Anxiety, Sports Stars, and the not-so Lucky

I assert that sporty guys have it easier than their ball-less counterparts.

Consider anxiety and pre-game puking.

I’m not arguing that all pre-game vomit is the result of worry and panic. Some regurgitation might be caused by the flu, a bad bowl of chili, or a late night on the town. But highly-reported incidents of athletes tossing their cookies before a game must have something to do with stress and an imbalance of serotonin.

In case you didn’t know about the propensity for athletes to upchuck, go ahead and Google something like “athlete vomit game.” Then avert your eyes. On second thought, keep them on the screen. Read and weep. Professional athletes glory in their retched spew. These gods among mortals are praised for their focus and performance. Gut-wrenching anxiety only shows how much they care.

I may have missed something, but I’m not aware of athletes being laughed at, ostracized, or publicly humiliated for high stress levels.

Lest you think this a case of an enlightened modern age where stigma about mental illness has abated, I’d like to point out that athletic heaving is not a new phenomenon.

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Art Donavin, who was inducted into the football hall of fame way back in ’68 described vomiting as a pregame ritual. But come on now. We all know what was going on. His fight-or-flight trigger fired in anticipation of battle and he got so scared (substitute “excited” or “amped” if fear offends my athletic readers) that he hunched over the locker-room toilet and emptied his guts.

Football face

Brian Mitchell, in NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football says his New York Giants teammate Rich Seubert “would throw up before every game like clockwork…The whole team didn’t feel good until he threw up.”

Let me get this straight. Jocks get to have panic attacks without repudiation? If they hurl out of fear and self-loathing, their loving teammates cheer and pat their butts?

As a guy who has dealt with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, surely a little ADHD, and more than a few accusations of raging mania, I cannot tell you how envious I am of this perk. Shoot, sporty types can have their cheerleader girlfriends and the adulation of the crowd if I can just get a little acceptance for my miss-wired chemistry.

Somewhere between ten and twelve-years-old, I could only walk upstairs if the steps finished in counts of seven. Otherwise, I had to back up a few steps and manipulate them to end that way on my own. If I failed in this ritual, I knew the world pay a terrible price.

To my father’s confusion, I ran out a of lunch spot a few years later because everyone in the establishment looked so cool and poised. I knew I did not belong.

Even to this day, I occasionally have trouble breathing before a big event. That said, after I get going, I usually kick ass like a football star or even Freddie Mercury in that one super-jock ballad.

Queen

Not once in this mess of worry and unhealthy behavior, do I ever remember a team rallying to my side and saying, “it’s all right, Dave. This means you’re stoked and going to perform like a champ once the anticipatory fear wears off. Now let’s run on the field like a pack of men who respect and support each other.”

Recently, my similarly-wired daughter told a friend that she was concerned her happiness was a result of mania. My kid is so smart and self-observant that she can doubt her own happiness and label it dysfunction. Her reward? This basically decent friend told the whole school that my kid was a bipolar nut job.

So here is the thing. I’m changing this circumstance around. Care to join me?

I’ll keep taking my Citalopram and working on self-talk and deep breathing. But I’m also demanding some accolades. My recent data analysis is good in part because I worried all night that it was shit. My daughter rewrote an essay a couple times last week and handed to me because she was still uncertain about its quality.

We want the same treatment athletes get.

If I divulge to you that I’m worried, depressed, or absolutely convinced everyone thinks I’m a loud-mouthed idiot, please say, “Way to go champ. This (office, party, neighborhood, Magic the Gathering session, or writers’ group) wouldn’t be the same without you. Way to care.”

When my kid or yours admits to cutting herself because she wonders if a razor can really quiet the voices of worry, here’s what we should do. First, get her treatment and counseling to help her stop. Then say, “Holy shit, you are going to do great in life. You worry because you care way more than ordinary blokes. Your body gets behind you with a fully-charged fight or flight system because it wants you to succeed and/or not get eaten by lions. All of this makes you great. Just like a pro football player.”

That’s what I plan on saying anyway.

It’s Okay not to Like Sports, but don’t be a Robotic Asshole

Not liking sports is counter cultural. At times, you may feel under siege by the rah-rah cheering majority. Every now and then, or almost always if you are not very self-assured, you will feel the need to strike back.

Resist.

