Dodgeball: An extreme second chance at childhood

Or, what it feels like to be hit in the face with a rubber ball.

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A man in his mid-20s dressed as a Power Ranger leaps into the air, arms stretched, poised to catch the squishy rubber ball.

In one moment, he moves with the grace of a dancer, long limbs creating elegant lines midair. In the next, he misses the catch and cops it squarely in the crotch. He tumbles onto the gym floor, rolling over once or twice before getting onto his hands and knees. He holds the position for a few moments as if to assess if any damage has been done. Everything is still there. He's OK. The Ranger gets back up. Around him rubber balls fly through the air — some slow enough they can be easily caught, others so hard and fast that, when they hit the back wall, they sound like small explosions.

This is the World Dodgeball Society, where adults voluntarily opt in to play a sport that has long been associated with schoolyard bullying and pain — served via thick rubber balls. The scene is chaotic; the cracks and pops and small explosions echoing throughout the gym are terrifying, and it's only a matter of time before there's another crotch casualty. But unlike a schoolyard game of dodgeball, no one looks afraid. In fact, everyone seems to love it — even the Power Ranger.

The players range in age from their early 20s to 40s and are all of different backgrounds and levels of athleticism. Some are cheery and animated. Others are a little more intense. And in the midst of it all, I'm standing by the entrance to the gym with my name on the sign-up sheet, my feet in orthopedic running shoes, my heart full of fear.

For grown-up kids

Most people familiar with dodgeball either first encountered it during elementary school when teachers unleashed students on each other with balls, or when they saw the 2004 Rawson Marshall Thurber film DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Adult dodgeball — the kind played in leagues and competitive tournaments around the world — is a different beast, but it shares similarities to both the schoolyard version and the sport depicted in the film.

Teams in numbers ranging from six to 20 players (depending on the league) take either side of the court. A line is drawn down the middle that neither can cross. Anywhere from three to six balls are placed on the center line. When the referee blows the whistle, both teams make a dash for the balls, take as many as they can, and throw them at the opponent. Hitting an opponent takes them out of the game. Catching a ball eliminates the thrower and brings one of your own teammates back into the game. The team with the last person standing wins.

Unlike the Thurber film, there's a distinct lack of menacing taunts à la Ben Stiller's mustachioed White Goodman character. Instead, it's a group of enthusiastic players, some in costumes and tutus and others in pajamas and gym gear.

"Yes, we're playing a child's sport as adults," says the World Dodgeball Society's director of operations Sum-Sum Chan. Chan is a marketing consultant from Los Angeles. She admits that during her first year playing with the World Dodgeball Society, she was scared. Her earlier experiences with the game were in fourth grade when students threw rubber playground balls intended for kickball at each other. They were the size of basketballs and about as hard. Getting hit was painful. The boys would target the girls (as is their wont), the athletic kids would target the scrawny kids and, while Chan was good at dodging, it didn't help her win. Nor did it make the game less intimidating. In some American schools, dodgeball was outright banned due to fear of injuries.

But there's something different about adults playing a kids' game, she says. For most players, dodgeball exists in a time capsule. Few people kept playing after middle school. So when they revisit the game as adults, it's almost a second crack at being a child — now with the benefit of a grown-up's mind and body. The rules of the game might be the same, but the players and their purpose aren't: They're not here to bully or intimidate. They're here to socialize and make friends.

The other difference is there's a level playing field, according to the World Dodgeball Society's founder Michael Costanza. Costanza started the organization 11 years ago in Los Angeles before Thurber's film was released. (Costanza helped train the cast of the film — apparently, Ben Stiller is much more athletic than Vince Vaughn.) He believes he honed his dodgeball skills when he was 12 and, like most children who played the game, "maxed out" about the same time. He kept playing as a summer camp counselor, but after he stopped working at summer camp, he didn't play for some 10 years.

