It's All About the Team

On my father's side of the family, almost everyone plays sport, and they're good at it too. Sport in Australia, where my father is from, is one of the pillars of the culture and lifestyle. I've written about my athletic relatives in my recent post about rugby league: Sport, Identity and the reach of the NRL. It ranges from casual talent to professional, like my cousin Chris Lawrence, who plays for the Wests Tigers. 

My relationship with sport growing up was largely a negative one. Despite the fact that my Aussie athlete genes would suggest I'd be at least modestly good, it was never something I got into. In fact it was something, for a long time, I loathed. 

In primary school, I approached it with enthusiasm. I was the only girl in Year 3 in rugby club, determined to echo my rugby roots (although at school we played union rather than league). In secondary school, I tried out for the netball and hockey teams but did not make either one. At first, this didn't get me down. I went to training every week, asked the coaches for help, once more determined to fulfil my sporting potential. I can't imagine I was very good but I tried hard. I did this for the next few years but eventually accepted I lacked the sports genes and instead took to resenting it. It didn't help that the sports culture in my school felt very closed and exclusive. Since graduating I've spoken to many peers about this, and I'm not alone in thinking that sport was open mainly if you were good from day 1. If not and regardless of potential, it was near impossible to get involved on a competitive level. Although in my case it also had a lot to do with my lack of fitness and talent.

As I got older and needed to get fit, I discovered boxing training. It was the first training I'd really got excited about, and it inspired me to stop resenting sport and start getting into shape. But it was very much a solitary mission. It was part of a gym routine - not a team sport. My school activities were much more arts concentrated: acting in plays, drawing classes, dance shows. 

When I came to uni, I made a lot of jokes to my family that I had 'untapped sporting potential', and that I'd go to trials for sports I'd never played just for kicks. In my first week, I was on my way back from a callback for a musical I'd auditioned for that went pretty badly. Netball trials were that afternoon, and I thought I'd go, half as a joke, just to see what it was like. I hadn't played netball since I was about 14, so I had low expectations. I also associated 'netball girls' with the same 'exclusivity' of the school teams, so wasn't sure if I would even enjoy it.

We met for trials in waterloo station. The first girls I talked to were clearly close and came across as aloof. I feared my worries were well placed. Two minutes later, a blonde girl bursting with energy came over in an army jacket and a skort and asked if this was for netball. She had an Australian accent. I knew instantly we would be friends. Josie and I sat on the train together on the way to trials and it was one of the most laughter filled journeys of my life. I felt much more at ease. 

The initial warm up drills gave me slight PTSD from my PE nightmares.  But I persisted. And when we got down to playing, I actually really enjoyed it. Fast forward a week or so and I somehow found myself on a team, with Josie and many other wonderful girls, gearing up for welcome drinks and our first match. 

At first I texted my friends saying I took the joke way too far and that I was in too deep. I had a major inferiority complex - surely we would play a match and they would drop me from the team when they realised I wasn't good enough. I then realised that things were very different to eleven year old me. Boxing for two years meant I was fit, and (fairly) light on my feet. Watching NRL and playing in the park with my dad meant I had decent ball skills. Maybe this dream of actually playing wasn't so extraordinary. 

As we started playing matches, I fell more and more in love with the sport. But most of all, I loved the community. My Aussie cousins always spoke with such fondness about their teammates - they lived with them, ate with them, they were family. I finally experienced that level of comradery and community. It was particularly significant for me coming to uni and trying to find my 'tribe' - especially being in London, where the uni life is known for lacking community. Our Wednesday night sport socials more than made up for it. To this day they are among the best parts of the week. You get to dress up depending on the weekly theme, drink and dance to cheesey tunes with your friends, meet people from other sports and generally have a good time.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, it continues to teach me things all the time. Partly out of my own inferiority complex and partly out of determination, it's something I want to get better at, something I want to work for. I've learnt to suck it up if I only play a quarter, and if that's the case to play the best quarter possible. I finally understand what one of my favourite NRL players, Kalyn Ponga, means by 'keep it cool', and what a difference it can make when I go to take a shot under pressure. I've felt the excitement when there's a minute left and you're one goal ahead. I finally understand 'working as a team' in the most literal sense. 

Netball season is now, sadly, coming to a close. I'm already excited about playing more next year. I know there's a lot more to learn, both the game itself and the lessons that come with it. I feel like I've finally stepped into my genes. And it couldn't have come at a better time as I head to Australia later in the month for the first time in years. 

From a PE teacher's nightmare to being a proper sports girl. Talk about finding yourself at uni. 


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