Counter cultural behavior can easily turn you into the office, party, or neighborhood ass.

Know an atheist? The person you thought of first is probably an asshole. There are plenty of other atheists out there getting along fine. But the one who popped into your head is the dork who has to argue with everyone. He or she posts and tweets snarky and provocative comments, worships a flying pasta monster to show everyone how silly they are, and laughs at the attempts of others to find meaning in their lives.

Picture the first guy you ever met in a Toyota Prius. The vegan or the glutton-free dude. That lady who is adamant about riding her bike to work instead of walking. Chances are a lot of the people pictured in your mind are assholes. They give other atheists, Prius drivers, vegans, glutton haters, and bike riders a bad name.

Don’t do that to us. Avoid becoming a robotic asshole like the one depicted in this almost funny but also kind of mean College Humor skit.

Don’t be this guy – or the guys who are picking on him for that matter

Here are five tips to help you maintain your self-respect while not pissing jocks and their followers off.

1.       Wait – when the subject of sports comes up, do not sigh, roll your eyes, or decide to let everyone else know how stupid they are. Hold off for a few minutes until the subject changes. If it doesn’t, decide whether you want to stay or leave. Of course, don’t announce why you are leaving. All of this is particularly important if kids are involved. Don’t sabotage your kids if they want be a part of the conversation. You may lose them, but the little tikes can still live happy and fulfilled lives among the athletic masses.

2.       Cofootball-player-zombie-costume-32908me prepared with something more interesting – the pressure to improve society rests squarely on your shoulders. Knowing this can quickly turn you into an asshole, so keep that responsibility to yourself. Come to work prepared with an interesting fact, a funny tidbit about your kids, or a weird question to pose. Preempt conversations about sports with your hilarious anecdote or wait until a moment of silence to bring it up. Also, remember that people find themselves infinitely more interesting than they find you. Have a question for them at the ready. “Hey Sally, how’s Bowser doing on his house training?” “Joe, did you finish your basement?” “Anyone see the Walking Dead last night? How about that zombie quarterback? Wasn’t it great when Rick took him out with a machete?”-

3.       Endure – If you have already announced to people that you don’t like sports, that was your fault not theirs.  These guys are going ask you about yesterday’s game in the most condescending voice they can manage. Eyes are going to roll. Elbows will nudge. You are weird, and they feel better about themselves by pointing it out. Either that or it is all mindless teasing because they do not know what else to say to someone who avoided the Bears game.

4.       Find something interesting to fill your time – Sports exist for a couple reasons. At a basic level, they are a way for physically fit people to prove to prospective mates that they are capable of reproducing. But sports also provide community and a way for folks to connect across generations and social groups. Admit it; you are jealous that others have this connection. So go get one of your own. I write, and I’ve found many men and women who connect with me in our ongoing struggle to write something decent and maybe get someone else to read it. Others find religion, draw, garden, or attend steam punk fairs and comic book conventions. Make sure you belong somewhere so you do not become the robotic asshole who shits on everyone else’s fun. This will also give the awkward sports fan something to ask about instead of razzing you about your lack of balls.

5.       Do not write a blog about not liking sports – that’s just pointless and annoying.

The fifth one is probably the most important.

10 +1 Ways to Blend in with the Sportsball Crowd

Admitting you don’t like sports can be dangerous. Such an admission can hurt you at work when your boss really wants to talk about the BIG game. Some women and no doubt many men won’t date a guy who is clueless about football or that game with the round ball and the net. Worse, you’ll embarrass your kids when their friends’ parents want to get together and talk about their balls.

Heck, David Emanuel isn’t even my real name. I don’t want to get outed for the heresy I’m spewing here.

Recently, I’ve begun to admit out loud that I’m not really a sports guy. But that’s only because I’m in my forties and less worried about having my sexuality questioned or not fitting in with the crowd that wasn’t going to invite me to Saturday’s party anyway. Back in my day, I followed ten simple rules to disguise my contempt for all of America’s favorite past times.

