Live Through This

It’s OK Not to Play

I spent years of my life competing for awards I didn’t give a rip about.

Illustration by Ruby A.

1-2-3-4-5-6 breathe, 1-2-3-4-5-6-breathe, remember to kick, breathe, flip-turn, kick-kick-kick-kick-kick-kick 1-2-3-4-5-6 breathe…

Another varsity swim team meet. The 200 freestyle—my event. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of a girl’s hand in the next lane. She was catching up; she was pulling even. Ha, let her tire herself out, I thought. I knew I could beat her; she was going to spend herself on catching up, and I’d put on a burst at the end and win this.

My teammates were cheering; when I turned my head and one ear broke the surface of the water, I could hear them. It was pleasant, almost lazy feeling, slipping through the water, my heart pounding, knowing I could win this race. I was faster than the other girls. I was an eel, an otter, a dolphin with my hand-fins cutting through the pool.

When I won, I was not surprised. I got out of the water, pulled off my fogged-up goggles, dried off and put on my warm-up suit, and sat with the other girls on my team.

My coach came over. Coach had curly red hair, and when she was mad, her face turned bright red. Right now she was holding her clipboard and a stopwatch, and she was glowing crimson.

“Burton, what the hell were you doing out there?”

I always think it’s funny when adults are clearly trying to control themselves, so I laughed. “What do you mean?”

She turned purple. “I mean, what the hell do you think you were doing? You came in a full two seconds later than you’ve been doing in practice.”

“I did?”

“You weren’t even trying. You sized up the competition and decided you didn’t have to try.”

I got defensive. “I won, who cares?”

She took a deep breath to steady herself and got right up into my face. “YOU should care, Burton. When you don’t have to work to beat the other girls, you race against yourself. That’s what this is. You should care. I don’t know why you don’t.”

She walked off to go time another race. My teammates immediately started in on me: “Oooooh, you are in trouble…

But my coach was right. She had hit on a truth I’d only recently discovered about myself, and that was that I really didn’t care. I was 15 years old, and I was a good swimmer, and I did not give a shit about swimming. I didn’t give a shit about competing or rivalries or winning or team spirit or sports in general, and now that I knew that about myself, it was all over.

I’m not really sure how I came to this realization. I just remember being in the pool one day after school as usual, swimming laps. As I moved up and down the length of the pool, singing the Rent soundtrack (yes!) to myself in my head to pass the time, I suddenly had an entirely new thought, which was: Why am I doing this? I actually came to a halt in the water—that’s how powerful this new thought was. Why was I in a pool right then? Why was I spending every afternoon of my life at swim team practice? What was it for?

I started moving forward again, mulling it over. Was the competition aspect of the sport burning me out? Hm. No. I liked winning, but I didn’t care about winning. I didn’t actually mind losing at all; I only really liked winning because it made my team happy.

Was I on swim team because I thought it would help me stay in shape? Nope. At the time, I was actually worried about all the muscles I had from swimming; I thought maybe I’d grow up and have freakishly overdeveloped shoulders or something. (I worried about this a lot.)

I actually didn’t even like swim team, now that I thought about it. I didn’t like going to practice, and I didn’t like how the rubber swim caps made my brain feel like it was getting squeezed, and I thought our suits that year were really ugly. Coach was yelling at me more and more, and I was exhausted all the time, because, as a Mormon kid, I had to go to an early (6 AM!) church class called seminary every weekday morning, all four years of high school, and I was falling asleep in school and then going to swim practice and then staying at school so I could go to play practice, and then getting home and trying to do homework until midnight so I could get up at 4:30 AM and do it all over again. I used to actually cry, I was so tired.

The truth was, I was only on swim team because a bunch of friends were. Which isn’t bad in and of itself! Except also: swim team was its own special clique at school. There were several extremely popular older girls on the team, and I reveled in my association with them. Our team had special outfits to wear on days we had meets, and I really liked that everyone could see that I was a member of this clique full of popular girls and they weren’t. It turned out that the thing I liked best about swim team…was that it, um, excluded other people.

I stayed on the team because I was afraid of losing my direct contacts with cool and popular girls. Never mind the countless hours in the pool, never mind the (unintentionally) green hair and the sheer exhaustion of practice every day.

When I really thought about it, I wasn’t even interested in swimming, at all. At that point I had already also run track, played soccer, and taken gymnastics, throughout my childhood and into my teens. I hadn’t cared about any of those sports, either. I had only done them because my parents thought it would be a good idea, or because I wanted to be friends with girls on the teams.

Whoa. I had spent years of my life competing for awards I didn’t give a rip about. Some people put their trophies on shelves and hang plaques and ribbons on their walls. And that’s awesome! That means you’re proud of your accomplishments—you’ve worked for them and they mean something to you. But me? As a young kid, I threw my trophies and ribbons into a Rubbermaid container in our mildewy basement, sometimes cutting up an award ribbon to make a fancy satin dress for one of my Sylvanian Family dolls. I had never cared! What was I doing on the swim team? Wasn’t it about time to start doing what I really wanted to do with my time? Even if that just meant taking a nap after school sometimes, or reading a book I was actually interested in?

