On becoming a jock

Or, how I learned to love sport

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

As a kid, I enjoyed playing volleyball in gym class and tag on the playground as much as I enjoyed videogames and history class. I didn’t participate in many extracurricular activities and didn’t come from a sporty household, but during this period, sport and play were synonymous, and one’s social class was rarely equated with athletic performance.

As I entered the adolescent period of the cafeteria social order, the distinctions between the freaks, geeks and jocks suddenly became simple ways to understand who I was and who I wasn’t.

People I once considered friends suddenly confused me. The slang born out of locker-room banter quickly left me alienated, and my lack of coordination meant I knew my place.

Though these demarcations reflect vulgar archetypes drawn from exposure to TV and movies, my accumulated years without sport had affected my perceived social status. As a result, I felt a need to separate myself, choosing arts and literature over dangles and ginos, slowly shifting my sense of self.

As time went on, the aggression, the yelling and the physical exertion of sports changed from something I didn’t understand to something I wholly rejected. I saw sports as impossible for me, to be avoided and the pastime of a group I would never come to understand.

I held on to approximations of these feelings throughout my early adulthood. I rejected business bros who play beerleague hockey, a lesser form of enjoyment compared to the arts or music.

However, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, something started to change. I took up running as a way to get outside, seeing it as somehow separate from conventional sports due to its patient, contemplative nature.

As I continued to exercise, I began to see the appeal of testing my body. The feeling of progression as I went from 5K to 10K to 15K runs was addictive and positively impacted my health and sense of self.

So when a friend asked me to come play pickup basketball, although I felt some reluctance, my six-foot-four frame and new love for activity meant it was a transition that finally made sense to me.

Quickly, I took to the sport. I wasn’t good, but the feeling of camaraderie that comes with playing on a team was a new experience that I relished. Most surprisingly, aggression and competition, the black box I had hid away, became something I craved. By being able to express these feelings in a constructive manner, I encountered a pleasure I did not know I could feel.

Now, I play sports every week, crossing the mythical high-school cafeteria lines to finally become a jock. Or, in reality, I have opened myself up to a new experience, discarding the anxieties of youth to appreciate physicality, teamwork and play.

I have come to realize that limiting myself in service of a constructed identity is an unnecessary practice and something that can be overcome. Most importantly, I learned that I can almost slam dunk.

Patrick Harney is the comments editor at The Uniter. His next challenge is watching sports.

Published in Volume 78, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 25, 2024)

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