By Rachel Dawson
What Does It Feel Like to Play?
I stood in a small middle school gymnasium casually grasping my field hockey stick. Sixty 3rd – 5th graders sat in front of me, curious, excited, and surprisingly well behaved. Few of them knew anything about field hockey. Their questions made me laugh. Do you live in a mansion? Do you get nervous before games? Did you have a flat screen TV in London? Did you win a medal? Did you meet Ryan Lochte? Gabby Douglas? Most of the kids asked the typical “Olympic” questions, except for one little girl.
Her hand raised tentatively in the air. I gazed toward it where oval glasses framed shy curious eyes. I smiled, nodding permission. She glanced from side to side. She was timid and unsure, so I nodded and smiled again. She opened her mouth. Her voice was meek. The rest of the kids craned their heads toward her. The question whispered through the air.
‘What’s it feel like to play?’ Silence filled the room. I held her gaze as a train of thoughts rolled through my mind. Was she asking about field hockey, or sports in general? Was she asking what ‘people’ felt when they played field hockey? Did she want to know what it felt like to hold the stick, hit the ball, score a goal, or win a game - or was she asking me what I felt when I played?
I fumbled for words.
“When I play I feel alive. There’s something about having the stick in my hand, and feeling it click against the ball that makes me feel free. There’s nothing like it. Like…hmmmm…have you ever painted? Or wrote? Or played music? Or done something where you lose track of time because you are so focused on what you are doing that you don’t even know what you are doing or feeling. Well, when I play, it sort of feels like that, like nothing matters, like time doesn’t exist. Like it’s me out there, exploring, learning, competing. The real, unfiltered, imperfectly perfect me.”
Sixty awkward, antsy glances met my words. So, I told them the truth - if they wanted to know what it felt like to play, they had to try it for themselves. I handed out the strange looking sticks and they played the hour clumsily away.
Over the next few days, the question stuck with me. I mulled it over, asked friends, sisters, and teammates “What’s it feel like to Play?” I realized I hadn’t played a game, or organized practice, in over 3 months (a long span for me). I longed to remember what it felt like to play.
The Faulty Logic of Why We Play in America
We spend a huge part our young lives playing. Most of us start out more like those third graders than we’d like to admit. We were clumsy and confused, unsure of the rules or the reasons, but we were curious and bold, and we liked to run, so we decided to explore field hockey. There was something we liked about it. It was a challenge, and with time, we got better, and the game started to make sense. The stick eventually became less awkward, and our feet grew accustomed to the rhythm of the game. We bobbed, we swayed, we jabbed, we shimmied, and sometimes, when necessary, we laid down a mean block. We found moments of joy in competition as we danced intuitively on the field.
We thought we’d dance joyfully on forever. We believed that the game would always be ours. Yet, somewhere along the way, a faulty logic crept in. The world fooled us into thinking that the only thing that mattered about playing was being the best, winning, and earning a college scholarship. Once we’d achieved all those things, or failed to achieve them, the game had nothing left for us. It said, sorry, but you may play no more.
The By Gone Days of Play
When I asked Xan Funk, my college teammate at the University of North Carolina and current coach at Sidwell Middle School in Washington DC, “What does it feel like to play,” she said:
“Playing is a thrill, it allows you to glimpse so many emotions that are tied into the preparation, competition, and love for the sport. You feel so many different things in a game; its like more emotion than you’d show in a week or month or who knows how long. I think musicians feel the same about their songs and performing.”
Yet unlike musicians, play is something we can’t do forever. Not because our bodies won’t let us, but because after college at the ripe age of 22, there is nowhere for us to play (unless of course, you are good enough to play for the National Team or flexible enough to move overseas). The fact is, no easy or clear pathway exists in America to keep field hockey a natural part of an athlete’s life. With very few adult clubs, and limited well-organized regional or national leagues, every year countless graduates from the over 200 NCAA Field Hockey Programs are forced to play no more.
So in this land of limited field hockey opportunity, young people increasingly drift away from the sport. They invest in their new careers and filter their love of play into new more convenient pursuits – they run marathons, join cross-fit, play squash. Because sadly, the field hockey community they grew up in doesn’t grow up with them. Eventually, they lose touch with the game, and the bygone days of field hockey play amount to little more than a beautiful yet dimming sense of nostalgia.
Call To Action
We need to act. Not later, when the time seems right, but now. Change is possible if we act progressively, positively, and with united passion. It will be difficult. Field Hockey in America faces some very daunting challenges. Our sport infrastructure is not set up to accommodate post-collegiate play. The current non-league, non-regionalized, show-case-centric club competition model hampers local growth and development. As a national sport community, we must systematically approach this challenge, and ask ourselves how can we get regional club leagues off the ground that enhance the mission of pre-existing national events, while allowing for the long-term development of post-collegiate play.
How do we inspire the lost generations of hockey players to re-enter the “play-force?” How do we create value for the post-collegiate market segment? How do we create high quality, convenient opportunities to play? How do we increase outreach and give them both visibility and a voice? Most importantly, are we willing to do what it takes?
The truth is, I am, because pretty soon, I’ll be one of those “lost players.” I love playing. I love competing. It’s fun. But I won’t play on the National Team forever, and when the time comes to hang up the red, white, and blue, I don’t want to have to hang up my stick too.
Until then, I’m not sure I can look another third-grader in the eye, give ‘em a stick and ask them to give themselves to the sport knowing that one day not too far down the road when they are 22, and vulnerable and lost, the sport will cast them aside, and tell ‘em they can’t play anymore. And it won’t be their choice, it’ll be because there’s no where for them to play.
The joy of play shouldn’t be taken away from anyone. Playing is good for the soul, no matter how old you are.
I Asked Some People – What’s It Feel Like to Play - Here are their answers.
Lauren Crandall, 2x Olympian, USA Women’s National Team Captain, Wake Forest University
“Fun, invigorating, free.”
Hannah Dawson, University of Michigan 2012
Katelyn Falgowski, 2x Olympian, University of North Carolina, 2011
“Exciting. I feel like a child. Like, there’s just pure enjoyment in it.”
Meghan Dawson, University of North Carolina 2011
“I don’t know if I can even articulate it.”
Jesse Gey, University of North Carolina, 2008
“I feel free and alive. It’s like nothing else in life matters. And more importantly, I feel One with God. When I play for Him, I feel the ultimate joy.”
Lauren Pfieffer, USA Women’s National Team Member, University of Iowa, 2009
Please Note: All the above answers were given with a child-like giddiness rooted in the indescribably powerful experience of play.