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I Got Served
Handball taught me to deal with defeat
Christina Gee
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“Twenty serving sixteen. Possible match point!” shouted the referee. Who was I kidding, the ref was just another teammate holding a clipboard and announcing the score. But I took everything about this game seriously. And boy, what a score it was.

I was in my handball uniform—mesh shorts and a blue team t-shirt that did not compliment my figure at all. I could feel the sweat and heat rising from my skin, but with it was a wonderful rush of adrenaline. I could hear the smack-plat-bounce-smack rhythm of the other games in session.

Smack plat smack. I needed to focus. I gave myself a moment to take a breath; I closed my eyes and opened them again. The plastic goggles were getting a bit foggy from my perspiration, but I wouldn’t have to endure it much longer. I was so close. Just one more point. And it was my serve. I nailed it, winning both the game and a position as starter for my school’s handball team. It felt amazing.

My Priority

To get the position as starter (which meant getting to play against other schools), I had competed against Ashley, a fellow sophomore who had consistently scored higher than me for all of freshman year. I felt like I had proven myself when I won. It signified that I had come a long way since the previous season. From rookie to starter: I liked how that sounded.

I dedicated myself to the team, even giving up other things so I could focus on handball. For example, in the off-season I had gotten a job as counselor for elementary students in a Brooklyn after-school program. It was good pay, good hours, and I was even allowed to have snack time with the kids. It was a great, carefree environment, and I had made friends with a lot of the other counselors. But I gave all that up so I could focus on handball.

Thankfully, I was partnered with a girl I really liked, Sophie (not her real name). She seemed friendly and happy-go-lucky. Sophie always smiled widely and said “Nice shot” or “Nice try” whenever I played a game with her. So quitting my job in order to attend practice four days a week was an easy decision. I was excited. I couldn’t wait to shine.

Dream Team?

However, just a day later, rumors spoiled the little glory I had enjoyed. Apparently, Sophie did not share the same enthusiasm as I did about being partners. A friend who had class with Sophie overheard her say she was upset that she was partnered with me. In fact, she thought it was a mistake.

Those words kept circling through my head—a mistake? I knew there were players out there better than me, but I had earned the position the fair way: through a tournament-style scrimmage against my teammates. It hurt to know that a person I saw as friendly and nice was actually pretty mean. It completely destroyed my image of her.

But the rumor that upset me more was that the coach also thought I shouldn’t have won that last match, that I shouldn’t be the starter. According to the rumors, he told Sophie that he had wanted to make me rematch the last game of the scrimmage because my opponent had played me with a bruised hand. (In handball we play with a densely packed rubber ball. If you hit the ball “flat-handed” you may hurt your hand.) I didn’t agree with what my coach had supposedly said. I had had a bone bruise at the time too, but I still managed to play just fine.

I felt disappointed, but I decided not to say anything to either Sophie or the coach. I’m not sure why, but at the time, confrontation seemed impossible.

Benched

Instead, after hearing about Sophie’s lack of enthusiasm and the coach’s comments, I let the rumors affect my attitude. I felt less attached to the team and barely spoke up during team meetings. When games came, I was not energetic.

In other words, I let what they said about me become true. I sucked. Now, every time I missed a play, I felt like the other players got satisfaction out of my error. I imagined them thinking, “We knew she sucked. We were right. She just got lucky that last match.” These thoughts and insecurities burned through me, deep into my being. I felt so low. Although I never actually heard them say it, I felt like everyone on team was silently rooting for me to fail. And then I did.

It was after a terrible meet on a sunny April day. The other team had just left and my coach sat down next to me on the floor. He was a nice guy, and very cool. I was in a quiet mood because I knew I’d performed extremely poorly in the last match.

“Christina,” he started. “I’m switching you with Ashley.”

