A teammate of mine recently said, insightfully, that sport is the one place where you can escape the rest of life, entirely. All of a sudden, bills don’t matter; work doesn’t matter; some argument you had earlier that day doesn’t matter. For the duration of the game you’re playing, your job is to chase or hit a ball, or compete with other people or even just yourself, in the hope of succeeding at something. I doubt it matters what the particulars of that goal are, only that they exist to be sought.
It’s a very simple premise. But it goes to the heart of the value of sport. At times, when my own inspirations and motivations in regard to writing have been at a particularly low ebb — which irritatingly seems to be more often than not — it is sport which allows me a sense of achievement and satisfaction. It’s fun, of course, but I also happen to be very good at it. When I can’t write, for whatever reason, it would not be hyperbolic to say that it is sport which sustains my spirit and self-esteem.
At this point in my sporting career, in 2019, I find myself within a fascinating personal epoch. I have been playing my chosen sport, netball, for twenty years; I am a veteran in every sense of the word. Yet, my physical fitness and skill has not yet begun to decline to the point where I have receded from the elite group of players in the competition. I confess to a sense of considerable satisfaction being able to compete with vivacious athletes sometimes quite literally half my age. Experience and insight have more than compensated for what physical edge my ageing body may have begun to lose.
More than that, though, sport for me is a salve for my mental health. Beyond merely forgetting about the trivialities of life, being able to express myself in a non-verbal, primal fashion, to push the boundaries of my mental and physical limits, to move my body at its full extension and capacity… little else compares to that. Being a shooter in all three of my teams, I also have the responsibility of maintaining accuracy and completing the circuit of my teammates’ efforts; there is no worse feeling on the court than having a fine string of play land the ball in one’s hands, only to miss a shot and have the play turned over. Shooters tend to get the lion’s share of the glory, but they also carry the most burdensome responsibility.
Maintaining focus and scoring consistently, which includes the confidence to take shots even when they are far from certain, is another aspect of the sport I find intriguing. Perhaps because it can sometimes make all the difference. I began my career in the position of Centre, which can roam the entire court except for the semi-circles where the scoring happens. I appreciated that because I have always possessed impressive stamina, good burst speed, and can pass accurately. But at that point, the mechanics of the ‘circle-work’ — the duel between attackers and defenders — was entirely arcane to me.
Later, perhaps because males tend to be expected to play key positions like Goal Defence against other (usually) taller players, I spent a long string of successive seasons largely in defence, where I learned the movement of ‘the circle’ (even though it is only a semi-circle, one of the traditional verbal vagaries of the sport), and with it a lot of the tricks and deceptions attackers use, and found a new niche in that position.
In netball, attack and defence within the circle are as much a game of wits as they are ability; the defenders are, by necessity, reactionary, and the best skill a defender can have is the ability to read play and respond accordingly. Height in netball is always a distinct advantage (and I am by no means tall), but even small defenders can be remarkably effective if they know how to anticipate particular sequences of play. In my experience, to beat a good defender requires the attack in general to succeed in three distinct areas; and if they do so there’s really nothing even an outstanding defence can do to stop goals — especially considering that netball is a game weighted toward the attacking side in its ruleset. Defending is a hard, and usually unforgiving, task.
In attack, unlike defence, the attacking positions are fundamentally dependent on players in the mid-court. Without a good feed — the ability to pass the ball effectively into the circle — then even the best attacks can be stymied; a poor pass is like bait hanging from a hook for a talented defender. The second element is all about movement. The attack typically engages in a repetitive loop of fake-outs, deceptions and false glances to throw off the defensive players’ intuition. Of course, this relies on the mid-court players also understanding the likely movements of their own attackers. It is counter-productive to fake out a defender if by doing so one also manages to confuse one’s own teammates.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the attacking pair — the Goal Attack and Goal Shooter — have perhaps the most esoteric and elusive struggle to contend with; one’s own confidence. In response to the consternation of a defender who might make some kind of exclamation along the lines of “don’t you ever miss?”, the phrase I am most fond of is that nobody can defend good shooting. My own style, developed over years of having six-foot-five giants sticking their hands in my five-foot-ten face, includes a motion whereby I take a step back during my shooting motion, which increases the distance to the ring slightly but also means that anyone under about seven feet tall can’t effectively defend the shot. If they lower their hand to reset their position by moving forward, I can take a shot unfettered; if they hold their position then it’s unlikely their arm will be long enough to stop the motion of the ball.
I’ve spent countless hours practicing this very move from all manner of positions around the ring, for two reasons.
