Thursday, 10 April 2014

It's all about the ball

I know many people who like to run.  They run for relaxation, they run for weight loss, they run for the sure zen and pleasure of it.  And I don't get it.

I don't like to run -- it's just too painful.  The air scrapes my larynx and I feel nothing but aches and pains coming from my legs.  I've never liked running.  I remember the first time I ran cross-country in a gym class in junior high school.  There were some who just seemed to enjoy it. And others who waited behind the trees and joined the crowd later (no, I wasn't one of them).

But, I have discovered that there is one circumstance where I will run.  In fact, I'll run until I can't move.  There has to be a ball.  I first discovered this in high school when my history teacher, the infamous Ron Jones (of the Third Wave) announced that he was coaching the lightweight basketball team.  The lightweight league used age, weight and height to determine which section was acceptable.  In the first year, I was in the D League.  But Coach Jones had a diabolical method of pruning the possible players: the first few practices were brutal.  I remember the drills and the running.  But, at the end of it all he didn't cut anyone. There were two strings and the leftovers.  And I was in the leftovers.

The first time I discovered I had any athletic ability was my senior year in high school. We played badminton and we (doubles) managed to defeat the entire class.  Finally I had found my sport.  Badminton is incredibly fast and doesn't use strength but rather stamina and stealth.  The fundamental idea is to push the opponent into the corners where they can't return your next shot.  Unfortunately, in this country badminton is viewed as a kind of  backyard game instead of the crafty diabolical speed game that it can be.

When I got to the university, I briefly played handball.  I played it until the day I scraped my fingernails against the side wall.  But I liked the idea that unlike tennis, the ball would return back to you. I then discovered racquetball.  And this led to squash.  I'd heard that squash was a posh game played by ivy leaguers.  Squash and racquetball look the same, but they are not.  The squash ball doesn't bounce very high.  It's not going to come to you, you are going to have to move.  To run. There is the additional complication that the bottom of the front wall (a kill zone in racquetball) is covered by the tin and is out.  And finally, the racquetball racquet is short and easily handled as a kind of wrist extension. The squash racquet is more like a tennis racquet with a long handle.  In squash, you can lob, smash and drop the ball.  It's a game of finesse.  And, you have all the advantages of a walled court: the ball doesn't escape and you can use the walls to sap energy from the ball. Also, unlike racquetball, the ceiling is out of bounds.

Unlike today, I grew up in a world where baseball, basketball and football were the only  sports that boys played. In high school, soccer was introduced but I never played outside of gym class.  Strangely enough, it was in graduate school that I started playing again.  It wasn't quite the way I remembered it, now it was more fun.

Where I live now, soccer is a big deal.  Not only does it have a well developed child soccer system, it also has the adult leagues as well.  I signed up for the "Over 40s" Master's League. My first adventure out on the field was a shock.  I discovered that playing squash did not adequately prepare me for the rigors of a field sprint.  And, I was lost on the field.  It was bigger than I remembered and while running I would lose the sidelines and my field position.  As expected, I had lost any ball handling skill I used to have so I had to start building that up as well.

I have always liked to play midfield, which is the position with the most running and to my mind, the most strategic position.  Because you shift back and forth from offense to defense, you must always be alert for the sudden shift in play. And, for the most part, you also avoid catastrophic mistakes as well since you hope the defense will be behind you when you make an error.  And it happens...

In my second season, I was feeling more secure on the field, and in spite of being the worst player on the team,  my tactical skills were improving and my ball handling was also improving since I was practicing at the  lunch hour as well.  I managed to score my first goal ever --- which I promptly reported to my 80+ year old parents.  I felt like a child again: so proud and yet, so embarrassed by my delight in such a simple thing.

Unfortunately, cardiovascular decline waits for no one.  One loses one beat per minute of "top end" per year.  So, you get slower and slower.  Eventually, it was time for me to move to the Over-50 league.  It's slower and gentler (for the most part) than the Over-40 league. I'm still playing outside midfield.  And I still live for the good pass.

I watch the joggers run by here and there all the while knowing that it just doesn't have any appeal to me.  I don't get it.  Without the ball, I don't run.  It's that simple: it's all about the ball.

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