"Nobody really graduated from dodgeball," Costanza says. "Fifth grade was pretty much the high point of someone's dodgeball career, so a lot of things had changed since they last played. Puberty happened. A lot of people found their bodies or their rhythm." So when adults sign up for dodgeball, it doesn't matter if they were amazing players as children, Costanza says. So much about them has changed that it may as well be their first time playing.

"I wanted there to be something a little more fun and light-hearted and, not to bash on sports, but a lot of people played various sports well into their adult lives, so they have all those years of expertise," he says. "So say you'd never played hockey before — if you were to come out as an adult, the learning curve would be so steep. But it's not like that with dodgeball. I always say if you're a good-to-crappy dancer, it often translates into good dodging. So if you can just get into the groove, that often works to your advantage."

I'd played a lighter version of the game called Poison Ball as a child. It involved rolling the ball underarm — if the ball made contact with a player, they were out. It was harmless. I was utter rubbish at it. Now I had a chance to revisit a childhood memory and, as an adult, maybe I'd be good at it. Since, in the intervening years, I'd figured out that bowl cuts were a terrible idea, maybe I'd also figured out dodgeball without ever playing.

Dodgeball "Fifth grade was pretty much the high point of someone's dodgeball career." Dodgeball
Dodgeball "It used to be known as Murder Ball back in school." Dodgeball

All about balls

The first time you get hit in the face in dodgeball is memorable. You become dizzy and disoriented. Your eyes water so much you look like you're bawling, but you're definitely not crying. It's purely a physical reaction. Your face isn't sure if it's stinging or numb. You're certain something is broken. You clumsily put your hands to your nose, your forehead, your cheeks and your chin just to make sure they're all there. You check for blood. You're mostly OK.

This was my introduction to the sport.

In the World Dodgeball Society, and in most leagues around the world, head shots don't count as hits. The thrower has to give the unfortunate face catcher a hug to apologize, and the teary, numb-faced soul gets to stay in the game. But I took to the sidelines after I got hit to recover — my eyes watered so much I could barely see, let alone avoid another attempted hit. I was lucky, I was told. This league uses soft rubber balls. Had they used playground kickballs, I'd probably have a black eye and a broken nose.

The hardness of a ball may seem like a minor detail, but every league manager I spoke to said it makes all the difference between a sport that people want to be part of and a sport that people fear. At its core, dodgeball is, after all, about getting hit with a ball. Different leagues around the world use different kinds of balls and, with the exception of a few groups in America, most have abandoned the schoolyard rubber balls. Some leagues use cloth-covered balls, which are meant to hurt less, but only just so much. Then there are leagues in Hong Kong and Canada that use foam balls.

"The rubber balls were causing too many injuries, and we couldn't hold the balls properly," says Brian Li, who runs the Hong Kong Dodgeball Association and plays on the Hong Kong national team. "There were a lot of finger injuries. The rubber balls were slower, but when they hit you it hurt a lot more."

Players were afraid to get hit because it would hurt. Players were afraid to catch because it would hurt. Some players were even afraid to throw because they didn't want to hurt someone else. So the Hong Kong league spent two years buying and testing foam balls from various manufacturers to find one that had the best speed and accuracy while causing the least amount of damage. They bought radar guns to measure the speed at which the balls travelled. Li himself volunteered to be a test dummy. Each test session, he stood at the center of the gym while league members pelted balls at him. If it hurt, it was out. If the ball lost too much speed after 30-40 feet, it was out. If it spun off in the wrong direction, it was also out. The Hong Kong league ended up investing in seven-inch foam balls weighing a quarter of a pound. They flew fast, achieving speeds of 70 mph. They didn't hurt on contact and they achieved the greatest accuracy.

The Vancouver leagues adopted similar foam balls to the Hong Kong leagues, allowing players to throw hard and fast without causing injury. In videos of play-offs, the balls still create loud cracking noises when they come in contact with human skin, but no one seems hurt or fazed. When you take away fear, that's when players really shine.

