I’m afraid I don’t have any comical anecdotes about this week’s sporting effort. Sure, I hit myself in the face with the racquet once or twice but a few minor injuries won’t be what I’ll remember of my most recent badminton lesson. The main theme of the hour was regression, as my 12 year-old self finally tracked me down and made it quite clear that I can’t expect to forget her as easily as I had thought.
The lesson began normally enough, with some warm-up exercises that included keepy-ups with the shuttlecock (which is when face met racquet for the first time). I wasn’t exactly mastering the technique but, while that’s completely standard for me, I couldn’t quite shrug off my failings and carry on as usual. By the fall of the final shuttlecock, tears were drowning my flushed cheeks, my legs were like jellyfish (in stature, not consistency) and my heart was thumping through my larynx to the beat of ‘Run to the Hills’.
I suppose I should explain. I may have mentioned that I’ve never been good at sport, that I’m more than a little clumsy and that my practical skills desert me whenever they are most needed, but I don’t think I’ve accounted for my nerves. Excruciatingly shy, insanely insecure and overly sensitive are all descriptions that are a shade too mild for the young Paula. Together, these qualities led to a twitchy and anxious adult. Each time this podgy teenager fell over nothing in a playground or failed to make the grade in another basic sport, there was someone around to witness the misfortune and remind me how pathetic I was becoming. And, after a while, it stuck.
I suddenly developed a range of weird and not-so-wonderful twitches: I now blink so much I need pebbles in my pockets to prevent me taking off, my limbs stiffen to the consistency of four-day-old porridge at the first sign of stress, and, worst of all, every crack in my abilities becomes a chasm of self-doubt into which I can’t help but tumble. And while I’ve never managed to escape them – even with the input of doctors, herbal remedies and a well-meaning hypnotherapist – somehow, over time, I’ve learned to accept these eccentricities and build a solid, positive outlook on top of them. So it came as a horrible shock on Saturday when they resurfaced wearing an evil smile and a party hat.
The Tryst Sports Centre, where my lessons take place, is never particularly quiet; there are always tennis matches or fellow shuttlecock shufflers around. Unfortunately though, this was the day when everyone in North Lanarkshire decided to take up sport – and this little fish-out-of-water was stuck in the middle of the resulting circus. I hadn’t suffered a busy gym hall since school and, as the watching-eye count rose and the noise levels swelled, my world started to swim in a distorted soup of smirking mouths and garbled comments. The air became too thick to breathe and every new sound pulled me in its direction until distraction was the only constant on which I could focus.
I flipped into defensive mode, meaning that trying became just a preamble to failing and, the less I was willing to try, the more attention I drew to myself from my poor teacher, Michael, and anyone close enough to witness my discomfort. Rationally, I knew that no-one cared what this trembling moron was doing. I’m an adult, for the love of goodness, no-one is plotting to stick pasta to my pony-tail or throw shot putts at my head anymore, but at the time, on that lonely spot, I was a foot shorter, surrounded by my peers, and without a note to excuse me from the terror that crushed my confidence.
I left the court – and the bewildered Michael – in a pathetic mess of tears and perspiration. The inevitable disappointment at my giving in appeared almost immediately and I spent the rest of the weekend in a self-inflicted funk, wondering how I could allow myself to fall back into old and destructive patterns.
So, you see, this is why my challenge isn’t just about a woman trying out a few new sports for a jolly; it’s also about a girl trying to overcome a history of harassment and an addiction to believing the worst of herself, to prove that anxiety is not a life sentence and to see if sport really can change a life.