When one thinks about setting and achieving goals, there are a ton of life experiences that feed into that process. At some age in our athletic careers, the transition from raw competitive instincts to setting goals has to be channeled. Sometimes that is the product of being enrolled with some kind of program, team or sport that calls for goal-setting.
Yet some our most important goal-setting experiences are found outside the realm of formal programs or your chosen sport.
As a lean 7th-grader at a middle school named Martin Meylin Junior High* in Lampeter, Pennsylvania, I was eager to join in any kind of game or sport. The playground was a giant macadam surface behind the school, and there were tall tetherball poles tucked in the alcove outside the back entrance.
These poles were ranked in terms playing ability, as I recall. A tetherballer had to earn their way up the ladder of players to compete on the main tetherball pole.
There were both 7th and 8th-grade students at the school, so the opportunity to compete against older kids was always there. I relished such challenges with all my might.
Gunning for success
After a week or two playing the game, I got really good at tetherball. If you’ve never played tetherball, it’s a bit of a brutal sport in some respects. The game starts with one player holding a ball that is something like a cross between a soccer ball and a volleyball. The ball is affixed to the end of a rope tethered to the top of a pool that stands about ten feet tall.
The server slams the ball with a fist and then attempts to keep it going so fast the opposing player cannot stop it. If the opponent doesstrike the ball back, it comes flying back the other direction. At that point, it’s almost like a boxing match or martial arts contest. All is a battle of resounding force and direction as both players punch the ball with all their might.
There is no room for error or loss of concentration. Once the game starts, you have to show complete commitment and focus to dominate the game.
The ultimate show of skill is to serve the ball and never let the opponent touch the ball. This requires a certain amount of finesse. If one can strike the ball at an angle that puts it out of reach on the opponent’s side, and keep it going fast, the rope will make a perfect coil around the top of the pole before the ball swings closer and closer. When it actually strikes the pole, the game is over.
A good player could actively “ace” another player without letting them touch the ball at all during play. I got so good at this that several games in a row could go without an opponent touching the “serve.” You honestly had to be a real bastard, no mercy, to make this happen against a weaker opponent. It could be pretty deflating to stand there helpless as your opponent strung the ball around the pole without resistance. But I did it to many a player with relish.
Part of this drive I now know came from a deep-seated anger coursing through my veins. While I loved my family there was just enough difficult stuff to make a sensitive kid like me go through life a bit pissed off. All through sixth grade I’d gotten in fights with other kids over this slight or that. Even my best friends fielded my wrath now and then.
I’m not ashamed of any of that. We all deal with emotional rot the best way we can. My choice was to fight back in life. When I discovered tetherball, it served as a relief of all that pent up energy and frustration. In certain school subjects, I did well and in others, I suffered from inattention. Some of that, I’ve learned, was the product of a creative attention disorder. Combined with a natural-born propensity for anxiety, the middle school environment was a perfect brew for reactive anger.
So the playground was my release valve. And for several weeks on end, I’d emerge from lunch period to stand at the tetherball pole and face another opponent. I recall the churning feeling in my gut as the lunch period reached its end. That meant I was on the hook to win another set of tetherball games. The previous day’s winner always got first game during recess. And so it went. Day after day . I don’t recall how long the reign lasted, but for a good long while, I was the undisputed tetherball king.
My hands got raw because the ball would often be wet from snow or rain or other elements. As the weeks went by, a classmate encouraged me to toughen up my hands by not washing them. Where he got that idea I will never know. But it worked. How my mother never noticed my toughened hands with that dirt ground into the calloused skin I will never know. What I do know is that she had four boys to raise. Many of our less-inviting habits escaped that poor woman. In any case, I recall holding my hands out to compare them with a friend named Ed who engaged in esprit de corps with my undefeated tetherball run.
For a while, it felt great to have such a reputation. I’d faced down the best players in the school through some tough matches that went back and forth. But always I’d emerged victorious. This turned out to be a strange and isolating sort of pride. It didn’t make me feel good or bad to win or lose anymore. The goal was just to keep winning.
Then one spring day the weather turned warm and I no longer felt like playing tetherball at recess. Baseball season was coming soon and the allure of standing out in a green field with a leather glove waiting for the ball to crack off a bat seemed so much nicer than standing on that asphalt tethered to the tetherball pole by my hard-won reputation.
Choosing to lose
So I made up my mind to lose. I don’t recall who became the victor. It didn’t matter anymore. I just wanted out.
The tetherball loss sent a quick ripple through the playground and then it was all over. I didn’t laugh or cry about it. Mostly I felt relief.
Later in life, I’d face similar circumstances in running. When I’d won a few races in a row and finally lost one, it would hurt. But damned if you don’t learn how to adjust. The goal becomes knowing how to deal with whatever life throws at you. Sometimes that reveals your true character rather than the person you’ve imagined yourself to be.
That’s one of the most useful lessons you can draw from sports. Set the goal for victory but if you lose, it’s important to learn how to process the facts. Don’t deny them. Use them to build your next goal. You simply must move on even when you’ve been tethered to a goal for so long you can’t remember why you even started.
*Martin Meylin Junior High was named for the man who made the Pennsylvania Rifle. Somewhere along the way, the name of that weapon was later changed to the Kentucky Rifle. One wonders how the originator of that famed gun would feel about the name change. It goes to show that you can’t always control your legacy.