Being Good At Sports

This post is dedicated to Bernard, for unwittingly inspiring me to write it.

If I were a contestant on Family Feud and the question was “Words to describe Madeleine Chapman” and it was answered by 100 people who knew me before 2013, my first guess would be “sporty”. I would win the round and fist pump inappropriately then awkwardly high five my family team members. Because “sporty”, or “good at sports”, has been my tagline for virtually my entire life. As far as being known for something, it's not bad. I wasn't “pee'd her pants at school”, or “has the weird mum”, or “only says the word 'noogie'”. I was “good at sports”. I loved being good at sports. I still love having hand-eye and foot co-ordination though it always makes me wonder how I can throw a ball, catch a ball, kick a ball, dribble a ball, shoot a ball...and yet I can't dance to save my life. Shouldn't general body awareness come with some sense of rhythm? Actually, the reverse also puzzles me. Temara is such a beautiful, graceful ballerina, and plays Guitar Hero on expert, yet I once tried to teach her how to throw a vortex (I didn't even know it needed to be taught) and it nearly brought me to tears. So that was me. Good at sports. And I was actually pretty good. I played rugby (and now have a crooked nose because of it, which I never really noticed until one birthday when mum asked me if I wanted a nose job for a present) and was actually okay at it but it's hard being the only girl in any team. I won the "Best Team Player" award every season I played. It meant I passed to whoever was open, not just to my friends. Since I was the only team member from my school and also the only girl, I didn't exactly have any best friends to be biased towards.  I played cricket and basketball and did athletics and swimming (because Mum made all of us do those two). And in all these sports I was pretty good, except swimming where I thought I was pretty good but was actually very mediocre.

I think my dream at ten years old was to be the first triple-international athlete. I would represent New Zealand in cricket, basketball, and rugby all at the same time and be a superstar. By the time I was fourteen I had dropped rugby and dreaded playing cricket. I started to think that maybe I had become a classic case of spreading oneself too thin. Perhaps if I had just picked one sport I could have gotten amazing at it instead of being pretty good at a whole bunch. I considered quitting cricket but it's hard to quit something that lets you hang out with your friends a lot, especially if you're like me and suck at batting so spend half the game doing nothing. Basketball also started to become a chore and I now realise it's because my teams always lost. Now, I can handle losing just fine. I have runner up medals from three consecutive basketball nationals so I am very familiar with the feeling. But when you lose badly, like my teams were at the time, it's no fun. I was always small which meant always a point guard. And let me tell you, when you're the point guard of a useless team, you may as well be playing 1-on-5. We would go out, I would die on the court, we would lose, people would tell me I played well even though we got wasted, we would go home, on the way home Dad would say the refs were bad, Mum would say I should have shot it more “instead of passing to that useless girl”, and then the next week it would start over again. Now, obviously if I was a bit better we could have actually won but that takes a sort of superstar quality and fighting instinct that I have come to realise I do not possess. I did when I was in primary school though. I can't even count the number of times I almost cried (and did cry) out of frustration because my guy team mates thought that being a boy meant you were automatically better than all the girls and wouldn't pass the ball. If we lost to a team that we should have beat, there were tears. If Mum said I played bad (she's a very generous supporter so if she says that it means you were shocking), I cried. If the refs weren't calling fouls, I probably cried. I was competitive to a worrying degree.