I finished out the year with the team, but I stopped after that. Once I’d had my little epiphany in the pool, I just couldn’t with sports anymore. When I told her I was quitting, my coach looked me up and down and said, “You’re good at swimming. What a waste.”

I felt guilty for a minute, but I am not sorry I quit—not even a little. It might feel to you right now like everyone on earth is in a sport, and like everyone is on some kind of team, like volleyball or basketball or tennis or soccer or something, but let me tell you: if you don’t enjoy playing sports, it is a wonderful thing to finally accept that and get hours upon hours of your life back.

It’s OK to not want to play. I know we’re supposed to learn how to be Team Players and feel a sense of community and learn Valuable Life Lessons from sports, but if you’re not interested in those things, it’s fine! Sports can feel incredibly important in high school, and to some people, they are. Here in America, it’s basically accepted that kids will grow up maladjusted if they’re not on a team. Well, I call bullshit! You can learn all those important lessons in other ways, too—from school or afterschool classes or cool adults or youth groups.

I am certainly not down on you if you like to be on a team, or like to play sports. Hell no, that’s great! More power to you! Sports can be fun and can help you develop as a person and they’re healthy etc.! I’m just saying, it is absolutely also all right to not be the least bit interested. It unnerves people, but it’s fine. You don’t have to play to be involved in life.

And maybe someday you’ll find a sport you actually do love—something you get excited about playing or doing, something you haven’t even tried yet. (But it’s also OK if you never, ever do!)

Ten years after breaking up with all sports, I was walking past a park near my apartment when I saw it: tons of bikes chained to a bike rack. Nearby, I saw a huge group of people in their 20s, none of them dressed in athletic clothes, screaming and yelling and running around playing kickball in the early summer evening. They were sliding in the dirt in their jeans and shit-talking and having the time of their lives. Well, I love kickball. I asked someone what was up, and she said it was an adult kickball league and that they played every Tuesday! No coaches, no practices, no matching T-shirts, no fees. Just this: anybody who wanted to play could show up.

It took 25 years, but I had finally found a sport I wanted to play. It didn’t matter if I was any good; it didn’t even matter whether I showed up on any given day. No pressure. Just playing outside with friends. Which I guess is what I wanted all along. ♦


  • Abby October 29th, 2012 7:15 PM

    This is… awesome. I love it. I hated hated hated that my orchestra teacher gave me so much shit in my senior year about not pursuing music in college, because “You’re so good at cello! It’s such a waste!” I didn’t pursue it because although I like it, I always hated the commitment. I hated the competition, I hated HAVING to do well because the orchestra was depending on me, I hated how much time it took up, and I hated the fact that I had to be REALLY ridiculously good to do well with it in college. Um… no thanks. I think I’ll keep it as a recreational thing and take my life back.

    • marineo October 29th, 2012 8:15 PM

      I can totally relate! I play double bass, and I have a lot of friends who are double bass performance majors, and they tell me all the time that i should be a performance major too because I am “good enough” (disclaimer: I am most definitely not. This is not modesty, this is fact). It is really hard to explain to them why I don’t want to be be a performance major, but you summed it up perfectly. :)

    • LeavesThatAreGreen October 29th, 2012 9:46 PM

      I play the cello too and hate the competition. Almost everyone in my orchestra aspires to be like REALLY good and challenges motivates them. I just get lazier the more pieces I have to learn and I don’t really have the time to do well in school AND become the next Jacqueline du Pré. I just want to play for fun, too relax or whatever.

  • Fortune_Goddess October 29th, 2012 7:47 PM

    I totally agree with this. I am meh about sports, though I’m athletic and moderately good at most of them. The thing is, my volleyball team gets so mad at me if we lose and at each other that I cry… Because I don’t care. I can’t even muster up excitement when we win, so I get yelled at more. It’s awful. I’m not agressive enough for most sports either.

    • EveyMarrie October 29th, 2012 9:12 PM

      Same. I have the capacity to do sports and yet, I lack the competitive drive to do so. I used to get yelled at all the time in gym class on team sports because I would miss a hit, not dive for a ball, or just completely step out of the way of it. I just don’t understand it. Especially the REALLY overly competitive athletic kids that were on three sports during the year. They flipped crap at me all the time, but I’m like, “Dude, it’s gym. Calm down.”

      I don’t know. I wasn’t born with the competitive gene I guess.

  • Elle October 29th, 2012 8:38 PM

    Ahh. Me too.

  • Stacey October 29th, 2012 9:48 PM

    I love this! I’ve spent the past thirteen years dancing at a studio near my house. No doubt I loved it most of the time, and it was my life for so many years. Over the past two years I’ve gone from having classes every night to only twice a week. I decided today to not finish the year. Thank you for this post. Made me even more certain of my decision!

  • carabear October 29th, 2012 9:54 PM

    Not directly related, but… AAHHH!! I love Sylvanians!! Except we called them Calico Critters. Either way, that. was. my. childhood.