Keith Bao is the executive director of the International Dodgeball Association, which is based in Vancouver. He says that, by changing the kind of balls used, the association has been able to take an aggressive sport and turn it into something accessible. "It used to be known as Murder Ball back in school," he says. "People would have their teeth knocked out and get bloody noses. So we took an aggressive game and structured it so it was of spirit, so anybody and everybody could play."

Half-assed blue

My team casually decided we should wear blue. We figured it was a good show of solidarity. We'd debated wearing neckties, but that was a strangulation accident waiting to happen. Someone mentioned pajamas, but that seemed like too much effort. No one objected to the blue t-shirts. Most of us didn't know each other before we signed up for dodgeball. We were a group of stragglers, brought together on the first day of the season because all the other teams were full.

We stood across the court from a team dressed in pajamas and tutus. This was a lot more intimidating than it sounds because a team in tutus was a team that had at least agreed on something. If they'd planned their outfits, maybe they'd also planned their strategy. On our side of the court, less than a third of the team was in blue, myself trying to pass off a navy hoodie as "blue enough." Waiting for the referee's whistle to start the game, some of us bent forward at the knees and hips as though to prepare for a catch, while others awkwardly held the Olympic runners stance, readying themselves to make a run for the balls.

I was poised to flee.

Our mismatched uniforms aside, we looked like a team that was secretly good at dodgeball. The league managers had told me that it doesn't take a lot of power to throw the ball — it takes finesse. Conventionally athletic and strong players had been known to be at a disadvantage because a strong throw is a predictable throw. If a player's feet are firmly planted to the ground and their body is twisted back in preparation for a hard throw, they can't react fast enough to oncoming balls. So while few people on my team looked like conventional athletes, we had the element of mystery on our side.

"The interesting thing is we used to categorize really great dodgeball players as being the skinny, lanky kid, because they actually have a lot of torque," Chan says. "The type of game we play seems to lend itself to a lot of nerds and miscreants and people who weren't necessarily athletic when they were younger."

Until the whistle was blown and we had to start playing, no one knew we had no idea what we were doing.

A high-pitched squeak resonated through the gym, and before I could take flight, runners from both teams made a dash for the balls on the center line, grabbed what they could and ran toward the back of the court. Everyone was moving, either ready to run or dodge or catch or throw. Some gently bounced on the spot from foot to foot as though skipping on hot coals. My team started throwing as hard and as fast and they could, mostly hitting the back wall or the floor. The court was a war zone. Six balls flew through the air as twenty bodies on either side scattered and ducked and dodged and swerved. My teammates and I kept getting in each others' way. Sometimes we'd go after the same ball and come to an abrupt halt to avoid colliding into each other.

Meanwhile, we were being picked off like flies. A short and agile man who wore a very stiff-looking cap commanded the other team, calling out plays and counting "three-two-one!" to get his team to throw at the same time (I would later learn that the stiff cap was a defensive measure against being hit in the face. "You should consider it," I was told).

The opposing team was by no means more athletic than we were, nor were they lankier, skinnier or floppier. But within minutes, it was clear that we didn't stand a chance.

"A great dodgeball player is a strategic dodgeball player," says Bao. "They're able to understand their role on the team, and that no one person can win on their own. They're watching out for their teammates. Individual skill is important, but you need to be a great teammate to win — that's been proven every time in our play-offs. It's not the fastest thrower or the most athletic team that wins. It's the one that works the best together."

I didn't know my position on the team. I wasn't sure if we even had positions. We moved like confused ants. We spent more time watching out for balls than we did each other. Over the course of the evening, we lost most of our matches and fluked a victory or two. It was a surprise to our opponents as much as it was to us. We went our separate ways that night feeling rather sore. The next day, we started an email thread. It was time to get serious.

