The wrench of the bench

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2011, 12:00am


As an athlete I have always played for the love of the game - a pure, simple and passionate love for sport. I trained six days a week for over 10 years with Singapore's national netball team, including every Friday night and Saturday morning. I missed family holidays, weddings and birthday dinners, including my own.

Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Dan Gable once said: 'Gold medals aren't really made of gold. They're made of sweat and determination and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.' I'm proud of my country and team, and though we might never win the World Championships or Commonwealth Games, it can never be said to be due to a lack of sweat, determination or guts.

In fact, like many of my teammates, there are few things in my life that I have approached with as much of these things. I dedicated not only time, but also all my heart and my soul to netball. Successes and failures on court were therefore hugely significant to me, and I would never go down without a fight.

Over the years, I learned the importance of teamwork, how to perform under pressure and how to break through physical pain and personal boundaries. I understood the game, its strategies and how to conduct myself as a gracious winner or loser. I was - or so I believed - a mature, well-rounded athlete.

In my 10th year as a national netball player, however, I would face my first real emotional challenge, one which proved to be my Achilles' heel.

Singapore hosted the Five Nations Cup, one of the most anticipated competitions of the year, in September 2007. By international standards, it was a relatively insignificant competition, but it was important to us as it was the last major event before the World Championships that year. My friends, family and colleagues came down to lend their support over the six-day tournament.

As it turned out, I was benched for the first time for a critical game on home ground.

Over the years, I had been sidelined a few times, including once when I tore my ankle ligaments falling down a flight of stairs. This time, physically, mentally and emotionally, I was more than ready to take to the court, but completely unprepared to take the bench.

Over the course of the competition, I was forced for the first time to grapple with feelings of extreme disappointment, insecurity and shame in my new position as a reserve player. Unlike other teammates sidelined by injury, I had no shield, badge of honour or point of sympathy to hide behind. I also had not built up the emotional tenacity to conduct myself with the grace and humility of a respectable athlete.

I felt frustrated and helpless as I faced the reality that maybe my best was no longer good enough. I also feared that I had let down my friends and family, and was ashamed that my new colleagues might assume I was 'just' a reserve player. The emotional challenge I faced at the time was heartbreaking, and the learning curve gut-wrenchingly steep.

One night, while confiding in a teammate about my disappointment and frustration, my coach walked into the room. Caught off guard and vulnerable, I broke down when asked what was wrong. I hated myself for it afterwards; being sidelined was no excuse to be weak or a burden to the team. There are only a few allowances I give myself as an athlete, and crying because I was benched is not one. For the rest of that competition, I kept my emotions in check, and focused on supporting my teammates.

We walked away with the winning trophy, a bitter-sweet victory that I never truly felt I earned. My passion for the sport had taken a beating - or was it my pride? I took a break from netball after that tournament to figure out which it was.

Ironically, my time on the bench taught me more than I have ever learned in all my years as a starting player. It gave me a new level of respect for the game, and, by breaking me down, showed me where I was lacking as a player and what it takes to become a great athlete.

It's taken a while, but I have finally returned to playing netball. Recharged and refreshed, I feel at home on the courts again, and am playing as I did before, with a pure, simple and passionate love for the sport.

I have yet to face my next major test of character as an athlete, but should it come in the form of time on the bench, I will welcome the challenge. After all, some of life's most valuable lessons aren't necessarily learned in the thick of the action, but in the solitude of the sidelines.

Zhang Tingjun is a freelance emcee, motivational speaker and co-founder of The Chain Reaction Project.