I played in a three-day volleyball tournament last week. It was one of the most nerve-wracking, vomit-inducing things I’ve ever done.
Forget the cockroaches in my apartment. Forget the fish heads for lunch. Competitive volleyball is way more terrifying.
I was a little surprised my teammates asked me to play in the first place. These are the same people who banned me from the last tournament because I suck so bad. And it’s not like I’ve improved that much since then (although, to my credit, I no longer duck and scream when the ball comes my way). Maybe they were just waiting to make sure I wouldn’t publicly embarrass them before they invited me to play in a tournament.
Secretly, I was thrilled they wanted me to tag along. During the past three months, I’ve grown to like volleyball so much that it’s now one of the highlights of my week. But I was about to learn that volleyball practice and a volleyball tournament are two very different things.
When I walked into the gym on the first day of the tournament, I felt like I had stepped into an alternate universe. I barely recognized the place. Everything looked so . . . professional. There were line judges and officials and score keepers. There were even spectators in the stands.
Six different teams were warming up at the same time, filling the gym with the sound of squeaking shoes and balls pounding against the floor. I watched as they practiced spiking the ball with such force and speed it looked like the hardwood floor would splinter into a million pieces.
I was in way over my head. I told my teammates that I’d rather just watch. But they insisted that I play. I couldn’t argue with them. I mean, I wanted to argue with them but I couldn’t because my Japanese is too limited to explain how I was feeling.
They told me I wouldn’t be playing until the second game, which meant I had lots of time to sit around and get more and more nervous. Now, I’ve competed in countless swim meets and triathlons and I’ve always felt nervous before the gun went off but I’ve never felt the kind of anxiety I was feeling before I stepped on that volleyball court. I knew that if I screwed up I’d be letting down a whole team of people.
And if it’s true that a team is as strong as its weakest link, well then I felt like a rusty paper clip trying to hold a chain of iron rings together.
By the time the second game rolled around, I was so nervous I wanted to throw up. But my teammates dragged me onto the court. I was told to stand in the back, to the left of the server.
I started to panic. I looked around wildly and yelled in Japanese, "Hajimete desu! Hajimete desu!" (It’s my first time! It’s my first time!). I wasn’t trying to be funny but everyone started laughing. I didn’t want them to think I was joking so I repeated it again, in an even more panic-stricken voice. But this only made them laugh harder.
The official seemed annoyed by me jumping around flapping my arms and yelling in Japanese so he blew the whistle long and hard to shut me up. Once everyone was quiet, he blew the whistle again and the game began.
I silently prayed for the ball not to come near me and for a while it didn’t. But then we scored a few points and the other team scored a few points and before I knew it I had rotated from the back of the court to the front. I was inches away from the net, expected to “attack.”
I knew that if the setter hit the ball my way I was supposed to jump and raise my hand over my head and hit the ball so it would land on the ground of the opposing court. But every time I tried to spike the ball in practice it usually ended up in the net. So instead of spiking the ball during the game, I decided to just make sure it ended up on the other side of the net.
Whenever the setter passed the ball to me, I simply pushed it over the net with my fingertips.
When it came time for me to serve, once again my goal was just to get the ball over the net. Fortunately, my first serve sailed over the net and dropped into the middle of the opposing court. Unfortunately, my second serve veered wildly to the right and hit the official in the head.
The set went on like that for what seemed like hours. When we finally won, I was more relieved than happy. I was even more relieved to find out that they only wanted me to play that one set during the entire three-day tournament. I guess it was sort of a token goodwill gesture.
I still like volleyball and I’m still looking forward to practice tomorrow night. But I don’t think I’ll be playing in any more tournaments any time soon. I'd rather stay home and kill cockroaches and eat fish heads.