Clint-picture-6"It's not the fastest thrower or the most athletic team that wins. It's the one that works the best together." Dodgeball
Dodgeball "The smaller surface area you have to hit, the better." Dodgeball

Hardcore strategy

First, based on what we'd seen the winning teams from the previous week do, we would throw together. If we had one player throwing one ball at one person, we were likely to miss. We'd spent most of our first week missing our targets, so that strategy, if you could call it that, had to change.

Second, we would try to try pick off the opponent's best players one at a time. It would be like chess — go straight for the king and queen. Without the team captains, the opponents would be (by our hypothesis) like headless chickens.

Third, ball control. We had to make sure we were never without balls. The plan didn't detail how we would achieve this ("We can figure that out later").

This week we were up against a team in mismatched costumes. We felt good in blue. The referee blew the whistle, our runners made a dash for the balls and we put our plan into action. Everyone on the team who had a ball locked eyes, pointed to a corner and threw in unison. We went after the best players on the other team. The opponent's numbers dwindled while most of our players remained on the court. I had gotten out earlier — ball to the groin. We won. We never figured out ball control.

Our victory came due to our use of a very basic dodgeball strategy. We later learned our opponent was an inexperienced team and, against a more advanced team, we would have had to be even more tactical. According to Costanza, the best teams know where their teammates are, where the opponents are, and have an awareness of where the balls are. Some teams also play with geometry in mind.

If players stand in the middle of the court, they can be hit from both sides and straight on, he says. But if they move to a corner, they can use the sidelines as a defense and limit the directions from which the other team can attack. A teammate can then defend from the other side and, if the player has a ball, both players have a front-on defense. "It's basically using geometry for something other than mini golf," he says.

Mind games are also popular. It's not uncommon to see a player look in one direction and throw in another. The week after our first victory, the opponent's mind games caught my team off guard and we, once again, were picked off like flies.

Through observing other teams, we'd pick up our own defensive strategies. First, the group email read, don't run. If you run, you have to calculate your speed in addition to the ball's speed — there are too many variables to consider. Second, use the ball as a blocker. If you have a ball in your hand, use it to block oncoming balls. And third, make yourself as small as possible. "The smaller surface area you have to hit, the better," Chan says.

As the weeks progressed, I saw teams with players who often stood completely still, kept low and had their limbs firmly pressed against their bodies. In one match, the last woman left on the other team curled into a ball on the floor like a turtle and held a ball in front of her face to block. She looked ridiculous. But man, she was impossible to hit. After we threw all our balls at her, she had ball control. She proceeded to pick us off one by one.

Shine or smile

The number of league members around the world is fairly low compared to traditional sports, with even the biggest leagues boasting only a few hundred members. The biggest adult dodgeball leagues are in Los Angeles and Vancouver, with chapters scattered around the world. Smaller leagues exist across Europe, in Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

The various leagues are not unified because no one can agree on a set format. Game rules, ball types and even player intent differ from league to league. Some are in it for the fun of tutus and Power Ranger costumes while others take it more seriously. Some leagues, like those in the U.K., play with only three balls, while others around the world use six. Some leagues allow only six players on the court while others allow up to 20. Some compete internationally at organized tournaments while others remain small and local.

And that's OK, says Costanza, because dodgeball has never been about competing with other sports or growing a player base for the sake of growing a player base.

"I guess, in its essence, it's just fun for all and all for fun," he says. Dodgeball is a social event as much as it's a sporting event. It's a group of grown-ups coming together to play like children. It was never meant to be taken seriously.

"I don't think it's any less fun for me now than it was the first time I played," he says. "So I try to help other people have that experience every time I go out to play.

"In dodgeball, there's always a moment for you to shine or smile, and that's kind of cool."

And he's right. As the Power Ranger gets up off the ground, dusts himself off and leaps into the air again, everyone on the sidelines — even those with numb faces and navy blue shirts — can't help but smile. Babykayak

Dodgeball"In dodgeball, there's always a moment for you to shine or smile."