Saturday, November 17, 2007

The end of the affair

Here’s the thing about volleyball. People who play it are liars. Big, fat, stinking liars.

“Come join our team,” they say. “Don’t worry. It’s just for fun. Everyone’s really friendly and it’s totally not competitive.”

Bullshit, bullshit and bullshit.

That’s right. My love affair with volleyball is over. I have woken up in the cold light of day to see it for what it really is -- a ruthless, self-esteem-destroying blood sport.

I was fooled for a while when I was in Japan. My Japanese teammates brainwashed me into believing that my relationship with volleyball didn’t have to be the abusive one it was back in high school. I slowly learned to love volleyball. I left Japan feeling like I had healed my old wounds and was ready to play again in Canada.

From the moment I got back to Vancouver, I begged my co-worker Sheldon to let me join his volleyball team. He waffled for a while (the fact that I boycotted the annual staff volleyball tournament six years running might have had something to do with it).

I tried to tell him that I had changed. That I had seen the light. That I no longer hated volleyball.

Sheldon wasn’t convinced. But he met me halfway. He invited me out for drinks with his volleyball team.

The message couldn’t have been clearer. I was good enough to socialize with his volleyball team but not good enough to play with them.

I accepted Sheldon’s invitation anyway, thinking that I could convince his teammates to gang up on him and let me play.

It worked. By the end of the night I had broken into Vancouver’s impenetrable volleyball community and secured an offer to try out for the team the following Wednesday.

Sheldon said he’d pick me up on the way . . . at 9 p.m.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Nine p.m.? I’m in bed with Peter Mansbridge at 9 p.m. I can’t be focused and energetic at 9 p.m.”

“Well, technically the game doesn’t start until 9:30 so . . .” replied Sheldon.

I started hyperventilating. All of my Grade 9 volleyball-induced anxiety came flooding back.

“The game?” I said. “No one said anything about a game. I thought this was supposed to be a practice.”

“Practice?” Sheldon laughed. “We don’t practice. We just play games.”

I tried to tell him that in Japan all we did was practice. We practiced serving and spiking and attacking and receiving. I only played a real game once and I hated every minute of it. The pressure, the stress, the anxiety!

And then Sheldon uttered those ominous words in every lying volleyball player’s vocabulary.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just for fun. Everyone’s really friendly and it’s totally not competitive.”

When we arrived at the UBC gym on Wednesday night, six rotating teams were scheduled to play two different games on three different courts.

I offered to sit out the first set so I could watch the dynamics and size up the players’ skill level. I started to panic when the game began.

Where was the friendly banter? Why were people getting visibly angry when they screwed up? Why were the guys driving the ball across the net with such speed and force? Why was everyone licking their palms and then rubbing them on the soles of their shoes? And then licking their palms again after they had touched the bottom of their shoes? Holy crap. These people were serious. They were willing risk disease for this sport.

My heart sank. I knew I was in way over my head. I reluctantly joined the rotation the next set. All those months spent honing my volleyball skills in Japan disappeared. It was like Grade 9 all over again. I spent the game alternating between praying for the ball not to come near me and trying to keep it in bounds when it did. It was stressful. It was intense. It was competitive. It wasn’t friendly. And it definitely wasn’t fun.

Sheldon was quiet on the drive back to my apartment. As I got out of the car, he delivered one final blow to my shattered self-esteem.

“We’ll call you if we need a sub.”


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