The One With Basketball Life Lessons

A year and a half ago, I forced my long-suffering housemate Molly to join me at a Freshers’ week basketball taster session. “It’ll be fun,” I promised, “mate – we’re gonna be good without even trying, we’ll be the tallest there.” And we were the tallest there, but we certainly weren’t any good. It was fun, in a slightly cringey sort of way, and we decided to sign up to for the development team. It wasn’t until the end of the session that a man who’d been standing on the sidelines called me over and gave me his card. He was from the local National League side and wanted to let me know they’d be interested in having me train with them. I may not have played before, he said, but I had ‘potential.’

Fast-forward to Ottawa and I’m currently training with the varsity women’s team here. I could not be more grateful for that business card interaction with Keith on the university court sidelines; he introduced me to a sport I’ve grown to love far more than I ever thought I could, and I can’t really imagine my life without at this point. Basketball was a huge part of my second year at university, and continues to be a large part of my life in Canada. In that year and half since I picked up a ball I’ve learnt an awful lot, far more than just basketball, and I thought I’d share some of those life lessons here.

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1.Being a 6’3” girl is okay. And in fact, it can be better than just ‘okay.’

I will not bore you with the sob story, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that growing up in the image-obsessed and body-comparison culture that we live in as a girl who passed 6 feet by the age of 15 wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. If you ask me about it in person, expect a minor rant. To save you from that here, I’ll just direct you to an entire article on the subject I wrote for the student paper. I have fortunately been saved most of the self-hating trauma that a lot of young people go through, mostly thanks to the fact I was surrounded by an equally-tall, loving and down-to-earth family. But coming to terms with the fact I was never going to fit into conventional ideas of femininity, no matter how much makeup I put on or cute dresses I wore, was a tough pill to swallow as a teenager.

Basketball changed that. For the first time, not only was my height okay, it was an actual positive, a desirable characteristic, even. Even with zero experience, I was able to catch rebounds other players couldn’t, block shots just by putting my hands in the air. I could offer a valuable contribution just by being there. I’ve had teammates coming up to me to talk about my height, not as a statement of my being different or a tactless comment – but to say sincerely they wished they were as tall as me. Surprisingly, for all the comments I’ve received about my height, that has not been a common one. Less surprisingly, it did wonders for my confidence.

2. The best life lessons are the ones learnt from doing something you’re kind of shit at.

I am an academic person, I always have been. While other people excel at sport, art, music, dance, reading, website design, public speaking, you name it – I found school easy. By a lot of our culturally accepted standards, finding school and exams easy dictates that I was ‘successful’ growing up, and there’s no doubt I’m grateful for that. On the flipside, the past 14 years spent in an environment in which I have been ‘successful’ has meant I haven’t had many opportunities to face up to being bad at something. My first real taste of failure was an aborted driving test, and at the time that felt like the end of the world (dramatic I know, I’m blaming 17 year old hormones) and a real undermining of my competence and ability as a person.

Contrary to my physical appearance, basketball is not something I am naturally gifted at. I have inherited a ‘sporting build’ from my Dad but none of his athletic ability. My hand-eye coordination is decidedly below average, my feet will NOT go where I want them to half the time, and I have major difficulty remembering left and right in day to day life, let alone having to make split-second decisions based on the fact. In the words of my Brisbane kindergarten teacher when I was the tender age of 5- “she’s great with her letters, but she can’t throw a bloody ball.” Playing and learning basketball is really hard work for me. It’s a tough sport for everyone, don’t get me wrong, but it goes against the grain of everything I’ve done in life up to this fact, and I have to think about what I’m doing all the time when I’m on the court. The girls I’m training with have been playing since the third grade. I, meanwhile, picked up a ball a year and half ago, and the difference could not be more evident.

When the hard work pays off, it’s satisfying as hell; when it doesn’t, it can be tough picking myself back up. I’m not used to not succeeding at something so dramatically, at not finding something easy, but I’ve realised that is exactly why basketball has been so good for me. It’s made me work hard in ways I never have before, it’s made me look at my ability (and my ego) in a new light. It takes grit and determination and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour to make yourself get to practice with a team where you are comfortably, and consistently, the worst there. To admit your failings and your lack of experience and be willing to say, ‘okay, but I’m working hard – I’m learning, and I’m getting better.’ And that’s what I’ve had to do, in my team in Exeter, while playing in Loughborough over the summer, and here in Ottawa. And I think it’s been one of the most valuable aspects of my experience playing the sport.