But at some point, surprisingly early on actually, I stopped caring that much. It wasn't any particularly enlightening moment or anything, I just didn't care that much about sports anymore. I still played my hardest and got annoyed on court and didn't like losing, but it never bothered me for more than a few seconds. I think it was right around the age of eleven, when I made my first “big” team and got to go on the Koru basketball tour to Australia. I had gone to Palmerston North to trial in the 'Lower North Island' region (the weakest region by far that year) and it went well. At that age, most of the trial was fundamentals and a lot of dribbling, which I was great at. So I made this 'national' team and I was so excited. We wouldn't be able to train together as a team until we all arrived in Australia so basically I found out I made the team and then waited (and held fundraisers because the Basketball New Zealand Development Programme is just a little bit of a scam). I remember filling out my player form with Dad and putting down 150cm in the height section even though I was only 148cm and I was so scared that they would find out I lied. I was so excited to play with these girls who were the same age as me and could all dribble and catch the ball like normal people. On the plane ride to Sydney it became very clear that these girls were a lot more invested in the sport than I was. I heard girls talking about how their clubs had held special training programmes for them and how they had been doing conditioning to prepare for the faster Australian style of play. I felt so out of my depth. It only got worse once the training camp began. Girls were bitching to each other about how this girl thinks she's the man and that girl shouldn't even be here. Considering how I performed at the trainings I figured I was in the second group. Everyone was just so serious and I couldn't handle it. This trip was also perhaps the only time I've ever felt even remotely bullied. I remember eating breakfast in the dining hall and making a joke or pun or something (whatever it was, you would laugh if I said it now) and being told that I was 'dry'. This was when the word 'dry' was really blowing up as an insult. The only line I remember in response to my joke is that one girl said “Do you want some weet-bix cos you're really dry” and then everyone laughed. I didn't say anything back because I was too busy trying to figure out why everyone laughed at her joke (that didn't even make sense) and no one laughed at what I said which was actually funny. Anyway, I digress. Basically, this basketball trip showed me that there is a huge difference between wanting to win and having to win. Our teams mostly lost and seeing how some of the girls acted for hours after each loss really put me off basketball for a while. I suddenly realised that even though I cared about winning, I didn't care so much that I couldn't laugh on the car ride home (or on the court); I once got snapped at by one of the girls for laughing forty minutes after we lost and now just imagining that scene makes me laugh out loud.

So that was pretty much it for team sports. I still played them fairly competitively all through high school (and continue to when I get the chance) but it heavily depends on who I am playing with. When I took up javelin (more on that later) I stopped playing all other sports because it put unnecessary stress on my injured shoulder. But I always played basketball (and netball and soccer) at the Chinese Easter Tournament because it was fun. I like playing for the Wellington Chinese team more than any other basketball team I have been in. Of course, with each passing year I played less and less basketball throughout the year and so was worse and worse at each tournament until last year my mum could have subbed in for me and no one would have noticed. But I still loved playing because even though everyone was super competitive and wanted desperately to win, no matter what the result, everyone was getting drunk that night and trying to make friends with their on-court nemesis from Canterbury. Maybe that was just me (number nine please be my friend).

In 2010 I won the javelin event at school athletics. Disclaimer: if you could get the front point in the ground, you won. I figured I should be pretty good at javelin since I could always throw a cricket ball the furthest, so I borrowed a javelin and practiced. And I sucked. I went to regionals and came third which meant no North Island Champs for me. So maybe javelin wasn't my calling. The next year I won the event again but this time the javelin went a lot further despite my doing the exact same thing as the year before. Maybe javelin really was my calling. I didn't have any chance to practice before regionals but it didn't matter because I could actually sort of throw it now. Regionals was on my birthday and I won. I actually broke a very old record in the process (before you go getting all impressed, it was also a very weak record). But I didn't care because my mum hadn't watched. We had some stupid argument about wearing trackpants (I know) on the ride to Newtown Park and she had refused to get out of the car. So I was all red-eyed throughout the whole event and afterwards one girl actually thought I was crying because I had broken the record. How embarrassing. That might have been a sign of things to come. Top athletes always talk of being able to completely clear their minds and only concentrate on what's in front of them. That whole afternoon I couldn't have cared less about throwing the javelin or winning. I was trying to hurry people up so it could finish and I could leave to find Mum. The next month, Mum and I drove to Hamilton for the North Island Champs, an event I had never been to. We drove up on the Saturday, stayed the night in a motel, went to McDonalds for breakfast, Mum said if I won she'd buy me KFC for lunch, we went to my event, I won, we had KFC for lunch and drove home that same day. When you compare that to the basketball run-down it seems a lot more fun. I thought so too. I put down cricket and basketball and soccer and picked up the javelin. I ended up coming second at nationals to a girl named Tori Peeters from Southland. I had seen that she was a 'real' javelin thrower who trained, had spikes, a proper run up and everything. I just ran up and chucked it. Needless to say, I was pretty happy with second and figured once I got to Auckland for uni and could pair up with an actual coach, I could beat her at club nationals the next year.

