Epic Win

by Shaker BrianWS, who may or may not become a full-time contributor someday, depending on how that whole Mayan doomsday prophecy thing turns out.

As I continue to learn and continue to grow up, I keep finding things in my life that speak truth to the point that the patriarchy isn't just an enemy of women, but a true enemy of men, too.

When I was younger, playing goalie in soccer was my life. I started playing at the age of 5, and around the age of 11, I began to play more competitively, and that meant that between the ages of 11 and 18, I would play soccer anywhere from 4-6 days a week, 52 weeks a year, between travel club teams and eventually my high school team during their season.

I always loved soccer, and, more importantly, I loved what it meant about my relationship with my dad. I didn't have many positive male role models growing up, and the one man who was always present in my earlier years was my dad. He played football when he was younger and came from a long line of macho, hyper-masculine military and sports men. All that he understood to be important was the competition and the winning.

By nature of his being my father, all I knew about soccer was that it was a game that was meant to be won.

* * *

I was very good at doing my part to make that happen on my various soccer teams. I wasn't a Big Deal, but I was a big deal, starting on one of the best club teams in the Midwest and winning several awards during my high school years. I really only understood the strategies and complexities of the game through the lens of winning, and it wasn't truly until this past weekend that I figured that out.

When I was playing when I was younger, winning in soccer and being hyper-competitive about it meant that I would receive attention and affection from my dad (and in turn, from a long line of demanding and hyper-masculine coaches I had along the way – though many of those men were much better role models to me in the big picture. Their only job at the competitive level I was playing was to make us winners – my dad's job was to be my dad). He was proud of me when I was a winner, and I was involved with quite a bit of winning – I loved it. That skewed my entire view of the sport to my dad's view that it was a game to be won and, crucially, that there was no other conceivable reason to be playing.

That still follows me to this day. A friend of a friend once told me during a game of Scene It that I'm not a sore loser, but that he had never met anyone in his life who loved the act of winning as much as I did. What struck me as something of a compliment at the time now haunts me. That shit pops up when I play Uno – the need to win trumps the experience of playing a fun game with friends, and that's because my dad instilled a winning-is-everything mentality at a young age, because winning was the point of competition, competition was the point of all games, and being the best in a competition proved one's manliness and worth.

The thing that strikes me as one of the most unfortunate parts of the whole thing is that there is no endgame to this continuous cycle of competing and winning. There is no point at which I was done proving my worth. As I mentioned above, I played on some really good soccer teams in my life, and losing was not something I had much experience with. But there was always another game to be won. Always another tournament to be won. Always a 4-1 win that wasn't quite good enough because it wasn't 4-0, and that meant I had failed to fully live up to my role on the team and my role as my father's son.

There is simply never a "good enough" with the way the patriarchy works, having instilled a mentality in my father that winning was everything and the more you won, the better man you were.

* * *

In the last year, I've begun playing in a local, mostly non-competitive over-25, co-ed league. We keep score, and yes, everybody on every team knows what their record is for the season even if we don't officially track standings, but the general mood of this league is a bunch of people just wanting to go out and have some fun and get some exercise while playing soccer. People apologize when they knock someone down, there is always a helping hand back up, and people of all kinds of skill levels are constantly encouraging one another across team lines.

So here I was on Sunday night, playing indoor soccer in this league, and I had one of the best experiences of my life.

I was asked to sub for another team following my team's game, so I played in two separate games. My team won our game 6-1, and the team I subbed for lost by the same score in the second game. Yet it was in the middle of that 6-1 defeat in the second game that I had this amazing moment.

I was watching players of all skill levels crisscross the field, finding the best angles to receive and distribute the ball, people shouting "whoa, NICE save!" to the other team's goalie, and generally just watching 20 or so men and women of all colors, sexualities (hello!), and sizes just enjoying themselves and enjoying the game of soccer for what it was – a superbly complex and intricate game that offers so much potential for beauty. The beautiful game.

What I realized was that I have loved the game of soccer my entire life, but that I had been loving it for all of the wrong reasons.

I still see value in competition, and even in winning (which makes fun those tournaments where the objective is to win), but now I recognize that I had never actually loved the game of soccer for any reason other than its ability to give me something else at which to win. Even though I understood all of the dynamics of gameplay and the intricacies of the game when I was younger, I had never seen the sport as something that could bring people together and lift everyone's spirits regardless of the result. All I'd seen was just a game that pits one set of players against another in a quest to win.

And because of what had been communicated to me by my dad (and reinforced by a patriarchal culture) about winning and masculinity, I'd seen that as a quest to win at being a man, too.

It was a moving and profound moment for me after more than 20 years of playing this game to see it in an entirely new light. A light that doesn't encourage hyper-masculinity and winning above all else. A light that allows for someone wearing a different color shirt during the game to still, in the end, be a part of a team with me that's bigger than the ones we represented while competing for an hour. A light that says there is more to being an important and valued man than simply my ability to win.

And sure, I still love winning—that may take some time to break down. But what I love even more is to take this one extra piece of patriarchal bullshit that I've been carrying around in my soccer bag for almost my entire life and throw it away, to never be worried about again, because there is more to me and more to this game than the final score.

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