  1. Scan the sports highlights every other day – This hurts, but it is not so hard once you get used to it. Spend less than a minute skimming ESPN headlines. Know who played and who lost. Guys know these things and they expect you to have them down. You don’t have to get all the details right or even understand exactly what happened. Just know enough that you can nod in the right places.
  1. Learn the basic rules – If you live in America, this probably isn’t too hard. Society beats this crap into us. You got to know about the four downs in football, the nine innings in baseball, and which shot scores one, two, or three points in that game with the net. Know the simple facts comprising each sport. But don’t worry about soccer and hockey. Nobody understands those rules. Even way up north where I live, I’m pretty sure hockey dads are just making shit up.

rules of sport

  1. Clap and groan with the crowd – When watching “the game” at a party, follow along with what everyone else is doing. Basically, they clap and cheer during some moments and yell and cuss during others. Practice so you are about a half second behind the leaders. Don’t ever try to get out front and anticipate whether you should clap or groan next. It’s actually super complicated. These guys could probably cure cancer or end world hunger if they focused their minds away from “the game.”
  1. Find the high-five guy or gal and sit next to them – At most parties, there will be a loud guy or girl who stands half way up every five minutes for a round of high fives. Everyone finds this person annoying. If you sit next to them, you will have many advantages. For one, folks won’t notice you over this clown’s antics. Two, he or she will be telling you how you should feel about every moment in “the game.” It’s a beautiful gift. You could probably read a book in the loudmouth’s shadow and no one would notice.

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  1. Complain only in the most basic ways – If you want to go beyond cheering and groaning, keep it simple. Learn the buzz sentences. “Bad call.” “What were they thinking?” “Are you kidding me?” Keep your complaints simple and do not let anything sophisticated creep in. Everyone else actually knows what off sides means. Use it wrong, and they will smell blood.
  1. Answer questions with more questions – Occasionally, someone will engage you in a conversation about one of these games. When possible, respond to their questions with more questions. For example, if they ask “Did you watch the Packers game?” you might say “Yeah, what did you think?” or the even more simplistic and eloquent “yeah, you?” Most likely, they will keep talking and you can just nod along until they leave.
  1. Bite your lower lip a lot – When most guys dance, they basically swing their arms, step side to side, and bite down on their lower lip. They’re not doing it all sexy like Anastasia Steele. It’s more like they’re working on a really bad poop. The same thing happens when guys watch sports, so go ahead and clamp your teeth down. It means you fit in. Or maybe that you understand their pain and are just as uncomfortable with yourself as they are. Heck, everyone might really just have to poop. Honestly, I don’t know what biting your lower lip means. Just do it.
  1. Buy a shirt with a team name and/or mascot on it – If you wear one of these shirts, people will nod or occasionally say something really rude to you. Don’t get upset. Apparently, it is appropriate to tell someone with a different shirt on that they should go and have sex with themselves. These altercations rarely break down into actual warfare. Except in Los Angeles. Don’t do this in Los Angeles.

fighting okra

I could actually get behind this team.

  1. Choose a team – People are going to ask what team you like. Pick one. It is probably best to choose either the team where you now live or the one you grew up around. If you want to be really sneaky, align yourself with a team that doesn’t exist anymore. I like to say I supported the L.A. Rams but could care less about Saint Louis. Importantly, don’t choose a team that hasn’t existed during your lifespan. Telling folks you are a Brooklyn Dodgers fan is just going to confuse them and make you look like a smart-ass historian or something equally undesirable.

(Note: I’m convinced this is what is happening with the pervasive love of soccer among hipsters. Since no one really understands soccer, they can latch on to a European soccer club and protect themselves from the abuse of the jockier masses. In then end though, I don’t think this is much different than their obsession with Doctor Who.)

  1. Pick a sport you can almost stand – If possible, know a little more about a sport that doesn’t bore you as much as the others. I actually like mixed martial arts. That’s the sport where two people enter a cage and beat each other up. There are no balls in the Octagon, so it fits my minimum standards. Most of the fighters have interesting stories that they tell you before the fight. And big matches only happen every now and then, so it’s not hard to keep up. Choose a sport based on whatever criteria you can stomach. Talking about it might give your street cred when the sports you know nothing about come up.

And then (newly added rule for mature sports haters only)

  1. Decide you don’t care – I am starting to admit the truth in slow increments. Every time I tell someone I don’t like sports, a pound of weight flies off my shoulders. A book angel gets her wings. Somewhere a newborn infant giggles. Or maybe a young boy overhears me and worries a little less about his future.

