My experience with partiality in school sports

When I was about 12 years old, I was in school in Mumbai. At the school, I was in the Basketball team. I started playing the sport without any special reason; it was something to do. As I played the sport, I discovered that I was particularly good at some of the defensive positions (mainly because I was able to run faster than everyone else who was at the same school in my age group: an exceedingly small sample). This discovery was a revelation to me. I believed that the connection between “skill” and “success” was real: I believed that my coach would see that I had talent and pick me to play in regional matches. This didn’t happen; in fact, I remember being picked only once during my 5 years on the team. This is not a sob story. I wish I did feel bad about it, I wish I felt like I had been wronged, so that I could talk about recovering from that place. I don’t feel like that at all; I look back at that phase of my life as an amusing few years. This post is an exploration of my feelings about what happened then and how I make sense of it now.

In my school, there was a pecking order, like in every school and institution out there. In my basketball team, seniority was everything. The earlier you started practicing with the team, the better your chances of getting the coach’s attention. There were about 20 people who would attend most practices and were dedicated to the sport. In any basketball game, 5 people play on the court at any given time. Frequent substitutions were common for our team, and in actual matches which we played against other schools from the same city / district / state, the coach decided what substitutions to make. So, at the top of the pecking order, was the basketball coach, below it were some of the people who were in the “Under 16 (U-16)” age group and had been practicing for several years, then there were some of the junior people, like me, who had been a part of the team for only a couple years at that point, and finally, some people who had just joined the team and would likely drop out after a few weeks.

The practice schedule was relaxed. We practiced for about an hour each day. There were most of the typical parts of any basketball team’s practice sessions: Lay-ups, running, mock matches, three-point shoots and free-throw practice. The mock matches were the most exciting. I lived for those; they gave me the adrenaline rush that I craved: A real match, with a clock and real opponents (even if they were pretend opponents on your team).

Some of this was great fun. It was the first time I had friendships with people who were older than me, who had more “life experience” (whatever that means for a 12 year old). I remember one particular occasion when it was raining heavily and I had gone to practice, arriving completely drenched, only to learn that practice had been canceled. I don’t know why this particular instance stuck with me, perhaps because of my belief that I was a diligent member of the team.

Some of it was not so much fun: I was lightly bullied by some of the older people on the team who were not very good but had stuck on simply because of their seniority and dedication. I had a few run-ins with some of the other “favored” players on the team who were good at offense and generally pissed when I played some part in making them look like a fool on the court. The adult supervision was limited and I was tiny (about 150 cms, 40 kgs). I remember only a couple instances when the altercation became physical. I wasn’t damaged in any sense due to all of this. I am certainly proud that I didn’t give in to the bullies and continued to play the best that I could on the court.

I remember distinctly the coach’s partiality when picking people to play in actual matches. It was the first time I had run into anything of this sort. I was good at studies and that generally meant favorable attention from my teachers, and consequently, favorable outcomes when there were selections for things like the regional Mathematics Olympiad.

My run-ins with partiality were frustrating and I felt helpless. Several years later, I still remember this feeling well: Being convinced that the coach was making the wrong move when he picked someone to play, certain that I could do a better job. When we went to other schools to play in regional matches, the coach would pick the same people over-and-over, irrespective of how dismal their performance in the previous week/day/match.

This behavior was inexplicable; maybe he was just incompetent; maybe he chose the same people over-and-over because he believed that they gave him the best chance at winning; or maybe, he was in denial, convinced that his judgment was flawless despite all evidence to the contrary. At school, we called this kind of bias partiality. I have heard about similar experiences from most of my friends who went to school in India. I hear about this from my younger cousins who are in school now. We would talk about partiality when people were selected to be a part of the school’s quiz team, or to go to another city to participate in a debate. This list is endless. When I asked my parents why this kind of thing happened, they would tell me about the oft-repeated tenet: Life isn’t fair; that’s life. I accepted this principle, and embraced it, without knowing how to deal with the fallout.

We didn’t win many matches. The one time that I played in an actual match, I must have been on the court for about 10 minutes of the total 40 minutes, I don’t remember accomplishing anything match-changing. We lost that one too. Two things stood out, about this particular loss.

First, I wasn’t jubilant that I had been picked to play; I didn’t even tell my parents that I had been on the court, it felt like a trivial detail.(My parents suspected that I rarely got picked. They were content to know that I had had a good trip and didn’t press me for details. I am eternally grateful to them for that. I don’t think it would have done me any good if I had provided them the details, or if they had tried to console me, or asked the coach to pick me more often).

Second, that loss didn’t hit me any harder than the ones that I had watched from the sidelines. Every loss felt the same irrespective of whether I had been on the court. I was not able to write off the other losses as something I didn’t have much to do with, nor did I feel more responsible for the loss, when I was the one on the court. It was always a strange experience to get back on the bus and travel back to our school. Everyone was mostly sad about the match, but we were also happy about getting to go somewhere, experience the world alone, almost like adults (Turns out Michael Scott was right about bittersweet experiences).

This visceral experience with bias at a young age jaded me, I think. I found it easier to shrug off future losses and failures as just unfortunate strokes of luck. Today, looking back, I can see that I forged the path to where I am. I also like to think that I have tried my best to prevent and be aware of bias in my dealings with others.

P.S. I am writing about this after about a decade and if any of the “romanticizing the past instinctively” business is true, then the “good” parts that I talked about were decidedly worse than I portrayed them.