It’s 9.30am, Saturday morning, and I am standing bare-legged in a muddy field: hard, cold rain pelting my t-shirted shoulders, icy wind blowing a gale up my skirt.
In one hand, I carry a long stick with a net on the end, while the other is in the grim clasp of the opponent I’ve been instructed to shake hands with. “Hi! I’m Clare,” I introduce myself, brightly. “I’m pretty rubbish at this; in fact, the chances are strongly in your favour.” She looks at me warily, like this is some kind of distraction technique – but by the end of the game, I’ll have managed to convince her. Though I loved playing, turned up to practice religiously and enter into every game with gusto, I was – and still am, I suspect – genuinely bad at lacrosse.
I can’t run very fast – being by nature more of a long distance girl – and the art of running, holding a ball in my stick and cradling it (a strange motion in which you wiggle the stick from side to side) at the same time eluded me. I could almost catch the ball – but when it comes to ball games, almost-catching doesn’t get many goals.
Fortunately for the school, I was in the B team – which in some schools would be an esteemed position but at St Helen’s meant losing most games and winning, by total fluke, just a handful. On one memorable occasion we lost three games at a tournament just because we forgot which pitch we were on.
We were, in short, a shambles – but man, did we have fun with it. Pressure off (if we turned up, we’d exceeded the school’s expectations) we were free to enjoy the game for what it was: a means of meeting mates, getting some fresh air and exercising with a common goal loosely in mind. If the goal was reached, it was a bonus: if not, we’d still worked out, mucked in and had a laugh in the process.
Free of the pre-match nerves, we enjoyed both the coach journey there, with its banter and colourful energy bars; and the ride back, where our ‘post match analysis’ consisted of raucous re-enactments punctuated with laughter. We enjoyed ourselves: a feeling which those who are good at team sports can often miss out on because the pressure’s on and if they mess up, their team mates point the finger, shout angrily, or talk about them behind their back.
These are the joys to be found in a team sport when you stop worrying about how well you’re playing, and start asking why you’re playing. Yes, you’re playing to win – but unless there are lives or great prizes at stake, aren’t you playing for something more?
Of course, it is not just ‘the taking part that counts’, as with all things you get out what you put in, and there’s honour as well as more exercise in trying hard. But stop (not on the pitch, obvs) and look at the game as a whole and you will reap rewards so much more more satisfying than cups, trophy shields and goals.
You’ll be stronger: not just physically (though being able to stand up to your brother’s pretty great) but mentally too. Exercise and fresh air works wonders for the brain as much as for the bod, releasing chemicals which make you feel good (endorphins) and improving memory and performance. Besides, it is character building, persisting in something you find challenging – even if (in fact, especially if) you are used to being top of the class in everything else.
Most people give up activities they aren’t very good at. But the funny thing is, it’s often in doing the stuff you’re not good at that you find other strengths. One B-team mate’s insistence on hitting the ball round the field rather than carrying it in the stick brought her to hockey; my flat inability to reach any speed higher than steady jog is what lead me to cross-country running; and of course, there is always the possibility that you might get better at the sport itself. Many of our B team ended up in the As.
I didn’t. Even now ball games elude me. But the memories of our floundering on the pitch, and the fits of giggles afterwards – they’re still strong. Honed by hilarious defeats, our team’s sense of humour equipped us with one of the most invaluable life skills: the ability to laugh at ourselves.