Firstly, because having played as a defender I found there was nothing more disheartening than playing well against a shooter who could, despite my own efforts, shoot from just about anywhere in the circle. About the best a defender can do is keep a shooter a couple of metres out so that the shot becomes more difficult. If the shot isn’t difficult for such a shooter, that tactic (which is every defender’s main tactic other than direct interception) becomes useless.
Secondly, the practice exists to reinforce confidence. It’s the one thing that can’t really be practiced, but practice doesn’t hurt. If one was to become philosophical about sport, surely the maintenance of confidence under pressure while scoring must be one of the most definition-defying aspects to consider. There is simply no adequate explanation for how or why it ebbs and flows the way it does. Nobody is immune to periods of bad form. It’s easy to maintain confidence against poor defenders or weaker teams, but it’s when the tide has turned, or the opposition is strong, or both, that the true value of a reliable scorer (in any sport) becomes apparent.
In the Iliad, there is a term used frequently to describe moments of the indescribable; a mindset which appears occasionally when an individual seems prescient, able to dictate the terms of an outcome almost at will, and moves with a kind of elegance and skill that can occasionally seem almost inhuman. In the Iliad it usually means that the gods are on that warrior’s side, and are directing their behaviour accordingly. The term is aristeia, and uses the same root as the word aristocracy; in basic terms it simply means ‘elite’ or ‘best’ and refers to that person’s ‘best’ moment in battle. An example from that text is the duel between Patroclus and Sarpedon:
When the two had come within range of one another, Patroclus cast. He struck the celebrated Thrasymelus, King Sarpedon’s noble squire, in the lower part of the belly, and brought him down. Sarpedon, casting second with his shining spear, missed Patroclus, but struck his horse Pedasus on the right shoulder. The horse whinnied in the throes of death, then fell down in the dust and with a great sigh gave up his life. The other two horses sprang apart… [yet] the pair righted themselves and tugged at their harness once more, while the two men resumed their deadly duel.
Sarpedon cast a glittering lance, but missed his mark; the point passed harmlessly over Patroclus’ left shoulder. Patroclus took the second cast; and his weapon did not leave his hand for nothing. It struck where the diaphragm comes up against the busy heart; and like an oak or a poplar or a towering pine felled in the hills by men with whetted axes to make timbers for a ship, Sarpedon came to earth. Groaning and clutching at the dust his blood had stained, the captain of the Lycian men-at-arms lay stretched in front of his chariot and horses. But even as he yielded up his life to Patroclus he breathed defiance, like some proud tawny bull who is brought down among the shambling cows by a lion that has attacked the herd, and bellows as the lion’s jaws destroy him.
— trans. E.V. Rieu, p.305
Needless to say most sporting events do not contain quite so much poetic drama as this. But it goes to the point of explaining the nature of aristeia, which in many classical examples leads to the death of the person who experiences it. Thankfully, that too is detached from contemporary experience. Nevertheless, the actual event of an aristeia is in my experience obvious to those who can identify it, and utterly incomparable: time does indeed seem to slow down; entire passages of play seem to make a kind of logical sense and the path of play appears quite obvious; even before they happen, moments of potential interception or importance or movement occur which seem pre-ordained. If there is such a thing as ultimate confidence (or perhaps more accurately moments when confidence itself becomes irrelevant), it appears in moments of aristeia, which in my experience can last as little as a few minutes, or practically the length of an entire game.
This kind of phenomena is usually described as being ‘in the zone’, or something similar. Whatever it is called, it is almost undefinable and for those who have experienced it — and I remain certain that not many people actually do — there are probably few more genuinely exhilarating moments in all existence. The only thing that comes close are moments of pure intimacy, which I would define as a connection between two people and the accompanying assimilation of one another’s sensation, to the point at which a mutual affinity of such all-consuming existential harmony emerges so as to approach the sublime. And, as with aristeia, something that I do not presume is experienced universally.
Aristeia also isn’t limited to the physical. My ultimate goal while I am writing is to reach that same place, that sense of heightened awareness, during which truly wondrous things can happen, inspiration seems to ooze unbidden from the subconscious and wherein the transition from concept to literal interpretation is most easily facilitated. In these moments, the aristeia is a medium, just like water, which conducts ideas like electricity. At those most awesome and precious of moments, it feels as though normal creativity is merely some simple medieval candle flame while, in comparison, the ecstatic state — the aristeia — becomes an inspiration-furnace powered by a massive nuclear reactor.
An aristeia, like sporting form in general, cannot merely be summoned at will. They are rare and fleeting moments which manifest without warning and then disappear. They seem to respond occasionally to effort but remain elusive. It really is just like the touch of a god; the favour of Pallas Athene or Zeus the cloud-gatherer showing favour upon a mere mortal. No wonder the ancient Greeks thought it so.