Happiness Project: The thrill of competition beats the agony of defeat

Let’s get something out of the way; I am not competitive, in the slightest. If I’m challenged or someone wants to try to win at something — cards, who can get away from the red light first or my sad and tattered basketball bracket — I just let them. That how I roll … easy-going … carefree … no one’s got nothing on me. And I’m not stubborn, either … Scout’s honor.

Somewhere, back in the DNA or from my parents or just being a guy, it was burned in my brain: you must dislike losing, immensely. Yes, it happens. But I love the challenge or a game. I love the competition and the rush of winning.  For about 20 years now (starting well before my conception), it’s one of the reasons I’ve played racquetball.

For the most part, when it comes to exercise, I need some competition. I’ve tried valiantly to like running, but a lot of people (most even) who run LOOK as if they are doing the unhappiest of things with their lives. Swimming … let’s just say that if I run afoul of the mafia, they won’t need to weigh the body down. I like competitive sports.

With racquetball, for those of you who have never seen this game, it’s kind of like tennis. It’s kind of like squash. It’s kind of like dodge ball, except the ball goes a lot faster and getting hit with a ball or racquet hurts a lot more than a flat PE ball. You can play with two, three or four people. Sometime the courts are clear-walled (bashfulness will need to stay in your locker) and other times, they are solid, white 20 ft high and a bit intimidating

One of my hall-mates at Montevallo – Bill – introduced me to the game. Bill, as a junior , was in semi-retirement. He’d cut back on playing to focus both his energy and his 5’2” fire-hydrant-like frame on body-building. It was Bill who I first heard speak the mantra: If you don’t need to sprint, jog. If you don’t need to jog, walk. If you don’t need to walk, stand … which he took down to an evolutionary, “if you don’t need to do long division, do cell division” or some such goofiness.

Soon, I’d purchased two racquets from the Sears Outlet store in Huntsville. Paid $20 for the two. Somewhere, I think I might still have one of them, but believe me … they aren’t anything like what players use today.

A few months later I was in the grips of what I would term “racquetball fever,” as I introduced my friends to the game and saw the same obsession form within them.

Not as many people play today as did when I first started playing. You can see this in the fact that most gyms built in the 1980s and 1990s have courts; the new YMCA in Hoover has no such facility and neither does the one in Pelham several years ago.

But for someone needing an exercise fix, it’s a great game. Let me just provide some highlights:

  • In how many games do you get to hit something as hard as you can, and do it over and over again? In most municipalities, that’s called assault. In racquetball, it’s called strategy.
  • It is, in all honesty, a game that you can learn the rules to in a matter of hours. In a matter of a few weeks, most people progress to being able to hit some shots fairly consistently, i.e., it’s a swift boat to mediocrity.
  • It has its flirtation with danger … people who play do get hit … by the ball … by racquets … by other players … by slamming into concrete walls … diving on floors …
  • Little do most people know, you can get racquetballs in more colors than just the blue. In fact, just to prove that the racquetball gods have a sense of humor, they come in all the colors that your bruises will be – blue, red, black, purple, pink, and green.

The game makes me happy in so many ways. For me, it was a lesson I had to learn by denying myself playing for a long time. After I married, I really did not exercise in any consistent way. I worked too much. I played too much. I didn’t do the things needed to stay healthy.

One day, a co-worker invited me to play. It was awful. I was dizzy. Tired. Out of shape. An embarrassment to my then-racquet, the “Black Assassin.”

I joined the Y two weeks later. And I found an old friend that I’d fallen out of touch with. I got my ass kicked a bunch when I started playing again. I realized – not for the first time either – that playing was good exercise, but it was just as much therapy for me.

I could go into that enclosed court … and none of those guys wanted to talk about work or women or really anything of any consequence. In fact, as I’ve weathered turmoil and found it increasingly hard to not think about things, I realized that when I’m in the court, those thoughts vanish.

In ways, the court is more home than home a lot of times. It’s home in that, where home can sometimes also be the source of our joy and sorrow, the court does not allow such interlopers.

You either put on goggles, get a ball and play … or like the cares of the world, you gonna need to stay outside.

For fun, check out this video. Two pros … ignore the silly intro … :

If you haven’t already, visit some of the other great people who have taken the happiness challenge … Here are links to their blogs:

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