When, like approximately 50% of the population, you grow up as a guy, you go through the early decades with an invisible measuring stick constantly by your side. The man-o-meter, delineated in testosterone units, tells you that in order to measure up, you have to…win.
Being a good student, or a budding artist, or a musical prodigy, simply doesn’t seem to cut it if you’re a guy. Sure, those are good things in the grand scheme of things…but the backyard scheme of things has to do with being bigger, stronger, faster, tougher. Self-worth is measured in man-units.
Like many guys, I grew up smaller, weaker, slower, more tentative. In elementary school, I was typically the last one picked on the recess kickball team, and with good reason – I was really quite pathetic in the athletic department. And on the voyage of male puberty, my train was slow out of the station. I keenly remember standing in the junior high locker room, still with a boy’s body, feeling vastly inferior to bigger guys in my grade who already had hair sprouting out of their bodies.
It’s not easy being a guy on the shallow end of the male bell curve.
But sometimes, even those used to the agony of defeat get to taste the thrill of victory.
As a sophomore in high school, the only sport I could marginally qualify for was track. But even then, my athletic prowess was such that I never had a chance to win, place or show. I was, shall we say, team ballast. With no realistic hope of 220, 440, or javelin improvement. My first – and last – attempt at pole-vaulting was mercifully witnessed by only one other soul, who didn’t tell anyone else.
However, the next year our school started its first-ever tennis team, and I gave it a try. So, as a junior (and finally beginning to mature into a young man), I was finally able to compete at something. I was erratic, but had a decent serve and a desire to win. Usually, I played as our sixth seed in singles, and also played some doubles.
As the season wore on, in my inconsistent fashion, I won some and lost plenty, but toward the end of the year, we were playing a match pretty straight-up with a rival town. I’d actually won my singles match (I think – memory is a bit faded nowadays), and now was locked, with my partner, in a doubles match at the end of the afternoon. The game next to us was over, and suddenly, the contest was tied. All eyes were on us.
And I was “on” that day. Everyone who has played sports knows the feeling. Your feet are light. The ball is big. The racket feels laser-guided. Confidence surges through your veins. You’re playing above your head. You’re going to cut across the net and pound that return into their panicky feet. You’re in the match, it’s close, and you have a shot…at victory.
We won that day. I recall jumping higher than any other time in memory, lifted up with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and validation. The backdrop of failure and inferiority was, for a moment, eclipsed by a hard-earned win. Athletic victories had been few and far between in my life up to then, and truth to tell, I never did become accomplished at sports. Most of my highlight reel is taken up with other areas of life, things far more important than sports trophies. But in the recesses of manhood memories that matter, that little win – that thrill of victory – still brings a feeling of warmth. Sure, it was just a game.
But it was a game we won!