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3. You’ve got to box out. But sometimes even if you do box out, someone else won’t and the other team will get the ball anyway.

Okay, for those of you who don’t know basketball, hear me out. Boxing out is a must in the game – when the ball goes up, you have to find a player from the opposing team and keep them at your back, putting yourself between them and the basket. The idea is to prevent the other team getting the rebounds, and it’s an effective one – but only if everyone does it at the same time. All it takes is one of your teammates to not get there, or forget, or get distracted, and a member of the opposite team is free to lunge in and get the ball, and all your hard work has been for nothing.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s key in the values of teamwork, and relevant to many life situations as well. Sometimes, even if you’re doing everything you can on your end, other people mess up and things don’t work out. It sucks, but that doesn’t have to be the end of it. Honest communication to ensure it doesn’t happen again is the best way to solve box-out failures, and I’m pretty sure that translates to other scenarios as well. It takes two to tango; it takes a whole team to box out.

4. Always hold yourself accountable first.

This relates to the above point. While sometimes game wins don’t work out because the group effort isn’t there, you’ve got to be sure your effort is there. The head coach here at Ottawa has been instrumental in my appreciation of how important personal accountability is. When it comes down to the game, all the coaching, training, physio and expensive Nikes in the world are entirely dependent on how you play. If you give it all you’ve got, you can’t do anything more. But if you could have done more, then don’t get mad at someone else. This applies to so many things in life; if something isn’t going to plan it may be circumstances beyond your control, but you can sure as hell control your reaction to those circumstances. You can do your bit.

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5. Things going on a downward spiral don’t have to stay that way – you can turn things around.

This is a lesson learnt from my Ottawa team’s last season game before Christmas. We were up against Brock, a strong side, but a side all the stats said we should be able to beat. We had lost the previous game to national-leaders McMaster, but we were feeling good and ready for a win. Clearly not, as 8 minutes in and we were 14 points down. The half-time locker room chat from coach was a… colourful one to say the least. And we came back in in the second half and smashed it. I have never screamed so loud from the sidelines, nor been more proud of the girls I’ve spent the last 3 months training with. We were low, demoralized, and managed to pull off the most epic of comebacks. It can be done, and it’s the best feeling in the world.

This game oddly, serves as a pretty apt metaphor for my time here in Ottawa. I had all the expectations of it being a relatively easy adjustment, had spent the last 6 months counting down the days till my flight, excited and terrified and mostly thrilled. But 8 minutes, or about 8 weeks, in, and things felt decidedly like they were not going to plan. I was not having a whale of a time; in fact, I desperately wanted to go home. I won’t say I had a ‘comeback’ as such, but I stuck it out, and persistent belief that it would get better has paid off. Now, even in the middle of exam season, I feel I can say honestly there’s no place I’d rather be this Christmas.

6. There’s always going to be players out there who can run faster, defend better and shoot higher percentages than you. And that’s okay. (As long as they’re on your team.)

This is true of everything in life. There’s always going to be those (seemingly) better than you – earning more, going on more exciting holidays, further on in their career, achieving better grades etc. In basketball, all that’s very black and white, as the best players are the ones who receive the most court time. I am, historically, pretty terrible at comparing myself to others in a way that puts me down; “why didn’t I get that mark/what did I do wrong/why am I so terrible at this.” It’s not a terribly healthy attitude, not least because it’s not a useful attitude. It doesn’t get me anywhere apart from feeling generally a bit shitty.

Basketball helped me reassess that. I noticed that when it came to my fellow players, I didn’t feel bad because I wasn’t as good as them – I felt proud to be playing with, and their skill and fitness lifted me up and made me want to be better. Part of the wonders of team sports is that you get to be better as a team – a good team is not made up of individuals who excel on their own. And so I started to try and apply this to other areas of my life. I stopped comparing my academic results as much as I could (seriously I don’t get this, unless you get the same result, comparing marks is guaranteed to make one of you feel bad – why bother?) because it didn’t help me improve. To friends who seemed to be doing particularly well in what they were up to, I tried not to let this reflect badly on my own situation, but lift me up. There will always be people in life ‘better’ in some area or another, but that doesn’t discount what you can offer, and it certainly doesn’t detriment your ability or the potential for your situation to improve.

Or at least, that’s my hope. Because if I don’t dunk some day something has gone seriously wrong.

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