Zero shots, zero goals, 90 minutes: El Estoque takes on varsity practices

Weight on my shoulders

 My abilities lie pretty far outside the realm of sports, so I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this. I found out some sports ran four miles a week and weight trained regularly, and I hadn’t ran a mile since freshman year. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to the experience of joining the wrestling team for conditioning.

Walking into the weight room, I spotted Justin Yu, the strength and training coach, who first sent us on a warm up run. OK, this isn’t too bad,” I thought. “Just like 9th Grade PE, right?”

Wrong. Taking a PE class freshman year does not prepare you for an actual practice.

Justin explained Sumo Deadlifts, an exercise where  you do your best sumo wrestler imitation and try to lift a weighted bar at the same time, and a set of Box Jumps would be first in the workout. I watched apprehensively as others lifted 100, 110 and upwards of 120 pounds. I, on the other hand, was unsure if I could lift the 45-pound bar.

The main reason I didn’t play a lot of sports as a kid wasn’t because I didn’t like working out or found sports boring. I was born with  an atrial septal defect, a 26-milimeter hole in my heart, which significantly handicapped my athletic abilities. My parents knew I would never be an Olympic athlete and steered me in other directions. I got the hole closed recently, and after a year of no physical activity, I was, I’ll admit, a little eager to find out what I could do.

I finally spotted someone lifting 65 pounds and decided I would start there. I spread my feet, pulled the bar up, and was surprised. OK. My arms aren’t falling off. My back hasn’t broken. This isn’t as bad as I thought.” Famous last words. Justin told me to straighten my back and lift the bar straight up, a modification that made the seemingly easy exercise much harder.

On my second round of the circuit, I couldn’t find anyone lifting 65 pounds. Instead, I saw the same person who lifted 65 before now lifting 109. As I struggled to remove the excess weight from the bar, Justin came up to me again. “I want you to try it first,” he said. So I stopped trying to remove the weight and picked up the bar. WOAH.  I can actually lift this.” For now.

As the set wore on, my form got worse and worse, so by the end, I began to feel dizzy and faint.

“Maybe I should have eaten more than just a bag of potato chips for lunch. What would happen if I just fainted right here? Would I hit my head on a weight and die? Would I be taken off this story and not have to do this anymore?” I decided to keep going. Thankfully, by the third set, we were out of time and it was on to the next circuit.

We continued working for another half hour, and then the wrestlers went out for a run before practice. I left them to it and stumbled home instead.

The next two days were similar to the first. Because of my pre-existing condition, I only joined the team for conditioning, and didn’t practice with them. But I was surprised at how manageable the workout was. My initial eagerness to find out what my new self could do soon melted into admiration. I had never been able to experience my body performing at full capacity, and wrestling conditioning gave me a unique opportunity to do so.

So what did I learn from this experience? That many of my classmates put in lots of time and effort to train for their sports. That many of those same people were like me, and couldn’t even lift the bar at first. But with time, they worked their way up to weights that I didn’t think were humanly possible.

Technical difficulties

Every Persian man seems to love playing and watching soccer; unfortunately for me, I never really understood the obsession. My father, uncles and even my brother enjoy both playing and watching the beautiful game,î but after my first experiences playing soccer as a child, I grew to dislike the sport and have never really played it since. As a proper Persian man, I decided to give soccer one last chance, and see if the mystics of the beautiful game could attract me so I could finally make my forefathers proud.

I chose to participate in a series of soccer practices, but since I was unfortunately not cleared to play, I had to settle for the next best thing. I asked a few soccer players to walk me through a normal practice, but most of them flaked, and I had to settle for only one player, junior Sarin Gole. Since it had been years since the last time I played soccer, I didn’t expect much of myself. Also, being really out of shape, I expected to die while conditioning.

The first drill we did was shooting; the first shot I took on goal sailed about a foot above the top: enough power, but no technique. This shot  foreshadowed how the entire practice would go. I had the strength to do many of the drills, but the skill required was completely beyond my abilities. I had a feeling that making my forefathers proud of my actions would be  much more difficult than I originally expected.

Later on we got to the part of practice I was least looking forward to: conditioning. Sarin said I would be doing liners from the end line to the 40 yard line. When he said this it brought me back to my football playing time, when the coaches would make you run in the heat with 20 pounds of extra gear on you, constricting your breathing and making you hate living. But the soccer conditioning was not like this. I felt free. I could breathe easy ó for about 20 seconds, that is, until my body remembered it hadn’t run at all in at least a year. It soon turned to a very unpleasant experience, but thankfully ended quickly.

