Wellbeing

How Returning To Team Sports Changed My Life

Like many women, my relationship to my body is distorted with ill will. It’s run-of-the-mill stuff, and I’ve spent decades working on it. I’m still working on it. I’ve always been tall, strong and wide. As a child, I took ballet lessons and was ashamed by my lack of flexibility and grace. While I was down with the tutus, my body wasn’t built for a life of plies and pointe.

I discovered basketball when I reached double digits through my older brother, a referee. We’d go to watch his games and I started shooting hoops on empty courts to pass the time. I had good balance and decent coordination, and – most importantly – height, so basketball became my sport, and my gem of a mother drove me to training, to games and eventually to the outer suburbs of Newcastle when I was selected to play regional rep. I wouldn’t say basketball was my ‘calling’ – I was never actually that good at anything except defending – but it was definitely my favourite form of recreation between the ages of 11 and 14.

“Having someone to refer to as a “teammate” outside of a corporate setting is a rare and beautiful thing.”

Then high school happened. I entered the transition to adulthood with all of the grace of a brick tossed into an Etsy handcrafted homewares display. Clouded with self consciousness, I dropped basketball to make way for things I deemed more important: writing in my diary, hours-long phone conversations about boys in my class and literally just sitting outside of a suburban shopping mall. Basketball wasn’t cool, and none of my idols (the lady members of S Club 7) played team sports. I revisited the game a few more times in my life – a half-hearted ladies team at school in year 11 and a social comp for a season at uni that was soon usurped by partying – but it was resigned to being a relic of my life, sleeping in the background for about a decade.

And then it awoke. A friend posted on Facebook about being a basketball orphan. She was looking for a team, and I said I was interested. Sifting through the responses led to the formation of a mixed team for a social league. We’d be called ‘Dunk In Love’ to honour the revered goddess Beyonce, and we’d play every Wednesday. That was almost two years ago, and now, as I inch towards my 30th birthday, I play my favourite team sport twice a week – a woman’s and a mixed league – and I’ve never been healthier mentally. Maybe even physically, too.

Studies show that kids benefit immensely from organised team sport, but most people seem to drift away from it as they enter adulthood in favour of solo exercise and gym memberships. But revisiting team sport as an adult – coupled with riding my bike to work – has been of huge benefit to my own version of ‘wellness’, with nay a green smoothie or yoga mat in sight.

I’ve never been self motivated when it comes to exercise. I’ve always seen working out through the lens of it being a chore – something I don’t want to do, but should – so I’ve never been able to maintain gym memberships or running schedules. But despite the physical demands of basketball, my brain doesn’t read it as a ‘work out’. For me, the fitness is incidental. The real value is in the other things.

“That sharp focus on getting the ball through that ring seems to make the rest of the world retreat out of sight.”

For starters, there’s something about the team aspect that’s weirdly motivational. It’s not just the sting of a forfeit fee if one too many people bail; it’s the element of organisation, the synergy when the whole team is ‘on’ and the feeling that you’ve contributed in some way to the game’s outcome (which totally sucks when you lose, FYI). Also, and I say this as someone who can neither drive nor dribble, unless you’re playing with a team of elite athletes or jerks, you don’t actually need to be good to enjoy team sports. Everyone has their own skills and weaknesses; you’ll always find yourself playing to your strengths.

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Larry’s Birds.

The social side is nice too; the post-game debriefs at the pub, the Facebook group in-jokes, the surprise of running into a teammate on the street and realising they wear clothes other than a basketball uniform. Even having someone to refer to as a “teammate” outside of a corporate setting is a rare and beautiful thing. My teams are largely made up of chance encounters, Facebook call-outs and fill ins who decided to stay; we’d probably never come across each other off the court. Yet each week we loosely strategise and work together to get the ball through the hoop, and I can say with sincerity that these people mean a lot to me.

Then there’s the meditative joy of actually playing, and how that sharp focus on getting the ball through that ring seems to make the rest of the world retreat out of sight. As a person who operates with an underlying buzz of constant anxiety, my time on the court is always lived 100% outwardly, pushing my body for intercepts, looking for an open player and guarding my territory under the ring. It’s really hard to frown about the work things that are stressing you out when your teammate is hurling a basketball at your face in a crowd of people who are hungry for it.

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Nothing but net. Image: Taryn Stenvei.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is a workout. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that. When I come off the court panting, unable to move from the bench for five minutes from running, with lactic acid flooding my muscles, it takes next to no time for the endorphins to soften even the rudest loss. But basketball is way more than exercise for me. It’s the backbone of my weeks. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it forces me to consider ways to improve, and it makes me feel like I’m a part of something that extends beyond my confines. I’m in it. I’m in it with all of my heart. I’m actually slightly bewildered by how much it means to me. It’s even worth the three broken fingers I’ve copped in the last two years.

While a team sport hasn’t magically solved my body image issues, it’s helping me work on it. I no longer desire a ballet dancer’s build. When I look in a full-length mirror and I see myself, tall and strong, I take in my broad hips and my sturdy legs and I think: that’s why I’m a good defender.

Video credit: Vanja Bezbradica


Taryn is the editor of our sister site, AWOL. When she’s not shooting hoops, she’s stealing cryptic crosswords from cafe newspapers and trying in vain to make her dog sit still for photos.