I play a non-competitive sport, and that’s not an oxymoron.

Competitive sports are not for everyone. And by “everyone,” I mean mostly me.

I came to this self-realization when I played on Marlborough’s 7th grade volleyball team.

It was the final game of the championship. As usual, I hadn’t been playing. But there I was on the sidelines, showing furious support for my teammates, when the coach instructed me to rotate onto the court. 

Clearly, she had hoped I would be an “X-factor,” as if I had been saved as the best for last. After sizing up the opposition who had been smacking the volleyball with undisguised malice, I thought fast, claimed to be nauseous (not wholly untrue), begged to be excused and proceeded to cry along the sidelines for the rest of the game.

I realized then that I was not a competitive athlete. Playing school volleyball was a lingering fantasy of prowess and ambition, and a few months of the competitive sport hadcured me of that particular delusion.  cured me of that particular delusion.

But, because I still had an interest in doing something “sporty,” I settled on an alternative: non-competitive sports.

No, that is not an oxymoron.

Non-competitive sports provide exercise, but de-emphasize those competitive features that might generate stress, like games.

In my case, I settled on taekwondo, a Korean martial art. I started about three years ago with my sister and brother. In taekwondo, you advance through a color palette of belts before finishing with black. Currently, my belt is purple. That’s not bad —I have the broken boards in my closet to prove it —but it’s a long way from being a black belt. 

Although taekwondo can become a competitive sport, I participated in only one tournament. I sparred against all of my classmates — all five of them — and I lost to my sister. The amount of pressure riding on victory was nonexistent, and I still received a trophy (albeit for “participation”).

Essentially, non-competitive sports offer an outlet with complete freedom from failure. They create a safe space for inadequacy.

This is especially helpful as opportunities for relaxation decrease as school and other commitments intensify. Because I don’t train for games or belt advancement all that often, it’s comforting to know that I can miss an occasional practice, especially when my schedule becomes busy. The focus on self-improvement means that my absence won’t affect other classmates who, like me, are in it only for themselves.

While I appreciate the collegiate angle of excelling in a sport, I recognize that I gave up on that hope the moment I benched myself at that volleyball tournament game. There will be no participation trophy listed on my college resume, nor do I see myself bragging about my belt status.

The versatility of a non-competitive sport allows me to focus on well-being and the sport itself without the fear of disappointing teammates who may have had the misfortune of relying on my presence and skills. And for me, that has a real and lasting value. π

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