Paying To Play: Life As An Adult Athlete

via Martha Nippert
via Martha Nippert

It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, bases loaded, two outs and your team is down by one run. You’re standing at the plate with a full count. An entire stadium is cheering your name. The pitch comes and you swing. The bat connects with the ball. As the hitter, you know you’ve done something special. The pitcher’s face has a look of despair. You see the ball going, going, and it’s finally gone, out of the stadium. You smile, run around the bases, and can’t wait to reach home plate where you know all of your teammates will be eagerly awaiting your arrival. The celebration is about to begin.

However, instead of playing professional baseball at Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox, it was a game of Wiffle ball in your parents’ backyard. The Green Monster was a bunch of trees separating your yard from the neighbor’s and the bases were gloves, Frisbees, or any flat object you could find. In order for there to be no arguing about the strike zone, the “umpire” was a lawn chair –it was a strike if the ball hit any part of the chair while still in the air. And each day after school, you would play with your friends and create these scenarios over and over again.

But what happens to those children when they become adults? Instead of giving up on playing sports all together, they find like-minded individuals and create a team or join one.

“You play sports your whole life growing up,” Eric G., a 40-year old New Yorker entering his 19th year in a men’s hockey league, says. “Just because you’re an adult, it doesn’t mean you have to stop playing competitively.”

For many adults, a 9 to 5 job doesn’t mean that their athletic days are over, but rather that they can pay to continue playing. Ross K., a 29-year old lawyer living in Washington, D.C. first began playing kickball as a way to relieve stress when he was studying for the bar exam. Five years later, he has played in football and dodgeball leagues and will be joining a softball league for the first time this spring.

“Being an adult now, I don’t have too many opportunities to throw a ball at someone, trash talk, and celebrate exuberantly,” Ross says. “Playing sports gives me the chance to act like a kid again, which I think we all need to do from time to time.”

And that’s the beauty of adult league sports. It allows amateur athletes to keep their inner child alive, as they age. Lynn K., who refuses to tell me her age (“Didn’t your mother teach you that it’s not polite to ask a girl her age?”), but has been playing in adult ice hockey leagues for close to 30 years, has found the Fountain of Youth in the form of an ice hockey rink.

“I don’t always think of myself as an adult, but rather a big kid that forgot to grow up,” Lynn says. “Playing hockey makes me feel younger than my years and keeps me in shape, while still being able to be the competitive person that I am. It’s the perfect thing to do after a hard week at work as a way to release all your frustrations and just have a great time.”

Even with a 40-hour workweek, it’s not uncommon for a team of players (ranging in age from recent college graduates to AARP members) to stay up late Monday through Friday and/or rise early on the weekends to participate in their favorite sport.

“There aren’t many people willing to go for a walk after dinner, never mind play hockey at 10:45 at night,” says Ian P., 48, the captain of his men’s league hockey team in California. “It’s just such a great outlet. You absolutely have to live in the moment as soon as the puck is dropped and that is very freeing.”
For Lori G., a 27-year old from the East Coast who moved to Los Angeles after college, playing kickball and dodgeball served as a way for her to make new friends and gave her something to look forward to other than work.

“It’s really just about blowing off steam and having a good time while sharing a few drinks and laughs,” Lori says. “Everyone’s all about being silly and shamelessly being themselves. I think it’s a fun escape from the regular workday and is something everyone looks forward to every week.”

And it can also serve as an alternative to online dating, as Faye B., a 27-year old living in New Jersey found out when she joined a kickball team, “So many of my teammates had met and married through Zog Sports!”

That doesn’t mean that the games are always fun, however. Sometimes the competitive spirit goes too far and the athletes ruin the sport for each other.

“I stopped playing soccer about two years ago,” Peter K., a 42-year old from New York, says about his reason to walk away from a game he has loved since childhood. “I was playing in a Greek soccer league and a game ended in a brawl. So, that turned me off to soccer for a while. I just didn’t want to see the same people again.”

These athletes also deal with injuries, which can make them miss more games, or even work for long stretches of time. And they don’t have team doctors to take care of them like the pros.

“When I get hit in the face, I want to give up,” Allison K., a 25-year old soccer player from Virginia, says. “Some people have hand-eye coordination, I have ball-face coordination. I’m definitely always scared to get hurt, but I keep playing anyway!”

Drew B., a 35-year old living in New York, thought about hanging up his skates due to a concussion that happened during an adult league hockey game.

“I missed about three weeks of work and hockey for about six months,” Drew said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go back. I was like, ‘Is this worth it?’ I had not been that injured since I blew out my knee in Jr. Hockey. But, I pushed back.”

And sometimes it’s your own teammates who ruin the game for you. If you’re new to a city or it’s your first time playing, you’re at the mercy of the league to put you on a team with a good group, which happens more often than not, but not always.

“The problem with being new to a city and not knowing too many people is that you don’t have a big enough circle to form your own team so all the teams I’ve joined since living in DC, I’ve joined as a free agent,” Ross K. says. “Sometimes I ended up with a great group of people, but other times I end up with a not so great group. The worst was when I was basically an add on to a pre-existing team of folks who already knew each other so it sucked being the odd man out.”

But when you’re able to join a team you like, there’s nothing better for those few hours than playing one of your favorite games with some of your favorite people.

“It’s several things,” Ian P. says about the reason why he still plays adult league sports 25 years later. “Social aspect, shared passion for the sport, competition, exercise, stress relief and of course the beer all play into it, but I’d have to say it always comes back to the friendships. I feel very fortunate that I still play regularly with a friend of mine from the very first club team in college. Not to mention all of the other great friends I’ve made and interesting characters I’ve met over the years.”

At the end of the day, adult league sports aren’t focused solely on winning, even though championships are always rewarding. It’s about reliving or recreating a part of your life that you once loved or wanted to improve upon. It’s not your talent level that’s important, it’s whether you remember to bring the beer to the game when it’s your turn. TC mark

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