Training for an individual sport is a completely different beast to team sports. Not better or worse, just different. I used to not like having the pressure of team mates all the time, but with them gone I had to somehow motivate myself which was far worse. I found a coach who immediately told me I was not at all conditioned enough for throwing and set me a strengthening workout. This, I think, was perhaps my favourite part of my throwing 'career'. I had never been tested on my strength and conditioning (hence my 25kg PB bench press that nearly made my coach drop me from his roster then and there) and it was fun to work on improving all my stats. It was hard work. Really hard work. And it took a lot of time and motivation to travel out on my bike everyday for a weight or cardio session in between classes. But it was all worth it to see my coach's face at the next round of testing when I PB'd at 65kg. Would it be corny to say that it was nice to know there doesn't always have to be a loser for you to win? Well I said it anyway. After all this conditioning I was a lot stronger in every way and my throws were improving. But I wasn't, and still am not, good at throwing the javelin. I'm good at throwing in general, but not the javelin. No matter how many times we broke down my technique into tiny increments of movement, I just couldn't get it right. I couldn't throw it straight. Quick physics lesson: A spear-like object flying 'through the tip', as it were, flies a lot farther than that same spear-like object flying sideways. My javelins always fly sideways. All this work with such small improvement was starting to wear on me mentally. My weighted ball throw had improved drastically to over fifty metres which meant my javelin throw should have been in the mid-fifties range. Instead it was mid-forties. Nationals rolled around and I knew that Tori had been throwing very well, getting close to the fifty metre mark. I figured since I had never once thrown the javelin straight, I would once again have to settle for second. We competed against each other at two events, the u19 and Open Womens categories. In each event I threw one, just one, javelin in a sort-of straight line and those two throws won me both events. It was almost comical because Tori was so much better than me. Her technique was beautiful, her javelins flew, nay, floated through the air in a way I could only hope to achieve. But I was good at throwing things in general so I muscled my way through for two flukey wins and was crowned national champion.

The next year I continued to get stronger but couldn't get rid of my shoulder injury (perhaps the reason I couldn't throw it straight) and after six months of still no improvement in technique, we had run out of ideas and I called it quits. Because it wasn't any fun. There weren't even any small victories to be had in training because I just couldn't get my arm to do what it needed to. Up until that point, I had not completed a single throw without feeling pain. The brain associates and so by then javelin equalled pain. I had also been following Valerie Adams on social media for a little while, to see what sort of life I was striving for. She was in the middle of her unbeaten year in the Diamond League, perhaps the most dominant track and field athlete in the world, and yet her life seemed so lonely. She was always on the road alone or with her coach. Staying in a small apartment and training twice a day. I followed her life for a while and thought “if this is what a world-dominating female thrower's life is like, do I really want to start on this ladder?” Turns out I don't. There's really no other way to explain why I gave up all competitive sport except to say that I just didn't want to do it anymore. I just don't care enough about being the best or beating other people. And on a basic level, I hate going for runs.

Since I quit, I have been following the progress of Tori Peeters, the girl who could actually throw the javelin. After I caused an upset back in 2013, she went home and trained hard. She got stronger (she had the technique, I had the strength) and is now the New Zealand record holder with a PB of 55.14m. Keep an eye out for her because she has the drive and I'm sure you'll be seeing her on your tv screens very soon.

So what does the girl who is “good at sports” do if she doesn't want to be “the best at sports”? Well, she finds what she loves to do and goes from there. No one ever thought I was funny until recently (way to get in at ground level guys). I was the opposite of a class clown in school. I distinctly remember getting upset because I spelled “centre” as “center” and so didn't get 100% on the spelling test. Then the teacher noticed that I weirdly actually cared and changed my score. So yeah, hilarious child. Christel and Joe were always the funny ones in the family, and I was the one who was good at sports. But it turns out I like to write. My english teachers could easily produce a whole pile of essays that prove otherwise but I have grown into it in recent years. So that's what I want to do. It took me twenty one years to figure it out and it would have been nice to know even a few years ago so I could have taken some relevant papers at uni but better late than never. I don't know what job exactly I want to do but I know that I want it to involve writing. I am not as good at writing as I was at sports but the difference is I want to write even when there's no real way to tell if you're winning or losing. Or perhaps that's the very reason I love it. I started this blog without any real direction or intention but it has become a great way for me to practice and get feedback. I like putting up posts and having you guys read them and hearing that you enjoy them. It feels a lot more like success than winning a basketball game ever did (but maybe that's because we never won Nationals). At some point in the future I hope to be most known for something that is not “used to be good at sports”. Then one day, some guys at work (wherever that may be) will put together a social basketball team and reluctantly ask the women to be in it. I will disappoint them by accepting the offer. Once on the court they'll see me very nearly make an open lay-up and they'll say “oh she's actually pretty good”.