When I was in eighth grade, I spent a week of evenings in the backyard with my dad trying to learn to catch a ball, throw a ball, hit a ball — all in preparation for the softball unit in my PE class. It wasn’t enough to counter my natural lack of coordination. In class, the ball whizzed by me time and again as my teacher barked instructions.
“Keep your eye on the ball! Elbows up! Bend your knees!”
Filled with shame, I prayed the the teacher would just give up and let me stop. He didn’t, and finally I made contact with the ball and was allowed to go to the back of the line. But I couldn’t make eye contact with any of my peers.
Twenty years later, it doesn’t take much to reignite that sense of shame and embarrassment in a physical, competitive environment. I’m older and, thankfully, a bit more confident, but my hand-eye coordination hasn’t improved much. I can play a friendly outdoor game now and again, but a situation that feels even a little too competitive can send me careening back to middle school.
So when we made plans to join a group of old friends at a large annual “Olympics” field day-type event, my anxiety meter shot up immediately. I knew it would be a lot of people — many of whom I didn’t know — playing direct contact sports, working hard to win, and engaging in a fair amount of drinking. I knew that to a lot of people, it sounded like a blast. Silly games, beer, kickball. What was not to love? I wanted to feel the same. I wanted to get excited about it. I talked to myself about being courageous and using the event as an opportunity to be brave. But all I felt was anxious.
Sometimes you just have to accept that you are who you are.
I talked to one of my friends, who also admitted to some anxiety about participating. We batted around the idea of begging out — of not going at all or of sitting on the bench while everyone played. It would’ve been akin to the times I walked around the track in middle school while the rest of my peers played volleyball.
But back then it made me feel left out and ashamed — not feelings I wanted to relive. And I knew we’d be pressured to participate and have to navigate that conflict. Somewhere in the midst of our discussion, we came up with an idea — what if we were the cheerleaders, supporting everyone who was playing the games?
We decorated our shirts, painted our faces, and bought cheap pom-poms at the dollar store. We showed up the morning of the event and proudly declared our role: “We’re here to cheer everyone on and give support!” Within an hour, I had become the official photographer for the event, and my friend and I spent the day cheering for the participants, making the rounds with sunscreen and bug spray, and trying to keep enough water in the hands of those playing to ward off dehydration.
We had a fabulous time.
By the end, everyone was thanking us. When I sent out the photographs the next day, everyone was so excited and agreed that cheerleaders/supporters should be a regular part of the games in the future.
My friend and I hadn’t jumped right in with the competition, but we also hadn’t rejected the event entirely. Instead, we found a way to participate that felt good to us. And it ended up feeling equally great to everyone else, too.