretty girls got wimpy and they got blisters. I laughed at their suffering (call me mean, but I have no patience for people who wimp out in soccer) and then finally, FINALLY got to play at left wing mid. The Hallelujah Chorus rang out from on high. I played every single minute of that game. And pretty much every minute the rest of the season. And in just a couple games I’d already had more crosses recorded than all the previous wing mids combined. End of the year I got offensive MVP award for my struggles, then proudly waltzed out saying “See ya later, suckers!”

    And played on a rec team with my friends instead, where we were competitive but far friendlier and far less serious.

    As for the rest of high school….well I played tennis for four years, but there aren’t many dramatic stories to tell there. We were the chillest team in the entire school. It was fantastic. I was actually pretty good at that too, but we had so much fun sitting around and eating snacks while not playing. Cheez its and m&ms. Random but gloriously delicious.

    Plus I decided to join some of my other friends in theatre. Not performing (HA!) but on the crew. What can I say, I have a thing for all black! For the musicals my junior and senior year I volunteered for spotlight duty, which meant I got to sit alone in the dark spot room with a headset, reading books when I didn’t have to shed some light on a person. It was fantastic.

    I guess if there was any point to this meandering reply, it’s that after freshman year I spent most of the rest of High School avoiding people who took themselves too seriously. And I still do. Life’s much more fun that way! (Oh, and unfortunately, I still haven’t grown any more yet. I got my mom’s average height, and, well, my dad’s a marathoner. I’m not getting any bulkier either.)

    • but the girls on the team were all selfish and egotistical

      Okay, I’m not going to expand on this theme—I’m really not. No matter how many stories I might (potentially) be able to tell. I will just say two words and then, I will walk away. My two words: travel teams. Now, this is me, walking away.

      People always, always underestimated my ability

      When I finally got to play marking back my senior year, this was my ace in hole. I was one of the teeniest marking backs in the whole division, but I was really quick and really durable. And when I hit college and started playing competitive coed, being small gave me an even greater element of surprise, because guys never expect someone a foot shorter than them to be able to move fast or to not mind getting drilled with a shot now and then.

      I got offensive MVP award for my struggles, then proudly waltzed out saying “See ya later, suckers!”

      Hahahaha—I love it! I spent every winter leading up to tryouts telling myself that I probably wouldn’t even sign up. And then, well, maybe I wouldn’t bother showing up. And then, well, maybe I wouldn’t make the team. And then. Well.

      (Ultimately, I’ve always been really glad I stuck with it, but year-to-year, it was always an exercise in ambivalence.)

      On a note of social commiseration: honestly, there were SO few girls I would ever have been interested in talking with outside of practice. And I hate that, because being part of a team, you really do want to have a decent relationship with the people around you. But there it is. (Some of them were awesome, though.)

  4. I did track all through middle and high school, but because of my build (tall, big boned, and muscled) the coaches would never let me be a sprinter even though I was fast. Year after year they stuck me doing shot put and discus, which I won numerous awards and medals with because no matter what I will always do my best.

    High School also introduced marching band to me, and I loved it. I play the flute and on the marching field it’s kinda a useless instrument- you can never hear it over the brass section. This often conflicted with track, and I was punished harshly by both sides for never being at an entire practice.

    In High School I also did a few clubs, art club and literary magazine, Sketches (which was our school’s art and literature magazine.) I worked on editing storys that I selected for the book, and eventually I got to work on the actual layouts of the magazines (and won awards from the national competitions we sent them off to)

    Outside of school I was busy with farm chores and working with my first horse. I had started taking horseback riding lessons in middle school, and I had big dreams of showing and competing, but my parents nipped that dream in the bud by taking away my lessons in Junior year telling me I had too much on my plate.

    I still have way too many hobbies, but at least I have fun :)

    • Year after year they stuck me doing shot put and discus

      See, I don’t even get this. It just seems like in track, they should let you decide what events you want to compete in, and then it’s *your* business if you qualify or not. But then, I never did track, so I don’t actually know how it works :D

      This often conflicted with track, and I was punished harshly by both sides for never being at an entire practice.

      taking away my lessons in Junior year telling me I had too much on my plate

      This is something that kind of bothers me about extracurriculars in general, because people often have more than one set of interests. My senior year, I was part of this city-sponsored mural project for art, and it met right after school, so I was constantly having to miss meetings for games, and showing up late for practice the rest of the time. And let me just say, NO ONE was very happy with me. (Which bothered me much more at the time than it would now. Now, I’m usually pretty calm about those kind of no-win situations, but at the time, I wanted *so* much to not get in trouble.)

