If you’ve avoided playing sports after you left high school, it could be time to give it another go, says Abra Pressler.
Australia is a sporting nation. Friendship is made on the field, court or pitch, and many Aussies start playing a form of organised sport from as young as three.
However, studies show that many teens stop playing sports between ages 13 and 17. Most are girls, and most cite confidence as a major contributing factor.
As someone who was never ‘good’ at athletics in school, I’ve always had a complex relationship with organised sports. Growing up, I enjoyed being active and tried my hand at netball, basketball, touch footy, swimming and baseball, but the competitive aspect of sport combined with my very average skills meant I was often not selected for teams, or shoved into lower grades while my friends played higher grades.
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Social competitions were their own unique torture. I remember crying over being placed in a basketball team with the girls who bullied me in high school; and begging my parents to pull me out. They were confused as I’d previously loved basketball.
Still desperate to be included in what was the social backbone of my community, I became an umpire for an under-10’s netball competition, only to be pulled aside by parents to argue about my calls.
When I could use the excuse of ‘focusing on Year 12’ to pull out of organised sport, it was a relief. While my younger sisters were state-level athletes, I had never found any sense of success, community or friendship playing sports.
After university, I joined an inclusive weightlifting group run by a personal trainer. The social aspect of the weightlifting group increased my confidence and while I was often one of the last to finish the workout, I thrived when the only person I was competing against was myself.
Having the confidence to suck
Then the pandemic happened, and I moved towns, leaving the weightlifting group. One day I found an advertisement to play social tennis. I’d always loved watching tennis and had spent years studying the game in depth while writing my romance book. My dad also played tennis every week and enjoyed it.
Suddenly all the insecurity I’d felt about sport came flooding back. While I knew the mechanics, I didn’t actually know how to play. What if I rocked up to a doubles match and everyone got frustrated with how much I sucked? What if I made a fool of myself?
As a kid, there were programs to teach skills, but as an adult, one of the biggest barriers I found was finding a way to learn how to play.
And then I found the Canberra School of Tennis, run by a retired professional tennis player, Mark, who offered adult lessons. I rocked up on a Thursday night with a $ 30 racquet and a mantra in my head that sounded a bit like ‘You’re going to suck at this but that’s okay’. Over the course of nine weeks, I served, volleyed, and backhanded my way through the lessons, increasing my confidence and skills.
Soon, I’d bought a better-quality racquet and felt confident enough to play doubles with my dad. We lost our first match 6-4 4-6 6-4 but I kept up with the lessons. Mark and his team always welcomed me back with smiles and a gentle reminder to “swing down to up” on my groundstrokes.
Developing the confidence to play
These days, I often see advertisements for social competitions that say, ‘no experience needed’, promising that newcomers will learn as they play—but from my experience, and the experience of people I know, this is a hugely daunting prospect.
“You don’t suck, you’re just learning,” I told a player who was becoming frustrated with her forehand. “You’ll get it.”
My tennis group have exchanged numbers and meet up regularly to play on weekends. I’ve even joined a social competition.
Tennis has allowed me to build up strength and agility, and I’ve found in addition to other strength training like reformer Pilates, a decrease in joint pain.
But perhaps most importantly, I now have the confidence to get up, grab a racquet, play sports and know, at the end of the day, I won’t feel bad about myself.
Abra Pressler is the author of Love and Other Scores, published by Macmillan Australia, RRP $ 26.99, available in all good bookstores and online now,