Learning A Sport At Almost 40

by Jennifer Purdie
Originally Published: 

Choosing to remain a California outsider, I kept my hair brunette and shunned happy hour sushi get togethers, but this became a lonely existence and I craved more of a sense of community. I knew the best way to achieve this was to join groups and participate in activities, but what? California’s demographic is young, wrinkle-free twentysomethings. I was nearly 40. What could I do and not look like I was trying to be 21 again?

On weekends, my couple friends dragged me to beach volleyball games and everyone salivated as I arrived, begging me to join them. I understood this, because barefoot, I stand at an overwhelming 6 feet tall. But I always smiled and said, “Maybe later.” And by later, I meant “never.”

Because of my height, everyone assumed I possessed abilities in tall sports. Even in high school, coaches from small colleges recruited me on the spot for volleyball teams. After heading to the school gym for a quick glance at my spiking capabilities and future collegiate volleyball potential, they grimaced and mouthed “never mind” while exiting the building with rushed steps.

But my opinions of this tall sport started to change when I attended the games with my friends. Usually I’d lie on a towel in the sand catching up with my beach reads while I waited for them to finish, but I often found my eyes wandering from the pages of my book over to the volleyball nets. I noticed that before the games started, every player greeted one another as if their time apart spanned years and not one week. I watched their camaraderie and how everyone high-fived after scoring and shrugged without a care after not-so-decent plays. A noncompetitive group playing for the sole purpose of having fun? What a concept, I thought. They exercised with the Pacific Ocean as their backdrop and stayed until picturesque sunsets closed out the day.

I decided I wanted in and took to the Internet for help, and in one short search, I discovered an adult beginner’s beach volleyball class at a nearby beach and whipped out my credit card to register. I would finally make my seventh-grade P.E. teachers proud and spike the ball like a professional in no time.

We all gathered in a circle for introductions, and I discovered only two girls registered for the class, including me. The instructor asked us to state our names, where we were from, and how long we’ve played volleyball. How long we’ve played volleyball? I thought this question sounded odd because weren’t we all beginners? Turns out, the answer was no. All the men said they played for the past four years. Four years?!

When the other lone female was asked long she played, she answered “four.” Four years I figured based on the other responses. “No, four times,” she said. I immediately called dibs to have her as my partner. If I were going to embarrass myself by attempting this sport again, I certainly wanted to do it in front of another with even less experience.

The instructor started us with the simple task of throwing the ball. We passed it around using only one arm, and I balked at my efforts and tried not to feel self-conscious. Plus, the hot sand burned my feet, and various areas of my skin started turning a shade of red, evidence of my improper sunscreen application. My arms felt sore and part of them morphed into a pinkish hue from bumping the ball over and over, and I noticed small blue bruises forming.

But what I noticed most, more than my inability to spike, bump or throw, was the word escaping my mouth the entire class: sorry. I always apologized for every mistake.

In the second class, I decided to show up with renewed enthusiasm. Silently chanting “I am good enough” whenever I hit the ball and it flew in the opposite direction I intended, I smiled and kept my mouth shut. I changed my body language from keeping my head down to one of power—with my chest outstretched and my posture held high. I stood 6 feet and proud.

It worked. I hit the ball harder and higher, and with each small success, my confidence grew. I made no apologies for anything that day and gained the respect of my teammates. The teacher even remembered my name; something he couldn’t do in the first class despite spending an inordinate amount of time with me in comparison to the others.

I started to appreciate the sport of volleyball and my newfound abilities, albeit limited, playing it. I stopped hanging my head in shame off the court as well; I noticed a difference in not only myself, but in people noticing me.

I am almost 40, and I have found there is no time limit on learning new things.

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