Thursday, August 20, 2009

Athletically Challenged

This is a personal sharing coming straight from an emotional wound I have had since I was a kid.

Last Sunday during our sports fest, I had the chance to play bowling again. The last time I played this sport was back in college - almost a decade ago! Feeling so excited, I grabbed the 10+ pound bowling ball. At first I didn't know what to do with the holes. I thought it was for the thumb, index, and middle fingers and I was wrong. It's for the thumb, middle finger and ring finger. How athletic.

As I was about to release the heavy ball from my right hand, the ball bounced and rolled over to the side lane. It was so embarassing! But during the subsequent attempts, I was able to pull it through. Thank goodness.

In my previous article I posted something about sports wound in which according to one study over 90% of men with SSA have struggled with this while growing up and I for one can definitely attest to this fact.

Childhood Memories

In recollecting my earliest childhood experiences, I was a normal kid. I remember playing street games including "piko," "tumbang preso," "sipa," "tagu-taguan," "baril-barilan," "luksong baka, "and even "Chinese garter." Name it I've played it. This was when I was around 5 to 7 years old and I was just fine.

But as I grew up, especially at school, things began to change. The boys whom I used to play with were now playing a different kind of game - basketball.

I hate that sport until now. Even though I used to watch PBA games while still young, I wasn't able to carry it through. Yes, I had tried playing basketball a couple of times, but because it is a contact sports I never got myself to like it. I was afraid of being injured. I was not good at dribbling the ball. I was not good at shooting the ball. I simply resigned myself to the thought that I'm not athletically competent for this sport. It's too rough a sport for me. I'm a "special" and "different" kid and so why would I play such a sport. Any other sport will do, especially individual sports, where me alone will be recognized but not basketball.

Every summer, our barangay holds basketball tournaments for boys of all ages even those as young as 6 to 7 years old. I remember being invited to join these tournaments which I would decline out of fear. My father was a basketball player himself and you could just imagine the feelings of shame and self-loathing that I felt during those times because I couldn't live up to the expectations of others and my dad as well. I was often compared to other boys my age and though I didn't realize it, I was gradually withdrawing myself more and more from my childhood playmates. In my young mind I couldn't understand why every boy my age should be subjected to such thing. "Don't you know other sports besides basketball?" I would often ask that question and being left with no other option I stuck to my conviction that I'm going to be "different" and indeed I am.

School Memories

When I entered school I finally realized I could make up for my athletic deficiencies by excelling in academics. All the bullying and unpleasant experiences with being forced to play basketball would finally vanish - and so I thought!

I did well at school. I excelled in my academic studies. I joined quiz bees and spelling contests left and right, even competing with other neighboring schools. I impressed my teachers with high scores during exams, on-the-sport oral recitations and class demos, well-done projects and homeworks, and being active in other extra-curricular activities not related to sports. I was a consistent honor student. I even won a MAPSA-sponsored quiz bee competition as a grand champion which brought honor to my school and really made my teachers very proud of me. At least I've gained a tremendous sense of self-worth from all these things, a sense that I'm good at something, but deep inside me I tried to ignore the gnawing feeling that I was missing out on something important, something very crucial - and that's peer acceptance and approval.

Obviously, all these things were mere fronts to hide my feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

There was a specific time of the year that I always dread coming. I dread Intramurals season. It's a time coinciding with the foundation day of the school and the campus is abuzz with all sorts of activities. One of the highlights of the event is the annual sportsfest wherein different class sections at every year level compete for basketball and volleyball tournaments. And as for me, I'm nowhere to be found in the campus but inside the solitude of the library. That's how "geeky" I was in school.

Every time there is a tournament going on, especially when my section is the ones competing, I withdraw myself from the crowd. I stay in the library. And from there I secretly watch my guy classmates in all their athletic prowess. I never dared to go near the court as I felt so terribly awkward doing so. I didnt want to be asked why I didn't join the game. And if ever someone would dare ask me that question, I would just shrug it off. You can ask me a physics question or a mathematical formula, but don't ask that question please. It's hard for me to answer that...very hard. Nevertheless, one classmate of mine finally dared to ask. "Are you just content with your books?" Ouch. Double ouch.

In college, things were a little bit different. There was more room for me to breathe. I didn't feel pressured to excel athletically although we did have physical education classes for four semesters. This time I had a bunch of male classmates who were really into sports - soccer in particular. I would often see them practice in the vast open fields of my university. Now, I can afford to stand by amidst a throng of spectators and cheerers because not everyone is supposed to learn soccer. It so happened that most of these guys came from elite schools. It's relatively safe for me. But I also had a share of rejection.

I can still remember during one of our softball classes the coach divided us into two teams. He assigned two group leaders who would pick their respective members. And of course I was the last one to be picked out. I couldn't forget that incident. Sometimes I couldn't help but ask what went wrong with me.

In one of the semesters where we had to take up basketball as our subject in PE, I felt terrified. Not again. Thankfully I was not the only one who didn't know how to play basketball. There were a bunch of guys too like me and they seemed fine. In order not to subject myself from playing basketball, I opted to join a special group in our ROTC class that would exempt me from my PE classes! And I took that opportunity even if it meant extending few extra hours during Sundays amidst the sweltering heat of the day and performing extra duties during our ROTC.


Realization #1: If I could turn my life backwards, what things would I do differently? Well, leaving out the things I couldn't possibly change, I think I would not alienate myself from others because of fear and I would take the risk of exposing myself (being vulnerable). I must admit that I defensively detached myself from sports because I wanted to shield myself from any potential ridicule or imagined failure. By thinking that I'm different than the rest (which many gay men think of themselves), I effectively isolated myself from other guys. The irony of SSA in this case is that I want peer affirmation and acceptance and yet I voluntarily distanced myself from the very same guys that I want to get this affirmation from!

Realization #2: If it were possible, I would gladly exchange all the medals, all the honors, all my academic achievements for the opportunity to be affirmed and recognized as "one of the guys" - a well-balanced and well-rounded individual. Looking back, I realized that I overcompensated for my weakness by excelling in academics (which by the way is not really wrong but that in my case I had the wrong motivation for doing so and I used it as my primary self-esteem booster) to the detriment of other areas in my life, especially social interaction.

Realization #3: Athleticism is possible at every stage of one's life. Even if I am not naturally endowed with athletic capabilities, I can always keep myself in tip-top shape by making a commitment to stay fit and healthy through the means available to me, like going to the gym, jogging every morning, or engaging in sports I really like.

Realization #4: Sports per se will not make you "straight", but if you are willing to take the risk, the affirmation that you will get from heterosexual men is definitely worth it.

As a closing, I would like to quote Frank Worthen's take on this topic:

"The gay person has felt much pressure to do what he felt he could not do. He has been unable to conform to what the world considers the male image. Most have failed at sports (although not all, as there are homosexual athletes). To some, sports is synonymous with humiliation. They have been ridiculed and, in turn, have hated and ridiculed the interests of the normal male. Now, a rethinking process must begin. The gay person must not be pushed into things he can't handle. On the other side, he must be encouraged to take an interest in the interests of the normal male person, so that they will have some things in common."- (This Way Out, p. 96)

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