Growing up, my dad used to referee AYSO soccer games. Parents would complain that he sounded too harsh when making a call. Afterwards, my mom would gently chide him to soften up, to not sound so mean, that they’re just kids. But I got it, even as a kid. He was never mean; he was just in the game, in his role. We’re the same in that way. Parents used to make comments about me when I was in the heat of a play, too—that I looked too mean or mad, I drove too hard, contested bad calls too loudly. These parents would approach me after games to ask if I was ok, surprised at my good humor. You looked so angry out there, they’d say. I’d shrug. I was angry, I’d say.
People have a hard time with competition. Drawing the line, sure. But mostly I think people have a hard time letting themselves go—like really go. Into the game, go—into the body. Being fully in the time, the space, the structure, the goal. And I get that, it’s vulnerable, extending yourself so fully, so physically. True competitiveness hinges on taking yourself seriously—your desire, your abilities, your needs. It’s hard to be present with these parts of your interior in any situation, but especially in the case of athleticism, whose expression is so exterior. It’s hard to let yourself go when the stakes rest within the limits of your body, and when on the other side is the very real risk of failure. It’s hard to be present with failure.
In high school, I used to have anxiety before basketball games, sometimes even before practice. I would lie on my mom’s bed watching TV, hoping she wouldn’t make me go. Lying very still on her cool white spread as she stood in the door frame behind me saying better get moving Jordan you’re gonna be late. Me saying something about a stomach ache, anticipating big old Coach Blue yelling block out, hands up, where you at. No matter all the points the game before, what if I couldn’t do it this time. What about the bigger girls, the ones with opposing energies, the ones with elbows.
Under the basket trying to square up, having the height but no hips. Girl pushing me out every time getting rebounds. Her slicked high pony, plain face. Thick arms, thighs. Thicker than mine. Me with the height but all bones and bird legs. Coach yelling get in there show some muscle, but I don’t wanna or she’ll flex back until I scramble for a loose ball and we hit head on. Me with the ball and a black eye, finally in control.
Some games I couldn’t get past this feeling of anxiety and there was concern. Coach Blue with his big bald head shaking, where’s the fire girl. Me shrugging, I don’t know. How to be sixteen and talk to a male coach who wouldn’t care when I quit in a year, only cared when I was on his team. How to get back in the body, or above it. How to say the fire was always there, I just couldn’t access it because of fear. Other games when I could go to that place, when I was connected, it was to myself, above myself, throughout myself. Knowing I could do the thing. Knowing I was going to be the one to be great. But anticipation of my power made me nervous because failure exists even when you are a body connected. Crying so sad. The first disappointment. The primer for all heartbreak. Losing something you wanted for yourself. Losing despite your power.
This is the vulnerability. Not only losing the goal, but expressing, or exposing, so much of yourself in its pursuit. What is lost in that expression? I can think of a few answers, but mostly I am imagining a body extended, beautiful. Now I see a body, distorted. Exhausted. The gestures the same, win or lose. The only difference is the power behind, the thing that makes a person move, then faster, and again. Makes a person coordinate and adjust micro-movement by micro-movement, in the moment, against another person, in the presence of others. It’s the will to win, to be better than another person. To be the best. Why does this feel so vulnerable?
I get it. It’s weird. I get weird. I think you need to get a little weird to want to win something. Would we call this a survival instinct? Maybe not, maybe that’s a little too primal. I’ve had many conversations with men who think all sports are derived from warfare, which I don’t. But it does feel a little devolved, or uncivilized, this competitive instinct: it dips into excess, or the desire to. When competing with others, I have to compete within myself to exercise restraint, to keep my fire from burning too broad. Even now, in weekly pick-up games with friends, I find myself going too hard: blocking the shots of girls much shorter than me, driving to the basket to secure a win instead of attempting an amicable pass. In higher-stakes games, I’m not restraining my play so much as my entire person.
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes that “the virtue of wrestling is to be a spectacle of excess.” In this case, he’s referring to the humors—those four medieval fluids that determine a person’s health and temperament. “Hence,” Barthes later continues, “the wrestler’s function is not to win but to perform all the gestures expected of him,” referring to the very prescribed roles, or characters, within the theatre of wrestling.
I’m not talking about spectacle, or even wrestling necessarily, but I like this connection between the physical and emotional, as well as public consumption, within competition—even if the competition of Barthes’s wrestling was purely show. Rather, I’m interested in the virtue of competition as wrestling with excess. While giving into some parts of yourself (physical) you must restrain others (emotional), as if the two were not intertwined. As if it doesn’t take the interior to activate the exterior. As if giving into one doesn’t embolden, empower the other.