My body got numb. I didn’t know how to react. Ashley was the girl I had previously beat in a match for the position. He told me that I had improved greatly since last year, but she just seemed to be a more consistent player. He said I worked really hard, but the only thing that sunk in was the bottom line: I was being demoted. No compliment or sugarcoated reasoning was going to change that.

image by Amanda Zahr

An Unfamiliar Feeling

Of course, a trillion things ran through my head. I wanted to shout “I quit!” or “This team sucks anyway!” and chuck my gloves at his face, but I didn’t. I nodded. I understood. I may have tried really hard and even quit my job for the team, but in the end I had let the rumors get to me and I was playing poorly. I was sad, but felt that I should suck it up and come back to practice the next time to prove that what they said hadn’t gotten to me. I felt resolved to persevere.

That is, until the coach added a final thought, that felt like a storm cloud blocking out the last bit of sunshine.

“I was going to have you rematch her,” he added. It felt like someone vacuuming out my insides. This meant that the rumors were true—he really hadn’t believed in me from the beginning. What he said was more like a confession than a question, so I didn’t answer. Then he got up and walked away.

When I got on the bus to leave practice that day, all I wanted to do was let the tears roll and to wail, curse, and flail like a fish out of water. I was in a position I was not familiar with. “Failure. Loser. You do suck. They were right. You quit your job for nothing. You are nothing,” I told myself. When I got home that night, I was inconsolable.

Not for Me

I normally had enough control over things in my life to fix them before they got too bad. If I got a low grade on a test, I would study and do better. If I was late to work, next time I would make sure I arrived early.

But this time, I couldn’t muster enough motivation to go back to a team that didn’t feel supportive. After that day, I never went back to practice. Partly, I think, it was because I was not used to failure like that, and I had too much pride to go back after a demotion.

Of course, rather than quietly giving up, I would’ve liked to react in an extraordinary way—either by stoically returning to practice and proving myself, or by letting out all my frustration through spreading nasty rumors about my teammates, egging their houses, and telling them off. Yet, as interesting and passionate a sequel as that would have been, I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I took everything about handball, put it in a box, and locked it up. Not just the equipment but the memories and friends, too. I just wanted to forget any of it ever happened.

I decided handball had taken a toll on me. I liked the sport, but the attitude that came with it wasn’t me. It’s a street sport, not an official team like basketball or baseball, and you’re judged much more individually. I felt like I could only get respect for my performance, that being a good team player didn’t count for much.

So, after being demoted, I just didn’t feel like working so hard to gain everyone’s respect, and I didn’t think they deserved mine. I had started out with a burning passion for the sport, but now my fire was but a small ember I tried to extinguish.

Hard to Take

I read once that if you’re not comfortable in a situation, you can change the situation, change your attitude, or remove yourself from the situation. For a while after I left the team, I told myself I had followed that advice by removing myself from the situation.

However, I later realized that maybe there were downsides to my course of action. When I decided not to show up to practice for the rest of the season, I was depriving the team of their next best player. Even though I’d been taken out of the starter position, I was still their first substitute in case of injuries or absences. I wondered if I’d unintentionally hurt the team almost as much as it hurt me.

Still, I don’t blame myself too much, because nothing like that had ever happened to me before. It was the first team I ever joined. It was the first time I was ever given a valuable position as a team member. Then, all at once, I got dropped. It was hard to take.

Looking to the Future

Luckily, my bad feelings didn’t last. I don’t dwell on things because I know life is short and if you’re stuck in the past, you’ll miss the present. So, these days, I joke about it and call it an “epic fail.” I also focus on the positive outcomes of the whole thing.

Yes, I quit a job I liked for handball. But I reminded myself that the after-school job was demanding and wasn’t fun all the time. (Trust me, helping the kids with their homework felt like I was back in the third grade. Two plus two equals four. Every time.) And yes, I quit handball, but becoming a starter in the first place still felt miraculous.

Although the situation didn’t turn out as expected, being free of a job and the handball team allowed me to explore other interests and try other things. Like they say, when one door closes, another opens. I learned to move on from failure and to keep looking forward to whatever other opportunities await. I found that I had a lot of other interests to pursue, things that suited me better. But that’s a story for another time.

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(NYC-2010-05-11)

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