How WhirlyBall Triggered my Middle School Sports PTSD

As I’ve written before, sports has never been my thing. Team sports, especially. But as an adult, I did something to conquer that fear: I stopped playing them! It wasn’t until I was training at Second City that I learned the metaphor of team sports (situations where other people rely on you for success) in a way that was meaningful to me. I thought it had demystified it for me. Performing improv was much higher pressure than playing sports…right?

But it all came crashing back into my bobbling head as I thrashed around in my bumper car. The stale stench of the locker room. The seizing fear of being yelled at by other boys, telling me to do something or other that I didn’t fully understand. My 6th grade basketball coach Mr. Erickson wrapped the last two inches of his thick white tube sucks under his toes before ramming them into his shiny white sneakers, causing me to wiggle my toes at the claustrophobic thought.

WhirlyBall is game played between two teams of five, each in a bumper car with a webbed scoop used to carry, pick up and throw a whiffle ball to one another or at the goal. The carts are small and restricting for a 6’3″ person. And the only place for my foot to rest was on the gas pedal at full throttle–which isn’t that fast. Stopping required taking your foot off the pedal which almost always caused a cramp in my foot.

One of the teams at work recently had an after-work happy hour at WhirlyBall. I’d planned dozens of them over the years, but never attended. But after being invited this time, something inside wouldn’t let me hesitate. I was in! I really liked the group who invited me, and this version of Ron never misses an opportunity to connect with coworkers outside of work.

We had our own private lounge which was attached to the enclosed WhirlyBall court. Five red carts lined up in chevron facing five black carts in the same formation. The team was eager to get out and start playing immediately, so I agreed to play so we could begin having fun! That’s what was next, right? Having fun?

That’s when it happened. The constant shouting “I’m open! I’m open” and the unending frenzy of activity brought the memories I described above crashing to mind. And by the way, it wasn’t just the people on my team yelling “I’m open” so I hurled the hollow ball across the court many times…to the wrong team! Who knew such treachery awaited me at a “friendly” game of WhirlyBall. (Is there such a thing?!)

I made the first goal for my team in that first game, and that was it. I zig zagged and figured eighted my way around the court for the rest of the interminable 90 minute game (which may have actually been more like 8 minutes, but time seemed to come to a stand still on the WhirlyBall court.) Though my team narrowly lost the first game, I won every single one of the rest of them by sitting in the attached lounge with an-always-full-glass of pinot and a plate piled with damn fine chicken wings—and ever better conversation with the gang in attendance.

“Ron, let’s go! We need another player?” someone yelled with great intensity from the door of the court.

“Are you crazy? I’ve been drinking! I do not drink and drive.”

I may be a terrible WhirlyBall player, but I am a very responsible driver!

Also published on Medium.



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