When I was five, I signed up for my first sports camp. Basketball was “the thing” in my small hometown, and my dad’s Rotary club was putting on a tournament for all the little people around. We formed teams and played short games. Now, as a mother of a seven-year-old, four-year-old, and almost three-year-old, I can hardly imagine a bunch of five-to-eight-year-olds dribbling the ball and lobbing it at the hoop without complete chaos. I admire those Rotary men. The only thing I remember from that time is scoring a basket for the other team, and everyone cheering. Who cares?! She’s five, and it went in the hoop! Hooray!
Thus began my love affair with sports. Growing up, they were my life — I went to school so I could go to practice, and I spent long hours each summer attending various camps in hopes of improving my skills. Basketball was always my favorite. Then I added softball. In junior high, I dabbled in volleyball, but with my runner’s physique, the cross country coach was always dogging me to join his team. Eventually, I did just that and ended up finding the most success in that sport, as well as track and field. I loved how it felt to work hard, make goals, and find relief with the made basket or finish line. But when I graduated, I wasn’t sure how this love affair could continue.
At university, I played intramural sports and ran occasionally, but there were also a hundred other things I wanted to do. I was in the midst of untangling the big mess of who-I-was, and sports didn’t have much of a place in that. I started forgoing running in order to spend time brooding and typing in the corner of the coffee shop, and by my second year, my new friends just COULD NOT BELIEVE that I used to be the female equivalent of the high school jock. YOU? But all you want to do is sit around, drink coffee, and write! I had become the poet, the dreamer, and I lost most connection with the side of myself that enjoyed the challenge and commraderie of sports.
Fast forward to last March, 7 years of marriage and 3 kids in, when I am at a party (nomikai) with all the mom’s from my oldest’s kindergarten (youchien) class. My table was chatting about all manner of things, and somehow sports came up. These Japanese mothers were also quite surprised by my past, and my friend Ayumi mentioned that she currently played on a volleyball team. “You should come! You are tall, so I bet you’ll be good.” Ha! I thought about it for a while, and though I really didn’t have much experience in volleyball beyond junior high, I decided that I wanted to try it out. Mama-san-baare (Mom’s Volley) in Shizuoka has seven leagues, based on the talent and success of the teams throughout the year’s four tournaments. Each league has 30-some teams, and you can move up or down, depending on your record. You also practice, have a coach, and discuss how to improve gameplay with one another. Members ages are usually anywhere between mid-20s and late-60s, and teams are based on the area in which you live.
The first practice was a bit of a shock, as I realized that most of these women had played volleyball all through high school and were quite good. Our team was in the first league, which also made me nervous. But oh, what fun it was to play! To do something with my body, and work at controlling, strengthening, and improving! I had no idea how much I had missed sports during my hiatus, but my joy and desire to grow quickly informed me. I started watching volleyball videos and waited eagerly each week for Friday night practice. I wanted to be challenged through an area in which I could see actual improvement, real steps forward, unlike my most recent undertakings. Parenting, for instance, is a slow-as-molasses, living-through-the-long-haul type of work. And in language learning, which is only slightly measurable, most of your growth happens behind the scenes, in places of your brain that you can’t see and touch. So spiking a volleyball began to have real meaning and excitement for me. I hit it! And it was either IN, or OUT. There was no wondering in the back of my mind, “But did I *really* hit the ball?” It just WAS.
So now? I’m completely hooked. The women on my team have become my good friends over the past year, and I’ve also had an entertaining and enlightening look into the Japanese sports world. As a bonus, I freak everyone out when I show up to tournaments as the only foreigner (aside from the occasional Malaysian). Sometimes I joke that they must think my team flew me in for the event. After few years, though, I hope I’ll become a fixture in the city’s mama-volleyball world, and perhaps when I’m in my fifties, I won’t be such a shocking sight anymore.