I have been exercising on a weekly basis without a break except for summer holidays since I was around five years old. My parents thought it was important for me and my sister to exercise so we had to sign up to at least one weekly sports activity. So when I was five I started judo, then changed to tennis when I was nine, added Aikido for a year around my 16th, started football at 17, while keeping tennis on the side. In addition, during university, I took up basketball for a year, as well as Rugby 7s for a quarter of each year. Exercise has been an integral part of my life. Many people cancel their activities when they’re tired or if it doesn’t fit into their schedule but I move my schedule around my sport; it has priority over classes and everything else.
I started judo because my parents thought it would toughen me up as I was always quite small, shy and seemingly frail. I won a lot of my matches but I felt so anxious before tournaments or exams that it took the enjoyment out of it. My sister and I started tennis because my dad plays it. He gave us each a small table tennis bat which had a ball attached with a string. He told us that if we could hold the ball up 30 times in a row he’d take us to train. Tennis was fun and there was less pressure as competitions were played within a team. Still, not long after puberty hit, I felt like I wanted to quit.
It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy the sport, it was because I felt too anxious to be around other people. I had plunged into my depression and felt incredibly dissociated without knowing what the hell was happening to me. I felt alien and like I wanted to claw at my own skin, unable to find any sense of peace. I remember raising my voice to indicate I couldn’t keep attending training but halfway through my sentence the words got caught in my throat and all I could do was cry. “You have to do at least one type of exercise,” mum said. / “I can’t.” / “I don’t care, you will.”
So much for empathy, ha. Though her decision is one thing I’m really grateful for now. My friend from next door helped resolve the issue by suggesting that we could be in the same training group as she had just started playing tennis. We’d been friends since we were little and I knew that no matter what, she wouldn’t judge me. She offered me a safety net which allowed me to keep going even though it stayed anxiety-inducing every week.
A lot of people praise me for being so active and I tend to brush it off and say it’s because my parents made me until it became normal. However, I don’t think it’s really something my parents can take credit for. They ensured I continued tennis but it was my decision to take up Aikido, then football and later rugby and basketball. It was actually after I left home and had escaped their influence that I became as active as I am now.
I wish my parents had encouraged me to pursue football as a child, as it was clear it was something I loved. I played football with boys all the time. At school during break, after school and then again after dinner. The other day, I asked my students which scent they associate with their childhood (for a class on character building) and for me, that smell is freshly mown grass. I remember lying down on the field, each of us audibly out of breath. Sweaty hair sticks to my face and my knee stings underneath the green stained fabric of my trousers. The sky has an orange glow as the sun is starting to set; I feel alive.
I wasn’t a ‘girl’ to the boys. I was simply their friend and on the pitch, I was an equal player, better than some. My mum used to play with boys all the time when she was a child and my dad loved breaking the norm. Our household had reverted roles in that my mum earned the most and my dad did the cooking. I never felt weird until some girls in my surrounding and some of their parents looked at me strangely. The older I got, the more “oh, she’s a girl, she can’t play,” responses I got. It didn’t really matter as it was quite satisfying to start playing and kick their ass but it did make me feel more reluctant and insecure about joining an actual team.
I finally took the step to play for a club when I was 17. By this point, they had all-girls teams from ages 13+ and I learned that the girls who’d been playing for the club from a young age (and therefore had been in boys teams) all had a parent that was actively involved, either as a coach or on the sideline. The parents had been working to establish proper girl teams for years and I made a small documentary about playing what is perceived as a men’s sport, which was circulated locally and something the club was really proud of. I know that there are now all-girls teams from 6+ at my old club and it feels like there has been the start of a societal shift. Yet, when I mention that I enjoy playing rugby people look me up and down and are like “You? Rugby?,” as if they’re thinking I would break, ha!
The Importance of Exercise
The reason why sports are so important to me is that it’s imperative to my mental health. Football has a 60% chance of getting me out of my potentially deteriorating mental health and so, having three training sessions and one match each week is a pretty good system to keep my mental health stable. Rugby and tennis don’t work as well as the former has too many breaks during training and the latter is too individual a sport. On the other hand, running, going for a walk and yoga deteriorate my mental health because these activities make me retreat further inside my head. When I suffered from a pulmonary embolism between October and December last year, I felt like the one thread in my life I could hold onto had been cut. I didn’t know what was wrong with me; all I know is that I couldn’t breathe and the NHS was telling me that I was perfectly healthy while when I started running I would instantly be out of breath. It got so bad that I struggled to breathe when walking and I could even feel it when I started singing at home. I really worried that I would never be able to play football again so imagine my relief when they finally diagnosed it.
Running on the pitch makes me really happy; it’s in those moments that I can feel the joy I felt as a child. I’m really fast and agile and beyond feeling the wind blow through my hair, it feels good to make a difference in a team. I’m a defender for my football team and can often stop the opposition from scoring even after a player has broken through our defence because I’m fast. Equally, I can dribble up the left-wing and reach the penalty box. In rugby 7s I’m a winger and running through the opposition, then ahead while being chased to score a try while people on the sideline are cheering is amazing! I’m not a particularly strength-based player in tennis but I play creatively and the reason why I can do well in most ball sports, like basketball, is that I can read the game. If you can predict the moves of the opposition and link-up play with your teammates you get really far, even if you aren’t that technical.
In conclusion, exercise is great. I don’t think you have to be good at it as long as you have fun. It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you like and it doesn’t have to be ‘all in’ like me. And on an unrelated note, I know this post isn’t kinky at all, but football does keep me in shape quite well, which people seem to appreciate in some of my pictures. 😉
Ps, until I started playing football I never put my hair in a hair tie and yes, my hair was pretty long back then also!
Pss, I think shorts are way more practical so no, I don’t wear skirts for tennis.
Psss, yes I missed my usual post day on Saturday yesterday but hey, today will do too!