I got in trouble a lot as a kid for having a foul mouth, and sports were usually the catalyst. I can’t remember the first time my mom heard me shout fuck you, but I was probably in the third or fourth grade, and it was definitely the result of a front yard basketball game. This is where I learned to cuss, where I learned to tear someone down. Overheard from the kids at school, from my neighbors, but honed by the great stakes of winning or losing. I was a terrible loser. From an early age I felt the fire of competition, of doggedly pursuing a win with every ounce of power I could muster. Playing basketball against my brother and dad, or my neighbors, all of whom were at least six feet tall, I lost a lot. Shouting fuck yous left and right. Storming into the garage, doors slamming, an apocalypse behind me. Feeling so cheated. Feeling like something was taken from me. Something that had always belonged to me, but I was powerless to keep.
I don’t understand people who are indifferent to winning. Part of me doesn’t buy it. I know there are gentler people in this world than me—more evolved, perhaps. More patient. But even then, even those people. The will to win, to want something for yourself so badly you can’t help but push yourself to be better than another human feels so inherent to being human. I can’t help but wonder if it’s less about indifference, and more about failure. That these people just don’t want to engage with the feeling of losing, so they don’t. Maybe this theory sounds thickheaded, but if you’ve ever lost something, you know the feeling.
I think I wrestle with my relationship to competition more than most people, so I don’t know. As an adult, I’ve learned to harness this drive, some moments better than others, but the fire is always there. We can trace some of this to my astrological sun sign: a young Aries, forever burning, forever learning her lessons new. I often feel vulnerable in this way. In love, in ambition, in relationships. It takes me longer to learn how to hold back, to exercise boundaries, to create space for myself. Maybe that’s why I love sports so much. The time, space—even the goals are set—and I am free to move as efficiently or voraciously within them as I want, or can. In life, I find restraints comforting. Without them, I tend to get overwhelmed, or distracted.
The most I ever got in trouble as a kid was when I cussed out my brother’s demure best friend, Bryan, after losing a roller hockey game. It was 1993, I was nine, and Wayne’s World already had a sequel. Our dad built us goals out of PVC pipes, and all I ever wanted was a neighborhood match. This usually included my brother, Bryan, and our neighbors Ryan, Spencer, Pete, and maybe their sister Erica, although I was usually the only girl. Looking back, I can’t remember what set me off—in that game, or any other—I can only remember the embarrassment of apologizing to Bryan days later. How my mom told me she had talked with his mom, how he had come home crying. How that had surprised me, because as the youngest, and the only girl, I felt like nothing I did—winning, cussing, tagging along—could affect the older boys. I wouldn’t call this a moment of empowerment, even though, in a way, it was.
As an adult, I’m still trying to understand my competitive drive. Why it feels so big, so outside of myself. Why it’s so hard to quell. As a kid, I was constantly battling with what Barthes would call my excess, or my temperament, as I developed my physical skill. This temperament—my drive, my fire—was what made me good, it’s what made me practice shot after shot, night after night, day after day. In this obsession, I was always trying to get my body to the level of my mind. But it’s hard to separate that interior development from its context: mainly, I was almost always the youngest girl in an older boy’s game.
On one hand, I felt entitled to winning—and this I can’t quite explain, but I think it was because I knew I was good, even then, I understood the strategy of a game. But to win, I had to work that much harder, push that much more. Give myself as much to my drive and my body as I could. Be in the body, above it, throughout it. But what to do with all this conjured excess. Diffusing, or restraining takes just as much effort as conjuring, but without the catharsis of a release. The opposite of a release.
I was the youngest, the girl. I couldn’t hack it. No one expected me to win. I’d always be second to boys. My form came first for my competitors, and cast me as static. This, of course, spiraled any chance at restraint.
Every night, shooting hoops in the driveway until it was too dark. Playing against whoever was around: my brother or my dad or our neighbors. Or just shooting on my own, over and over. That compulsion to do it again, and again. To do it right, then to make it beautiful, then again with my eyes closed, with my left hand. My next-door neighbor Anne pulling up in her crimson Caravan saying, if you’re not out here every night, then I don’t know what. Saying, you’re gonna be famous one day. Me not knowing what that looks like for a girl to be famous for this. Wearing jerseys with men’s names on the back.