This week I watched videos by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Hannah Witton discussing Anna Kessel’s new book, Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives. Rosianna and Hannah discuss the role that exercise and sport have played in their lives and since watching their videos I’ve been thinking about what it means to do sport together, especially as young women.
Tuesday was the last day of school for public school students in my town and the kids started getting home around 11:30am. My sixteen year old brother got off the bus, quickly ate a haphazard lunch, and then hopped on his bike to hang out with his friends from the crew team at a park near our house. Based on what he tells me as he digs through the garage, they’re going to play some ultimate frisbee and then probably lay around in the grass. They started this frisbee habit last summer, meeting up after practice had ended to be together and run around.
Social experiences for me as a teenage girl were always very sedentary – friendships were built around sitting and talking. We went on some walks at a rail trail or maybe strolled through the mall, but there was never a group of us running around playing. Teenage girlhood meant talking and delicately snacking, not diving for discs in an open field.
The summer after high school was filled with afternoon parties in parents’ backyards every weekend, lunging with rackets as we played badminton for hours. It was silly and fun and physical and sport, and after six weeks of this we felt like badminton pros.That summer was an anomaly. In the later months when people came home from college, there were trips to Panera and the art museum wedged in between the underpaid internships. We occasionally went kayaking and went for walks when it wasn’t too hot, but we never matched the group fun physicality of that summer after high school.
As Rosianna summarizes (I still haven’t gotten a hold of the book), Kessel argues that the thing about sport and the way we talk about it is that sport is something that we do together. Exercise is often a solitary endeavor: going for a run, going to the gym, even in an exercise class what you are doing doesn’t really affect anyone else. But sport is something we do together.
My freshman year of college I was a fiendish exerciser, spending hours each week running on the elliptical, lifting weights, and swimming laps in the university’s pool. It was a lot of time to spend alone listening to the same overused jock jams playlist. I got stronger and faster (since my goal was fitness and health) but it was a lonely endeavor. Later, when I was a junior, a friend dragged me to the intramural basketball league she and a group of friends were playing in. We played every Sunday afternoon, just two 20-minute halves of loosely officiated basketball. There was a somewhat substantial intramural program and we played in the lowest level of it, the level where people were really there to take a study break and have a good time for an hour. We watched the higher levels play more competitively, but we were very much in the tradition of Sunday football matches, though without the beer at halftime.
The league was technically co-ed but our team was almost all women and every other team we played was all male. Despite the skill of some of our players, there was no way we could make up the height discrepancy. In some ways, this took a lot of the pressure out of the game. Whenever I felt like I should sub out to let a better player play my position, I reminded myself that we were going to lose no matter the line-up, so I might as well be the one to run up and down the court and try for a few jump shots.
There was no measuring steps or miles or calories, just a bunch of people running around in a gym for 45 minutes. We were making up silly pump-up speeches at half-time and dreaming of having a winning record. The outcome of the game didn’t even matter. When the other team didn’t show up (an automatic win for us), we still spent that time playing basketball, taking crazy shots and making backwards free throws and just running around.
This was the first time since I was a kid where I played sports with my friends.
Sport is something we do together.
Last week my mom invited another family to come have dinner at our house. They have two college-aged girls, a middle school boy, and were also towing along a cousin from France who didn’t speak very much English. I was nervous about how to maintain conversation with these people who I didn’t know very well. Luckily, the middle school boy gravitated immediately to the basketball hoop in our backyard and my brother joined him. Within minutes the seven of us were battling it out in a brutal game of knock-out, everyone holding their own. This transitioned into a post-dinner game of I Declare War, kids diving behind bushes and rolling through the grass to avoid getting hit. It was spontaneous and silly and everyone was breathing hard in between the desperate lay-ups and belly laughs. We were running and throwing and trying our hardest and there was not a thought to cardio or calories. Sport is something we do together.