One piece of advice I was given when I started my PhD was to keep up with some form of regular exercise, preferably a team sport as that would also be a social activity to balance the monastic isolation of research. I was never the sporty type in school, nor was I particularly athletic during my first two degrees. It was by an odd series of recommendations by some friends that I stumbled into korfball — a Dutch, mixed-sex, controlled-contact, indoor ball sport — and again it was because of the friends I made there very quickly that I carried on with it beyond Freshers’ Week. Taking up korfball has made a significant impact on my degree, sometimes to the point of distraction, often to the point where I alienate non-korfball people I know, but generally in ways that have been quite positive and helpful.
The University of Warwick PhD Life blog recently featured a post by Gabriel García Ochoa on how jogging helped him cope with the anxiety of writing. For me, unfortunately, running proved to be a further source of frustration: twice, I tried to train for a half marathon, only to injure my knee, rendering me unable to run for months. Every time, I had to build my fitness up from scratch, and it felt a lot like Groundhog Day. Most of my headspace is occupied with this recurring frustration and disappointment of all my efforts proving futile again and again. Besides, the solitary nature of running makes it incredibly isolating, and it is hard to muster the motivation to brave the cold or the rain or sleet.
Taking up a team sport, however, really helped: in days or weeks when the writing and research hit walls, korfball offers me an escape from that headspace. It brings with it a sense of structure and routine, having to train three to four times a week, get out of bed at 6 am on Mondays for morning training, maintaining focus on whatever it was I am doing in the moment (shooting, attacking manoeuvres, defence, refereeing, et cetera), and cultivating a sense of discipline and perseverance especially when things aren’t going my way. It also helps that it’s an indoor sport, and I don’t need to face the cold of the Scottish winter head on. But most importantly, it involves other people: I made friends through korfball. I dinnae dare flake out of training as I’d feel I’d let my team down. Other people were looking out for me, and would notice if I dinnae turn up. And other people believed in me as part of the squad. At a time when my own academic work seems to have fallen into a tailspin and the atmosphere in the PhD office can get alienating and oppressive, it is nice to have a space where I can get away from all that and focus on a different kind of labour. And it is even more valuable that I can bring to my academic work all these things that I gain from korfball like discipline or commitment.
One thing that is especially remarkable about korfball is that it is a mixed-sex team sport where male and female players play as equals. At a time when gender disparity and institutionalised sexism in sport, society and academia have become unavoidable and pressing issues, playing a sport like korfball — a putative model for a gender-equal space in sport — draws attention to these issues and provokes a conversation on possible ways forward.
There are, however, caveats to this: as helpful as korfball has been, I feel like it runs the risk of taking over my life. I train with two clubs because I love playing the sport so much. At times when everything else seems to be stalling, it is rather tempting to over-invest my time and effort in something that seems to offer more immediate enjoyment, often at the cost of more important priorities. I know I certainly talk about korfball far too much, often to the frustration of everyone around me. And there are times when even korfball can get frustrating for the lack of progress I make when it comes to my own skills despite all the hours I put in to training. It doesn’t help either that the university’s third team always has teething troubles and loses more games in the first half of the season than it wins. And every year, it’s Groundhog Day all over again. But I guess that’s the point, though: turning up despite the frustration.
There are things that I’ve learnt through korfball that have helped me get through the more difficult days of research and writing. It has certainly kept me more fit and active as I would have been, and I have never enjoyed playing a sport nearly as much. I feel like if I hadn’t taken it up, the PhD would be even more of a struggle. So far, it has proven a great deal of fun despite its occasional frustrations. And even if it has been a bit of a distraction, I guess at the very least distraction is better than distress.
Acknowledgements: My sincerest thanks to all team mates over the last two years from the EUKC Sharks and Raptors, as well as all my friends from the Edinburgh University and Edinburgh City korfball clubs, and especially the stellar coaches I’ve had the delight to train with for making korfball so easy to love.