I return to a relatively empty house, with bare walls, minimal furniture and a mostly desolate fridge. All the signs of a cemented, typical life; the touches of home are non-existent. It’s as if I’ve returned from an alternate reality, or a second life that I jump back and forth to, between the endless flights and sleepless nights.
It’s happened a thousand times. In what seems like an all-too-common occurrence throughout the years, the messages on my phone have become a familiar constant that tethers me to this reality; “We are sorry, but you are not available enough for this to work out. We are going to have to let you go”. Sometimes a note might be on the counter that says “I’m leaving”.
The sport that I’ve committed my life to is a highly demanding one. It’s a sport that immediately limits my schedule to “Never available on weekends”, and can take up over half of a busy year. The climb to becoming a professional is a long, difficult and rather expensive task. The irony of this financially demanding sport is that it eats up far more time than the average job will give time off for. Staying a professional, while maturing into adulthood is even more difficult.
Growing up, I grinded, week in and week out. Even when it’s a holiday and all my friends are off with their families, I’ve skipped out on the festivities to train with the select few others who chose this demanding path. There always seems to be some kind of party, family occasion or event to attend in life, and they are just about always missed. The balance of a typical life is often sacrificed to keep committed to the craft, just for the chance to get there. A chance I’ve convinced myself is guaranteed in my head, but one that is truly not promised. And as the days slip away between all the training and honing of my skills I find myself asking, what is this all for?
Even when we win, it's not life changing. It doesn't give me the financial return that I sacrifice or the work and outside goals that I put off to get here. It does not bring any kind of notoriety, fame or respect in the “real world”. The fact is, no one may even care. The world doesn’t even notice when we win. This game doesn't happen under the bright Sunday lights in a packed-full stadium, or dash across the network television screens. The ones we care about often don’t even know about this game or why I do it. The most you might get is a congratulations call from grandma. The medals barely matter; we barely care more than one night ourselves! By the next weekend, that win did not matter. We are already working hard again, consumed by the thought of chasing the next one, and that next fleeting feeling.
I have oftentimes found myself spacing out during a typically fun occasion with friends and family. I have trouble remaining present in “real life”. It’s not the fault of the people or situation, as it usually isn’t even boring. The same words float around me, almost haunting my distracted mind as I think about training this week. “Are you even listening?" "This is important!” Whoops, sorry, I imagine I should be more vested in this decision about family, financial or planning affairs. Yet my mind is elsewhere, thinking about the next point, the anticipation, the cunning, the challenge, the opponent, the ultimate test.
Why do I play the game of paintball and think about it so so much? Why, knowing that it is not going to lead to a big break like many other professional sports? Why do I still invest that amount of time and energy into it? How did this game utterly consume all my attention, ambitions, and motivations?
There are a few different kinds of people in this sport. The mass majority play paintball, like most other sports, for fun and entertainment. It’s a hobby, just another part of their life with no particular importance. The next type of person is the one who loves it for the comradery. A wise mentor always tells me that most of the people around me at these tournaments are only here because of that sense of brotherhood and teamwork that they would have lost a way to keep after high school. The next type is the mercenary, they are talented enough that they stick with the sport and gain financial benefit from it. However as soon as the free ride or the money stops, they usually disappear off to the next avenue of personal benefit.
That brings us to the last and rarest type of player in this sport; the warrior. There are warriors in every competitive avenue of life. These are the people that are committed to their craft over everything else, for the sake of doing it. It’s in their blood. It’s as critical to their life and soul as much to them as it is to breathe. To the Warrior, the medals, accolades, and trophies don’t matter. It is not the prize that a warrior seeks. The fame, validation or praise of the masses means nothing to them. It didn’t matter if the grand stands were packed full or if no one was there at all, the warrior is not trying to claim victory for anyone else.
Each and every human being at their most basic level is just another mammal. A mammal is an animal that follows the rules of nature; it has core instincts, needs and urges. An animal does not just eat and breed, it also, by nature, competes and fights for survival. There is no need to use most of these animal characteristics, and so they are suppressed. An average person is content and quite happy living the simple life, having a family and spending their time leisurely. The average paintball player is like this. They’ll pursue the sport with minimal effort and be happy wherever they end up.
The Warrior however, acknowledges those primitive instincts. They understand that deep down inside them is a calculated and vicious animal that wants to stalk, challenge, compete, dominate, and win. That animalistic drive doesn’t have an end game or reach a time when it’s content. No reward can satisfy that drive, and the warrior will conquer just for the sake of conquest.
Of course we live in a civilized society. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very peaceful and kind person in everyday life. I wish no real harm on anyone, and I stand on similar principles of trying to enforce a life like that around me. But there is a warrior within me, and burying it is ignoring a part of me.
Professional paintball is like the punching bag that allows me to get that out of me. In those nets, I can unleash the animal inside of me that wants to take down opponents and become the king of this jungle. I get to uncage the apex predator that kills and eats because nature tells it to. It’s not because of what I make, it's not because anyone is watching, and it’s not because of vengeance. It is simply because I want to be the best, I want to defeat all the obstacles in my path, over and over and over. Every event. Every weekend. It is because of the discipline and the self improvement that it brings, what it does to satisfy the hunger. This is not easy, there are no easy opponents. In fact they are the very best, and that is all that I could hope for. Any true warrior does not long for the easy fight.
I once took a month away from this sport to try and experience other ventures, try other hobbies; a void formed. I’ve worked a stable desk job, with great pay and benefits, near a beautiful beach; an emptiness consumed. I've had everything I have always been told to desire in a normal life, but it felt like trading part of my soul and purpose away. So we return again to wondering, "Why?" For once, the answer becomes resolute and visceral. Maybe I’m lucky, maybe it’s a good thing that this happiness can be so simple. A devotion to paintball gives the warrior within me fulfilment.
Written by Joe Barrett, Edited by Quinn Nadu.
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