A Dad without Balls

Stuff I hate      

  • Beer (ales, lagers, specialty brews, micro drinks, dark liquids, the regular stuff my father drank – all of ‘em)
  • Basketball, football, soccer, hockey, baseball, crochet (or croquet – which ever one uses balls and mallets), badminton, Frisbee, and activities involving running or dodging
  • Rollercoasters that twist around – but up and down is okay
  • Fixing things with moving parts or trying to understand how they work

Stuff I likeTwo tough guys with beer and whisky jealously looking at cute monster's fruity drink with umbrella.

  • Cocktails (at my best vodka on the rocks with a lemon peel, but occasionally something fruity with chocolate or even ice cream)
  • Talking beside the food spread with someone else who doesn’t want to watch “the game”
  • Rides with singing animatronics
  • Reading books, binge watching Netflix and cable, and talking about them for twice as long as it took to read the book or watch the damn show

Paint a picture?

As dad’s go, I’m set up for failure.

The scariest sentence my older daughter ever said to me was, “Dad, want to throw the ball around?”

She once made that darling request at my brother-in-law’s house. The home of a guy who fixed stuff, drank Old Style, and actually knew the names of the players on all his favorite sports teams. All of them. I swear. I didn’t even know the names of many of the people I worked with.

picture of Old Style beerSo, yes, I went out and played catch with this beautiful, blue-eyed ten-year-old. But we tossed the ball behind the side of the house because I’m quite certain I throw wrong. And catching? I bat around a 300 when it comes to catching objects thrown at my head. (That’s how you use the expression, right?)

Later that same month, I attended my daughter’s parent-teacher conference. This was a few years before she was diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD (if I couldn’t teach her sportsball, at least I passed on my favorite disorders). So the meetings were typically filled with glowing remarks about how nice she was, and funny, and smart, and empathetic, and what a good listener, and…

Except we had to talk to the gym teacher too. As you might expect, gym teachers are often included on lists of stuff I don’t like.

This impressively rectangular woman didn’t talk about my daughter’s empathy or listening skills. She failed to mention how my kid always looks for the student who is not being included and tries to bring them into whatever the not cool but not totally uncool kids are doing. Nor did she say how wonderful it was to meet me and lean over to tell my daughter how funny her dad is. She skipped all the things I loved about parent-teacher conferences and went straight for the kill.

“I just wish she’d move around more,” the woman said without first clarifying that we were only talking about gym and not something important like choir or creative writing. “If she would only try once and a while.”

The thing is my kid tries. She tries hard at everything or at least she did back then. She was like a freaking ant trying to move a rubber tree plant (Best Laverne and Shirley song ever). Whether it was math or reading or dealing with a friend’s broken heart in the girls’ bathroom when everyone else was playing four-square. Back before anxiety started whispering all its worries to her, my first-born was a super-charged trier. The proverbial engine-that-could even when she couldn’t.

She is still like that. She’s just really busy dealing with all that anxious whispering.

Even though I knew all this about my daughter, I left that conference feeling that I had failed.

I drove no faster than ten-miles-an-hour down my little town’s Main Street. My head hung low like I had just struck out when everyone was counting on me. Exactly like the time I tripped running after a fly ball (fly ball, right? That’s a thing), landed on my face, and lay still while the other seventh-graders roared with laughter.

I couldn’t teach her to throw a ball, and strong-looking rectangular people thought of her as a quitter. Worse, a non-trier. It’s hard to try when you don’t throw right or run fast or even run in a straight line. I thought it would be easier for girls than it was for me. (Damn you Title IX.)

Maybe it still is easier, but I couldn’t stop thinking I had passed on one of my greatest shames to my child.

It’s not just that I don’t like sports. As you can tell, I’m bad at them. I mean terrible. Okay, we’re talking the worst here. My picture is probably in a record book somewhere. The truth is I resent sports deeply for all the times I couldn’t do them. And now I had put my kid in the same shameful spot.

Then, as I slowed down to five-miles-an-hour tops, I remembered everything else I had taught her. To listen and talk to the crying kid in the bathroom. To rage about people who felt left out of everything from dodge ball to the really basics like food and housing. To love a show or a book and obsess about the characters as if they are real and ready to become your best friend.

Well, maybe her mom taught her most of that, but at least I didn’t mess it up.

I am not a complete failure. I am just a dad without balls.

I’ll say it again. I am dad without balls.

And I have not messed everything up.