My freshman year of high school I tried out for the Girl’s Junior Varsity Basketball team. I had a true love for playing the game, a fond desire to be part of the team, and I was really good at it.
I had been playing basketball for our community teams. I helped take them all the way to Regionals one year. The feeling I got when I played was amazing. I played with the guys from my neighborhood – after school, they helped me fine-tune my skills. I loved that I could hold my own competitively, and thought it was hilarious when I schooled them. (You got beat by a girl!)
The tryouts were grueling, it took seven days of line drills, free-throw shots, and eliminations to finally be informed that I had made the team. It felt great. I was playing the best I had ever played, I was always confident when I looked my name up on the freshly red inked list of remaining athletes. Not a new list, just the old one with bright red lines marked right down the center of each name that didn’t make the cut. I was proud of myself and it showed in my game play. I was accurate, fast and very competitive. I earned my place on that team. I had been working very hard, and had a great support group of friends that would cheer me on during tryouts.
I didn’t realize at the time just how big a role my friends’ support contributed to my abilities on the court. We got our ugly brown and yellow uniforms, and I was introduced to my teammates. I was number 12. The shorts were way too short for me to feel comfortable, so I would always wear a pair of black biker shorts underneath.
It was made very clear that I was an outsider, and not liked by the already bonded team of bitchy [c-words that rhyme with runts I'm not allowed to say because I'm trying to be good]. Playing with those girls was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I was under a microscope, being critiqued and made fun of every day at practice. Why did it matter that I didn’t hold the ball the way they wanted me to, when I made the shot? If the outcome was the same, who the hell cared how I got it there? I had no encouragement from any of the girls on my team, coaches included. Friends weren’t allowed into practice, so it was just me along with my fast growing, self-conscious self-doubt. My abilities I had been developing for years were slowly diminishing with every maliciously intended critique. My confidence was being smashed across the court as I started missing easy shots, running the wrong plays, and looking like the complete idiot they thought I was. The exhilarating feeling I would get when I could see myself make a shot before the ball had even left my hands was gone, and all that was left was a snowballing of missteps and embarrassing blunders.
I would go home after practice and play basketball with all of my neighborhood guy friends like I hadn’t missed a step. I was my old self when I was around people who liked and encouraged me.
The ongoing problems with the team made me feel so weak and stuck, I didn’t know how to regain my confidence. All of the girls on the team played against me at tryouts, and I kicked their ass. The coaches saw how well I could play. Why didn’t they connect the bullying to my sudden lack of eye- and hand-coordination? I stuck with it, thinking that over time they would accept me. They never did — I was cut from the team because I didn’t get the practice schedule for Christmas break and went to my grandmother’s for two weeks, I had no clue that we had practice… no one told me.
I remember walking home in the heavy, out-of-character rain with my away-game uniform still on. I was crying out-of-character over my defeat. A city bus pulled over and asked me if I wanted a ride closer to my house. He was sweet — he told me that whatever I was crying over couldn’t be worth my tears. It was kind of him even though he used a dumb line that never works.
I got home to my family, they asked me why I was home so early with a red face and a runny nose? I told my dad I was kicked off the basketball team. He stood to his feet and said, “OK!” like he knew what he needed to do. He walked over to me and gave me the most love-filled hug of acceptance and pride that I had ever felt. My humiliation and hurt gradually went away as I cried them out over my dad’s shoulder.
Looking back it was a horrible experience but an amazing life lesson.
Encouragement and acceptance are the strongest contributors to excellence. We are driven by our emotions — they affect everything we are capable of.