    Also, I totally relate to this. I was the exact same way until I turned fourteen and got obsessed with the grade-comparison hype and started playing quiz bowl.

  • TessAnnesley October 29th, 2012 9:55 PM

    Dudes this is irrelevant to this (awesome) post but I can’t think of another place to say STAY SAFE USA ROOKIES!!!!! I’m sitting down here in Australia thinking of y’all blown to pieces by that hurricane, it sounds awful! Stay inside and listen to the emergency services… We’ll be sending you mental strength in flower crowns and sparkly zines and unicorn stickers, be safe!!!

  • Mags October 29th, 2012 11:07 PM

    Reading is my sport of choice.

    • raggedyanarchy October 30th, 2012 9:29 AM

      Ha! Me too. While everyone else was at sports practices, I was busy trying to beat my little sister in “who can read (insert book) faster.” That’s a competition I can go for.

  • BonnieJo October 30th, 2012 1:58 AM

    I feel similar, exept with brass. I’m in four bands at different levels on two instruments and somedays I’ll come home at five thirty and just EXPLODE. But then I’ll have to go and do homework or make dinner and find time befors eight o’clock to practice and all I want to do is procastinate. So I do.

  • eliselbv October 30th, 2012 9:35 AM

    At first I wanted to comment upon the whole swimming story because I myself lived the exact same thing as you did. I was a swimmer and I couldn’t care less about winning or loosing. But then….. you put this link to the Sylvania Family website and it was the end of it. I closed the window with the website two min ago but I’ve spent one hour on it and so many memories came back to my mind. When I was a little girl I’ve spent hours and hours playing with my Sylvania and my father even built me an other house because the one I bought was too little. And now I’m so pissed to see that there’s so much more item than there were 6 years ago !
    Anyway, you made my day. I think I’m just going look after my Sylvania in the attic this afternoon.

  • MayaLily October 30th, 2012 10:16 AM

    I liked this article i resantly started cross country running i enjoy it im good at it and its all together improved my life so i know im doing it for the right reasons !!!!

  • dizziestdaydream October 30th, 2012 11:17 AM

    I loved playing sports, as long as the league wasn’t uber competitive. I didn’t like the pressure of school basketball because our coach yelled way too much. I didn’t like playing on a tournament team for softball–I was playing with a bunch of girls I didn’t know, as a back-up pitcher…. the nerves killed me and I bombed out big time. But… co-ed recreational soccer was incredible! Sure, we liked to win, but it wasn’t nearly the pressure that other sports had been.

    This can apply to other things too. I’m blessed with some serious brain power and tend to do a pretty good job at whatever task you put in front of me. But when I am praised at being good at something that I just don’t care about, that I don’t even have to work hard at…. I feel like I’m not being genuine to myself. At almost 26 years old, I’m finally realizing that being able to do something well doesn’t mean I want to do it at all. It’s terrifying but worth it to decide that from here on out, I’m going to do things I enjoy, regardless of whether or not it is “the potential” others see in me. To help others and be myself— that’s all that really matters. Not how it stacks up to other people’s idea of “success” or “normality”.

  • Juliane October 30th, 2012 12:08 PM

    I don’t like Sport because I’m really really unathletic. I have a probelm with my eyes that makes me really cack-handed to play Badminton. I’ve always felt worse than other teenagers because I did no sports. School sport was a nightmare for me.
    But some day I understood that I should just accept that I’m not the right person for sport in a group because I’ll never be on a level with my class mates. It was good to accept that because now I’m not ashamed no longer.

  • GlitterKitty October 30th, 2012 2:48 PM

    I want to join this kickball league.

  • Ben November 1st, 2012 9:41 PM

    I hate sports. I once played socarr and hated it and track was terrible i also didn’t like piano practice, i don’t like to have a bunch of things to have to do i love my free time! I have cosins that have a lot of out of school activitys and a friend had a lot of sport stuff recently and it just seems to take up so much time and i need that for all my creative work and stuff!

  • Nina M November 2nd, 2012 10:30 AM

    That’s exactly the reason I lost my passion for tennis.
    I was super passionate about it and I loved it.I could literally play 6 hours in a row and not get tired and WANT to play more and watch matches like forever..Then one day I asked myself: WHY am I doing this?
    What’s the point of a ball flying across the net and you hitting it and making sure it landed where you wanted?What is the POINT that?Analysing those actions made me think,how on earth doing the above is the my life goal?
    After that I just lost all my passion for sports in general and now the only thing I would do is swimming but only for my health’s sake.Can’t care less about competing of any kind anymore.

  • guiltfreedonut November 3rd, 2012 10:01 PM

    I quit the squash team at my school this year for the very same reasons. The coach was upset because I was #1 on the team last year but it just annoyed me losing time on something that I couldn’t handle anymore. I feel weird and unvalidated when people ask me what I do outside of school now.

  • stellar January 3rd, 2013 12:34 AM

    beware of who thinks u ‘should’ want to do something–you’re the only one who knows why u do it at all, and the one who has to live with whatever the results are.