I am not alone among Obies in saying that I did not, in any way, shape, or form, make my decision to attend Oberlin based on its athletic opportunities. There was a brief moment about two weeks before I arrived on campus where I considered trying to walk-on to Oberlin’s field hockey team. I had played the sport all through high school and for about thirty seconds I let the thought enter my head, swirl around, and just as quickly depart. Field hockey during high school had been one part athletic, two parts social. It was a good sport and central to my high school experience, but I couldn’t imagine spending another four years running around in a skirt.
Still, movement has always been important to me. During high school I didn’t play field hockey because I was particularly enamored by the game itself. I held no secret passion for candy-cane shaped sticks, nor molded mouth guards. I liked hockey because of the people I played alongside and the chance it gave me to set aside my papers and my planners (the several I owned were never up to date) to just move.
My first few months in Oberlin, I hoped to find something similar. I liked the idea of a team sport, or, at the very least, a regularly planned activity that I could do with a group of people. During a brief period freshman year, I attended regular kickboxing classes (Wednesday 5 - 6 pm) until I didn't have time. My schedule didn’t have room for an hour a week preparing for some sort of hypothetical fight (while I tried to keep a rhythm of hook-hook-jab-jab-uppercut-uppercut I imagined myself beat up and bloodied, fending off an army of [ideally] boxing club clad attackers.) After the kickboxing class, I resorted to running, when I could and when I felt like it. I grew to like late night runs, when I had energy and homework to procrastinate on. But without the positive peer pressure of a team of people, I found my runs to be few and far between. They were inconsistent and lacked drive. What was I running for? Who was I running from?
Then, in my second semester of freshman year, I fell into ice hockey. I had heard that the club ice hockey team was looking to get people on the ice. Further inquiry revealed that they were especially eager for a goalie to join their ranks. I had never skated before, apart from a couple distant occasions where I was given the singular opportunity to skate around on a crowded rink during a holiday season – a friend had tickets to the ice rink, my family was looking for something to do that said red-green-and-tinsel. I had also never been a goalie before. When I played field hockey I was a midfielder. My job definitely included defense, but it was never relegated to it and it was never the portion of the game I most enjoyed. I liked the big sprints up and down the field and carrying the ball into the center circle. I liked the possibility that I might be the one to score. The goalie position, way far down at the end, away from most of the positive action, never held much romance for me. The gear looked bulky, the drills boring. Worst of all, you didn’t get to run.
It’s possible that I was the least fit person for the job. On the other hand, I had been looking for a team sport. On the other hand, this narrative, the underdog position that was being handed to me was extremely attractive. I could be the no-one-less-prepared-than-she goalie who rocketed to the top of her game. In my second semester I-can-do-anything-eyes an ice hockey goalie position held a romance that the field hockey goalie never did.
This romantic ideal was the first thing I gave up when I stepped onto the ice. Being an ice hockey goalie, particularly one who has spent very little time in their life balanced on thin strips of metal on an infamously slippery surface, is not pretty. I fell. I slid. I wobbled around the rink while the other more experienced skaters sped past, their skates a second limb, their legs a blur.
It’s a hard sport and, in many ways, it was not what I expected. Every Tuesday I step onto the ice, a mammoth of protective foam in an orange helmet that’s a tad too small and a yellow jersey that offends the eyes. Every Tuesday, I spend an hour hobbling around on the ice trying to figure out how to best speed down the rink (“Bigger steps!” the goalie coach says) or else drop to my knees to protect the tiny net I am tasked with defending. Every Tuesday, I leave practice dripping in sweat, smelling like my gear, legs aching with exertion.
There’s a sort of beauty to it all the same. Like a lot of other Oberlin students, I spent a large chunk of my adolescence in some sort of pursuit towards a simplistic ideal of perfection. If I couldn't do something perfectly on my first try, it was hard to convince myself that I should do it at all. Ice hockey has challenged this notion.
I say this honestly, without false modesty, without a need for comfort or pity: I am not good at ice hockey. This may be a temporary state. Perhaps tomorrow I will find that the skates feel right on my feet, that I can glide like an angel, that I can bounce a puck up and down on my stick right up there with the Wayne Gretskys of the world (is this something Mr. Gretsky is known for? Likely not, but it is the only ice hockey name that I can think of at the moment). But even if I am never good at hockey, for myself there is something that is important about the effort behind it, the mindset I am growing.
Whether or not I get better at hockey is of little importance. The real power, for myself, in this moment, is realizing that I can do something that I am bad at and still have fun. It’s a tired take – anything worth doing is worth doing badly – but it's a take that I find myself having to relearn over and over again.
I doubt this is the last time I will be forced to reevaluate my own relationship with perfectionism, in a world that neatly links excellence and happiness, but it is a process I am enjoying. Despite the challenges, ice hockey has become one of the best parts of my week. It is a consistent time I have blocked off where I can see people that I might not otherwise regularly run into. It’s a few hours where I am not thinking about the paper that I need to write or the emails I need to send. Instead, I hobble around on the ice and feel the sweat drip down from my helmet. I concentrate on the placement of my feet and sitting back into an athletic stance. I drop down into my best attempt at a butterfly. Even on the hard days, when a skill is more difficult to master, or I didn’t get nearly enough sleep the night before, I find myself smiling behind my helmet’s grate.
Every Tuesday, I try my best and delight in the imperfection of it all.
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November 5, 2022