In my last post I talked about commitment…this one is about acceptance and belonging.
I think we all want to feel part of something, feel accepted and be welcomed by others. I don’t think that I really understood how feeling like part of a sports team would fill that need that we all have. This should not have surprised me as I remember the amazing experience that I had as part of the Residence Life Staff at the University of Guelph where my teammates then, remain some of my closest friends. We will always have a bond based on our shared experience. I suspect this is very much the same as being part of an athletic team. I know that lifelong friendships are created. You just had to watch the interaction of the 1960 Ryerson Men’s Hockey Team at their induction in the Ryerson Athletics Hall of Fame to see the connections created by shared experience, shared work, shared goals and shared success.
When I joined the women’s basketball team I am not sure that the students or some of the coaching staff, who were not aware of my project, knew what to make of me or my plan to spend the year with them. They were friendly and pleasant but I am not sure they understood that I really was going to be with them for all their activities. One of the challenges about joining a team of varsity basketball players who are students between 18 and 25, when you are a 53 year old senior administrator at the institution, is “fitting in”. I can’t play basketball and I am not “one of them”. All I can do is show that I am there, that I am making the same time commitments and am willing to put my position and privilege that my position allows aside to understand their experience. I want them to see me as one of the team to the extant that that is possible. I will fill water bottles, move spin bikes in and out of the gym, take stats, do weight training exercises as assigned, wear the RAMS gear provided, be on time for 6 am practice, etc. The rest is up to them. They accept me, or they don’t.
All of this has required some vulnerability on my part. I have put myself in a world that is new to me doing something that I don’t do well. As author Brené Brown says, “Most people believe that vulnerability is weakness. But really vulnerability is courage. We must ask ourselves…are we willing to show up and be seen?” I needed to show up and be seen. If I showed up periodically in my work clothing, sat on the sidelines just watching or taking notes I would not have been showing myself to them and could not really expect them to show themselves to me. I also don’t think I would have seen some of the evidence that the team was getting used to me being there or would not have seen signs of being included or accepted.
I have been surprised by my own emotional reaction to things that my teammates or the coaching staff have done to make me feel like I belong. I have been touched, overwhelmed, embarrassed, excited, afraid, and really happy. Not everyone sees these emotional reactions on the surface but they are absolutely there and being felt deeply. Here are some examples of the little things that have made me start to feel like I have been accepted into this new world.
I know that I mentioned this is a previous post but the nickname tweet was the beginning of my feelings of belonging with this team. At one practice the coach asked me to participate in a drill by passing the ball when the player called out to me that they were ready to receive the ball. I would hear “Heather, here” and pass the ball. I did this over and over throughout the drill. After practice I was told by a second year player Katherine (known to everyone as Kat) that my two syllable name needed to be shortened in order for it to be easier to say quickly. On the team now, Katherine is Kat, Mariah is Mer, Ciara is C, Savanna is Sav, Sofia is Sof, and so on. I told her that my best friend calls me Heth and she sent the following tweet. She included #partoftheteamnow. It made me really happy.
In late September the women’s basketball team room or “locker room” was fully set up with names and numbers assigned to lockers, and delivery of all the team gear. My university one card was programmed giving me access to the team room and there I found my locker, number and gear. This also made me happy. It was a sign that the team understood I was there and going to be there for the whole season. I have a space, a number and gear like the other players. The physical evidence of acceptance can have a great deal of power and meaning in creating the feeling of belonging.
I had an experience last week that also speaks to my feelings of comfort with, and acceptance by the team. What happened was a surprise to me and I am sure to them. I had been dealing with a very challenging and tragic loss on our campus that affected many students, staff and faculty. I did what I always do in the face of crisis, attempted to stay strong, offered support and help in any way that I could to whoever I could, tried be there for people, looked after small details, logistics, communication, etc. I don’t have all the answers and don’t always get things right but I was working hard to try to make this tragic event easier for everyone else to manage by offering as much assistance and support as I and my team could. I was clearly not looking after my own needs and was unbelievably exhausted but still trying to keep up as many of my commitments to the team as possible. At 6 am. practice on Wednesday I was especially tired and was thinking about how I was going to muster the energy for the next morning when we would be doing hills at 7 am. Just then, in the team circle, Coach Clark announced that 7 am. hills were cancelled. I gasped and was so overwhelmed with a sense of relief that I started to cry. Right there with the whole team and coaching staff looking at me – tears running down my face, no ability to stop them, most of the players laughing at my reaction because it was so unexpected. I had finally let the cracks created by the experience of the previous week become visible. I was surprised by my tears but did not really feel embarrassed because I was with people who accepted and supported me. Coach Clark’s tweet later in the day just confirmed that showing vulnerability was completely acceptable on her team.
One last story. The Women’s basketball team has a mascot named Rafiki. Rafiki is a Ram puppet and is given to a team member at the end of each practice by the team member who received Rafiki previously. Rafiki is presented to a teammate who did something good – overcame an obstacle, did something to improve personally or move the team forward, showed skill development, support for a team goal, or modeled great performance for others. The passing of Rafiki at the end of every practice is one of my favourite parts of the closing team circle. It is a daily opportunity for one person to acknowledge, recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of another person. Wouldn’t it be great if this were a regular activity in our families and in our workplace. At the end of the last practice before Thanksgiving weekend, Keneca, who had received Rafiki the day before, was asked to pass Rafiki on to someone she wanted to recognize. She gave Rafiki to me.
The day before at team training they were required to do some footwork exercises on the fitness ladder. It is a ladder that is laid on the floor and you step in and out of the squares in different formations as quickly as possible. I backed away and said that I could not do it and did not want to slow the team down. They all encouraged me to try and not to worry if I was slow. I did all the exercises much more slowly and with much less finesse than the team but I did them. Keneca gave me Rafiki for trying and for “killing it”.
I have been accepted. I belong.
This matters not just for the healthy functioning of a team but for all of us in every experience we have in life. As Maya Angelou said, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself”.
I have been accepted. I belong. I am beginning to feel at home in the gym, with a basketball in my hand, and when I am with this team. I am grateful to them for this.