Volleyball has always been more than merely a game for me, more than a matter of competition. But it starts there, the intensely personal experience of putting yourself up against yourself and up against someone else. Competition really is the measure of both things: how close you come to your ideals and how you rank relative to the rest of humanity. Whether you choose to compete more with one in mind than the other is a question of individual morality. Volleyball provides the experimentation ground. It enables you to test your choice, to weigh success, defeat and the mass of self-awareness in between.
When I was younger, competition to win was the driving force. I see this, too, in the younger players now. The fits of bad behavior and pretentiousness are an exorcism of the ego, a frustrated effort at seeking meaning. At eighteen, the beach, a ball, and a well-timed swing can define a person quite well.
However, as I’ve grown older and experienced winning and losing in so many different arenas, it is not the competition of volleyball that compels me. Rather, it is the people and places that make the sport so special. Imagine my average Saturday or Sunday, arriving at Santa Barbara’s East Beach, one of the most spectacular beaches in the world, at 8:30 a.m. Generally the sky is clear, the beach more or less vacant, the Santa Barbara Channel Islands silhouetted across a steel Pacific Ocean. Maybe there are sanderlings on the beach, or perhaps a school of dolphins in the surf.
My three partners show up, one with his bleary-eyed five year old. There are banter and gossip while we stretch and warm up. From Las, a local physician and organizer of our foursome, I hear tales of the national team. Gary, my lawyer, is peppering with Rick, coach of the local City College volleyball team. Gary challenges my liberal credentials over some obscure political issue. I question his manhood. It goes on until the first ball is served, then it is all seriousness until we break some four to five hours later. We do this nearly every weekend of the year.
Volleyball people and places are etched into my memory. Five hundred people at Seaside, Oregon, seven hundred at Ensenada, Mexico, the grass courts next to Green Lake in Seattle, the locker rooms of local gyms, the single net at Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove, the homemade court at Kamoli One on Maui, even the badly parabolic net near the Bio building at Stanford. Before each place, there were the long car drives and, afterward, the festive post-tournament meals when teammates and wives and girlfriends and friends would sit for hours, tired, sore, fulfilled in some profoundly meaningful way, reliving the games of the day and relishing the opportunities for more.
That feeling of fulfillment is hardest to communicate, even to those who share it. The psychic denouement of a long day of concentration and sweat is magical. It is a celebration of what I’ve been given, what I’ve achieved, and what I’ve been fortunate enough to stumble upon. Playing volleyball, sometimes well, sometimes poorly, I experience the strength and grace of life. Playing on the beach with one other or in a gym with five others, I share the satisfaction of timing and the exuberance of friendships. It is performance art and religion, a celebration and a prayer.
For me, volleyball is at once personal, social, and spiritual. Volleyball is how I capture the moment. It has only made my life richer.
* Originally published as “Volleyball satisfies psyche as well as physique” in June 1988 issue of Volleyball Monthly