  5. “I mean, I understand the general principle of playing striker, but it’s not something that makes any sort of sense on an intuitive level.”

    This totally reminded me of Robbie Fowler, a striker for Liverpool FC in the 90s:


    As far as I can tell– I was much too young to have seen games on TV with him when he was young (even if they had broadcasted PL games in the US in the 90s)– he worked almost totally by instinct! He just knew how to get the ball in the back of the net, but was rarely, if ever, able to describe how he did it. I’ve always found that kind of talent so fascinating, since I tend to overthink almost everything.

    I tried sports in middle school, but I had the wrong disposition for it. I didn’t like losing because it was mildly embarrassing, but at the same time I didn’t care all that much about winning, or about improving my skills. I don’t mind playing pick-up games with friends, but when it becomes competitive and structured I tune out. I suppose one of my hobbies is playing music– I played piano for 11 years, and I was decent (not as good as I should have been for having played that long, imo!). Reading and writing, of course. Watching movies and thinking about making movies. I sketched in high school, which I enjoyed a lot. I was in MUN, the literary magazine, and something else in high school, I forget what. I don’t gravitate towards clubs naturally– my parents made me do them, and I tried to join some in college but I just wasn’t that enthusiastic about it. I don’t know why, since they’re very useful. I volunteered, but that was just because I liked helping people out if they needed it.

    In thinking about it, a lot of the hobbies I participate in are semi-solitary ones, where you have a lot of control over the output. Maybe that ties into my habit of overthinking everything, I dunno…I know I have tendencies towards being very exact about things. I remember having a lot of fun writing and performing a show for a class senior year with a bunch of other people, but I definitely have a writer’s mind, not an actor’s– it always bothered me when people would change lines! My feeling is you should say it just as it’s written, since I know how much effort goes into the writing. But otoh, some great moments have come out of people changing things around (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTzA_xesrL8). I think I ought to work more on collaborating. :-)

    • Oh man, that is an amazing goal—thanks for linking!

      I’ve always found that kind of talent so fascinating, since I tend to overthink almost everything.

      For me, the best thing about soccer was, once I got really comfortable playing a position (meaning defense, because I never did master striker at all), it was the only time I didn’t have to think. Soccer was always the one part of my day where my analytical brain could shut off and I would react instinctively, rather than making conscious decisions. And especially during senior year, when I had a lot going on every day, I really needed that break from information-overload sometimes.

      I didn’t like losing because it was mildly embarrassing, but at the same time I didn’t care all that much about winning

      This is me, except that honestly, I don’t even *really* care about losing. My junior year, our team lost in the state championships and after the game, everyone but me was crying and it was very awkward. I’m just bad at being competitive (unless it’s with myself). However, I am pretty good at following instructions, so once I actually learned to play, the hierarchy system of having a coach really appealed to me.

      a lot of the hobbies I participate in are semi-solitary ones, where you have a lot of control over the output

      This is where I naturally rest on the activities-continuum, too. I like writing, reading, sewing, cooking. If my parents hadn’t put me in soccer, I can pretty much guarantee that I never would have stepped outside of the reading-writing-sewing-cooking arena on my own. Also, (as someone who has been forced to do many “continuation” exercises in various creative writing classes) sometimes collaboration is overrated. :)

  6. I’ve always been different. I was skipped ahead quite a bit in school so school related activities were basically out.

    I have no pitch. I took voice lessons once. The instructor winced, drew a target on the blackboard and told me “That’s the note. You are somewhere in Kansas.” (Note: we were in Maryland at the time.)

    I’m not super athletic. Won’t/can’t run unless someone is chasing me.

    I liked to read and write, but did so much in school that I was burned out.

