"My eyes went dark, I could hear blood in my ears." Photo: Australian Paralympic Committee

What's the point of getting worse at something? Why we all—eventually—quit playing sport

At the end of every summer I wondered if this would be the year I'd stop, recalls Benjamin Markovits
August 21, 2018

Every summer when I was a kid we went to Europe to escape the heat in Texas. At the end of August we flew back from London, were met coming out of the air-conditioned airport by a wall of wet heat, fell asleep on the ride home and woke up deeply confused to the pulse of crickets and sprinklers and the smell and sounds of our old house.

My dad would carry us in from the car before getting the suitcases. Then we tried to fall asleep again, in familiar beds, twisting and kicking off the sweaty sheets. Heat is like the way a place expresses intimacy—the world feels very close. A few days later I was back at school.

One of the consolations was the fact that the school year coincided with the beginning of the American Football season. On Sunday, after Hebrew class, I could spend most of the afternoon on the couch, eating crisps and watching the NFL.

And, with the first day of fifth grade or seventh grade or tenth grade behind me, I could stay up late and watch the Monday night game—with Al Michaels and Howard Cosell, whose nasal tones I used to imitate with my friends as a commentary to our own backyard games. “It is spring, moonless night, in the Louisiana Superdome”—mixing in a little Under Milk Wood as we shot hoops or threw a ball around.

Trying out, passing out

The school year also brought along try-out season. I remember once, a week after coming home, still not acclimatised, having to run twice around campus in the four o’clock sun, which followed you like the spotlight in a prison break, and almost throwing up and passing out. My eyes went dark, I could hear blood in my ears. This was to make the basketball team. At least basketball is an indoor sport, and the gyms are mostly air-conditioned.

Every year as I got older I advanced up the class ladder of football—from YMCA games on a Saturday afternoon, which were basically just another form of childcare, to private club leagues, where the uniforms and bus travel cost 500 bucks a season.

Eventually I quit. Teenagers quit a lot of things, and September is the time to do it—the start of the school year is also when people give up. Everybody quits playing sport in the end, unless you go pro, but then you still have to quit in your thirties, when other people are getting into the meat of their careers.

But even if you don’t turn pro, you probably have to quit several times before it really takes. It’s like trying to quit smoking. The kid who plays low-level club soccer for a few years before he realises he isn’t good enough might end up joining some intramural team at university. Even after you graduate, there’s the five-a-side scene for people with jobs. And every year, after the summer ends, people ask themselves: “Am I really going to sign up for this again?” The better you used to be, the harder it is to continue.

It's still there

What’s the point of getting worse at something, my dad once asked me. He used to be a scratch golfer but had more or less given up by the time we were born. He used to play everything. For a certain kind of kid, that’s what childhood is—an extended ball game, where the kind of ball just varies according to season.

Last summer, at the height of the English heat wave, I asked him if he wanted to join me on the tennis court. I’ve started knocking a ball around with a writer named Mike Mewshaw, who’s written some great books on tennis and would kick my ass if it weren’t for the fact that I’m 30-odd years younger than he is. He’s my dad’s age, and my dad came along.

My dad hasn’t played in two decades, but he put on a pair of my shorts and laced up his dress shoes, and wandered squinting into the bright English sunshine with a racket in his hand. His first 10 shots he feathered into the net, but then he started to get the feel of it again, and I could see the old instinct kicking in.

Which tells you, okay, all right, hit me another ball, I can get better at this. It doesn’t completely go away.