Smells like team spirit

Smells like team spirit

No matter how old I get, I always think of one thing when mid-August rolls around: I am so glad I don’t have to worry about field hockey preseason.

I get a nervous stomach ache every time I drive by a track, where I grew up playing games and practicing in the infield.

School might have been out for summer in June, but that signaled it was time to start training. I’d play in summer leagues, attend training camps and run hills in the evening after my summer job. (Running at sunset still brings a comfortable, familiar feeling to my body, a decade later.)

It all came down to a week of two-a-day practices to prove you were worthy for a spot on the team. Preseason, though totally nerve-wracking, was the hurdle to jump over to get on the team, get a number and find your place among fast friends.

I still have my old, tattered field hockey and rowing sweatshirts hanging in my closet that I see each day as I get ready. I don’t wear them anymore. Instead, they serve as physical memories, symbolic of all the lessons learned while being a part of a team – lessons that shaped who I am today.

More on my sentimental hoarding in a later issue.

It’s not until I became a working stiff that the fitness benefits of being on a team were made clear. I was busy back then, too, but sports made me stronger both in mind and body. I realize today how much I take for granted the strength and the mental calm those routine three-hour practices gave me.

In high school field hockey, I transitioned from forward into the total opposite position of goalie. There was an opening and the night before a practice to discuss filling the position, I had a dream I stepped up. There were perpetual purple blotches on my legs where the padding shifted and left me exposed. I didn’t bitch when I was covered with bruises because so were my teammates.

I wasn’t the best player on the team but I never wanted to give up or disappoint. Even being middle of the pack on the field gave me confidence. I belonged to a group of women who relied on and believed in me, so I believed in myself.

Coaches served as strong, positive female role models. They were experienced former players who had a lot to teach and demanded hard work and respect.

I think I flourished because of the structure sports gave me, as well. I didn’t have time to be bored and make bad decisions. You signed a contract and your coaches and teammates held you accountable.

It wasn’t all happy, cliche times. I learned a hard lesson when I didn’t make a team, too. I learned another when we lost the state title game in triple overtime my senior year. Given the perspective I have now from being away from the field long enough, I learned that you have to prepare, work hard and take responsibility when things go wrong. I also learned that you’re not the best and that life is unfair. And sometimes you’re just unlucky.

Most of all, playing sports gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. I would make my teammates laugh during warmups with choreographed dance moves from the newest NSYNC music video. On long runs, I had a captive audience to hone my jokes or create physical comedy with the ridiculous outfits I would wear. I was the last line of defense on the team and also made it my job to keep the mood light and fun during tension-filled games.

On game days or tough workouts, you persevered knowing the only way out was through and that your lady friends were by your side. You didn’t overthink anything or be crippled by fear of failure, like I sometimes do today.

But now, where do I find that vital team and community today? Recreating the teams I’ve played on is an impossible task, but can it evolve so the feeling remains?

I find myself craving a pack to run with and push me instead of watching reality shows on the treadmill at a crawl. My friends play in casual sports leagues, but my work schedule proves challenging. I’ve looked into rowing clubs but found they are too pricey. And then there’s the people who talk about crossfit. They make me want to back away slowly from the conversation.

Sports raised me to be a team player – difficult in today’s narcissistic culture. Finding a balance between being an independent adult and leaning on the people around me, my team today, for support is a struggle.

No matter which sport I was involved in, we always had fitness tests. Ergometer tests on my college crew team would test how fast it took you to row 2,000 or 4,000 meters. In field hockey it was the dreaded 3-mile run, which had to be completed in 30 minutes or else. A slow runner, I remember writing 27 minutes on a piece of paper and sticking it in my cleat. I knew the secret of positive thinking before Oprah yammered on about it.

So when this year’s Beach to Beacon neared and I considered giving up my number and quitting due to nagging shin splints, I didn’t. I just couldn’t give up. Also, my boss let me know someone who just had a hip replaced a few months earlier was running the race. I told my mom that story and she suggested I could run with him, an older man who recently had major surgery. My cousin reminded me her friend, who was 23-weeks pregnant on race day, would be competing.

It’s amazing how my team today supports me.

But for me, it is just finishing something I start, no matter how long it takes – a lesson I learned from sports.

I know I’ll find a pack to run with soon. And I’m sure, for the record, the man with the new hip and lady with a baby beat me to the finish.

Katie BellKatie Bell, above and center, with fellow defensive Greely Rangers take off on a penalty corner in 2001 in Cumberland.

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