    So I danced. I have taken ballet, point, tap, jazz, swing, ballroom, Latin, hip hop, zumba, everything. I’m pretty good, but I’m not really interested in performing. Just in the dance.

    • I love this list of all the things you tried or were naturally inclined toward before you found what it was you were looking for! I think sometimes people try a few things and then get discouraged, either because they don’t really enjoy the activity after all, or because they aren’t immediately as good as they’d like to be. When really, while it’s obvious right away for some people, for others, it’s a lot of trial and error. I’m glad you found dance, and especially that even though other activities didn’t work out, that didn’t stop you from trying things.

  7. I’ve run Cross Country all through high school, but I’ve never been particularly passionate about sports. My older sister is my very opposite, very social/athletic. So most of my younger life I thought I needed to find “my” sport, because that’s just the way I thought it should be, that I’d find it eventually just like she did. What I discovered was that I don’t like balls, and they don’t like me. I can’t shoot, throw, catch, hit to save my life. I’d be so tentative to get really close to the other players because I had no interest in hurting them, or even effecting the game in a drastic way (which is obviously a problem in sports)
    What I did discover, through the volleyball, basketball, soccer, was that I was always confident when it came to running. I always came in first for the long runs and the short ones, and I didn’t mind doing them. I remember thinking, good, no more balls!
    When I joined Cross country, I wasn’t the fastest, but I wasn’t last. A good towards-the-front middle, if that makes sense.
    But I was never particularly competitive, just enthusiastic. I liked to run, and the sport was running, so I did it. I only got nervous right before meets when I was worried the shorts we were required to wear showed too much. I never really got excited over medals, or get a thrill from passing people. I only got upset when I knew I didn’t run my best, and that’s how I feel with any run. When I knew I pushed myself or did a little better than the last race, I was satisfied.
    I’m also, shortly put, an artist, but I was never very involved in art class because it was a small school and the teacher only went through the very basics. While she praised me, she never really had anything to teach me, so art was always a solitary thing. So I guess this doesn’t really count as “extracurricular”, but other people consider it to be. I’m still looking into colleges and such in deciding which direction I’m going to go with my art

    • I’d be so tentative to get really close to the other players because I had no interest in hurting them, or even effecting the game in a drastic way

      This was me for YEARS. By my very nature, I’m a watcher, which makes it really uncomfortable to jump right in before I know all the nuances and the details. (Or even to jump in at all.)

      I liked to run, and the sport was running, so I did it.

      I was about 14 when it became just definitively clear that I wasn’t ever going to be the biggest or the strongest, but I what I did have was endurance. My mom spent about a year encouraging me to join Cross Country.

      Now, here is where I’m kind of the opposite of you: I’ve never liked to run. I mean, I’ve never dreaded it. Soccer involves miles and miles of running, every practice, every day. But I always saw it as a means to an end. To this day, I hate to run. But I’ve kind of accepted lately that I need it. It makes me a much better person (not just to be around, but in terms of keeping me motivated and thinking straight).

      art was always a solitary thing. So I guess this doesn’t really count as “extracurricular”

      Sometimes, doing something outside of the imposed structure is what makes it interesting in the first place. I feel like anything people do in their own time is pretty cool—what they choose to do when they don’t have to be doing anything in particular. Especially if it’s not something passive, like watching TV (although I’ll admit, I’ve definitely been known to recreationally nap now and then). I really like hearing about people’s projects, not just because ideas are inherently fun to me, but I like seeing creativity and motivation at work :)

  8. Dear Brenna –

    [i might get around to commenting on this one; but there are far more important topics today . . . ] [and please excuse the over-use of caps and exclamation marks; I’m a wee bit excited]

    HAPPY BOOK RELEASE DAY !!!
    THREE CHEERS FOR THE SPACE BETWEEN !!!
    GO BOOK, GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO !!! [STRAIGHT TO THE NYT BESTSELLER LIST, PLEASE]

    Congratulations Ms Fabulous Writer Person. Huge hugs and cratefuls of Moet :)

    xo Jules

    • This is the best, because it was TSB Book Birthday where you were almost a whole day before it was here! (I love timezones so much, even when I totally don’t understand them—they are the closest thing to time travel I can think of)

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