The single most surprising part of the entire practice was how easy heading the ball was. I expected that hitting a soccer ball with your head would both be difficult and painful, but it oddly enough it wasn’t. Whenever Sarin threw the ball towards me, I could with reasonable accuracy, head the ball right back to him. At this point in the practice I was feeling good about myself. I lived through the conditioning and what I thought would be the hardest drill of the day. Little did I know the beautiful game had more challenges to throw at me.

The technique and flexibility required to control the ball and shoot are singularly the most difficult things I tried doing the entire day. Oftentimes the ball would be floating in the air and I, being about as flexible as a fencepost, simply would not have the flexibility in the hip to make contact with the ball. Even if I made contact, actually making the ball go where I wanted took much more technique than I had.

As a whole, the practice wasn’t the most physically difficult thing I’ve ever done, but the techniques needed to be at all effective were thoroughly out of my grasp. My family would have been disappointed at my performance, but I did gain a new respect for the technical abilities of all soccer players. As of today I am still alone, as the only Persian man with no love for soccer.

Back to the blacktop

It’s kind of ironic how good I was feeling about myself when I stepped onto the cracked blacktop of Kennedy MS. I’m a wrestler, and the last time I played anything even close to basketball was when we took Thanksgiving practice off to play mat ball. Mat ball involves running into people in a confined wrestling room until nobodies moving and the ball has been smashed into some corner of the room. Basketball does not have those same rules, and yet I was still feeling cocky.

     Growing up, pickup basketball games were the beginning and end of my athletic career. So unique and one of a kind right? I know, I’m special like that. But for most of childhood I was convinced that I was just an inch away from dunking on that 10 foot tall hoop at Garden Gate Elementary. When we had to pick a sport to go hopelessly fail at in the name of all that is journalism, I figured I could leave the wrestling, and unleash my inner NBA player.

     Wrestling, if you’re listening, I’m so sorry I thought I could leave you for basketball. Please save me from those ball handling drills and bleacher workouts. Please, please, please and thank you.

I was wearing a snowboarding camp t-shirt and running shoes when I met senior Ron Talmor and sophomore Akshay Gopalkrishnan for the first day of my supposed rise to athletic stardom. I picked up the rebound off of one of Akshay’s shots, but when I put it up, I saw it leave my hands and fall to the ground without even hitting the rim. Airball.

In all fairness, I wasn’t horrible. I’d credit my wonderful coaches Akshay and Ron for all the sprints and liners that put me on the floor wheezing for breath, but it didn’t go beyond that for me. My shooting form was horrid. My dribbling was somehow even worse. And when we started to work on the subtle things like footwork, I really started to miss the unsubtle, run into ’em until they stop squirming moves from the wrestling mat. But I was trying my hardest to just beat the odds and be better than the extremely low standard I had been setting for myself  all my life.

I stopped playing pickup basketball around middle school, right around the time I failed to make the fifth round of tryouts. I hit my growth spurt since then and shed all my baby weight. And while I had stopped jiggling with every step, going back to the basketball court still hit me with reality: my time on the courts has been over for a long while. No more playing for fun. Now I see basketball practice going from a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon, to a high-stakes practice every day.

The second day of practice helped soften the fish out of water feeling. We went to the MVHS upper field, because now it was time to work off the ball. After all, how can you make the shots that you practiced if your muscles cant even last long enough for you to shoot the ball? I ran sprints and then squatted,  déjà vu of wrestling practice and football practice and eventually I fell into that familiar rhythm of Yeah, this sucks and I cant feel my legs. But at least I’ve done this before.” Then my coaches had me go run bleachers.

I’ve been terrified of bleachers ever since I can recall. I can remember working out on them twice in my life, and once again it was far too late to get comfortable with them. I practically crawled up the metal spikes, and clung onto the railing on the way back down. Forget those years and endless hours I’ve put into snowboarding, wrestling and even the pickup games of basketball. I still look at bleachers and tremble sometimes. But by the end of that workout, I was finally looking down at Akshay and Ron at the top of the world on those bleachers. I didn’t get any faster right then and there, but those bleachers did get a lot less scary.

All it took was three days. I flashed back to time spent playing pickup basketball on the cracked asphalt in front of my house,  almost as if that part of my life was nothing but a dream. I was happy with how bad at basketball I was, because being a beginner shields you from that sort of self-judgement. It took three days, but now I cant think of a single thing wrong with becoming a beginner again.

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