Why the Smell of Locker Rooms Trigger Panic Attacks in Musicians: An essay by Rob Morgan  

A locker room // Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A locker room // Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I’m told your sense of smell is linked more closely with your memory than any other sense, and I’ve never wished that that wasn’t true more than I do right now.

I’m sitting backstage in Yokohama, Japan, listening to the muted sounds of the opening band finish their set before we go on, and my eyes and nose are telling me two different things. Although we’re surrounded by sloppily hung curtains concealing the true identity of the room we’re currently in, I can tell by the lingering smell of dried sweat and used jockstraps, like most arenas’ makeshift band green rooms, this is normally a basketball locker room.

As I joke with my friend Jasper about the memories and crippling insecurity triggered by the smell, he laughs and tells me I’m not alone. He goes on to tell me that his lack of athleticism in junior high was finally overpowered by such a strong desire to fit in and join his friends playing sports that he actually checked out a book from his local library titled, “How To Play Football.” It might as well have been called “How To Understand Normal Body Movement” as it included an explanation of the sport on the level of a 5 year old and even included step-by-step workouts that most boys apparently learned before their parents were allowed to take them home from the maternity ward.

Apparently, just like me, the doctors must have forgotten to administer the “athletic impotence vaccine” to Jasper, and after three days of studying and a pulled muscle from sit-ups, he resolved that sports weren’t in the cards for him and replaced his football instruction manual with a subscription to Guitar Player Magazine, where the only risk of physical repercussions would be a few blisters and possibly an ingrown nail.

The fact of the matter is, I would have given anything to trade places with Jasper. As it was, my own personal defeat in the battle of proving my masculinity through organized sports as an adolescence was much more… public. I can still hear the ridicule from my teammates during my first week of practice.

“Nice pink cutoff Morgan! It’s called ‘two-a-days’ not ‘two-a-gays.’”

My parents and school advisors had thought the best way for me to assimilate back into the structure of normal society after five years of home schooling was to sign up for extracurricular activities. I’m not sure how it is now, but as a boy growing up in Nebraska in the early nineties, your masculinity and any hopes of fitting in was inadvertently tied to your participation in organized sports. So, against my better judgement, I reluctantly agreed to try out for the football team. To my horror, I found out that this meant showing up two weeks before classes started for twice-daily experimentation on the physical limits of adolescent human males with special focus on determining overall testosterone level. Or, in my case, lack thereof on all accounts. To my credit, the shirt I had (for some godforsaken reason) decided to show up wearing on the first day was more of a “salmon” than “pink,” but within 10 seconds of our first lap around the field I was too focused on not passing out to explain the subtle difference to my teammates.

What followed was a two-week-long confirmation of what I’m sure the coaches knew instantly while watching my duck-footed prance of an attempt to run around the field during “conditioning.” Looking back, the only thing sports “conditioned” within me was an Olympic level of creativity in coming up with previously unheard-of ailments in the hopes of persuading my coaches to let me sit out the next running drill.

Exaggerated dry-heaving, counterfeit blackouts, explanations that corns run in the elderly side of my family and that my pinky toe was showing early onset signs of developing one: these were just a few of the theatrics at my disposal when I couldn’t come up with anything better. What does kidney failure feel like? Can a 15-year-old get arthritis? If neither of us know, it’s probably best if I play it safe and not try to force anything.

What I soon realized about high school sports is that they are never-ending. What looked like an end to the season (and an end to my evening brainstorming sessions coming up with more excesses to avoid the panic-inducing practices) was actually just a two week gap between sports. Sure, the scoring methods were different, but to me, it was simply more of the same. What did it matter if I was getting lapped by testosterone around a football field or wheezing behind my peers up and down a basketball court?

My humiliation finally peaked in the basement of a Valentino’s Pizzeria at a year-end sports banquet. Jasper’s “Sports-ball For Dummies” book would have described the ritual of receiving a varsity letter as an end-of-season award normally reserved for a school’s athletic elite, but due to the small size of mine, “lettering” was treated more like a participation award.

As I sat there, hiding behind a slice of pizza and listening to our athletic director read off the achievements of students I had previously only been able to recognize by the back of their heads after spending a year running behind them, I wondered what sort of creativity it would take on her end to come up with something even remotely close to an achievement when it came to calling my name.

“Next up is Jake Hoffman. This year, he’s lettering in football, baseball, and track. Jake took home first place in long jump at this year’s state track meet and led our varsity basketball team to the finals.” I involuntarily joined in the applause as a teenager with the muscle structure of a Timberwolves player walked to the front of the room and our athletic director handed him a blue chenille letter ‘P’ littered with what reminded me of pins reserved for military officers.

As Jake took his seat, I watched as a furtive smile made its way onto my coach’s face as she recognized my name next on the list.

“Give it up for Rob Morgan who’s lettering in football, basketball, and track. He’s tall, he’s lanky, but at least he’s uncoordinated. Might as well come on up, Rob.”

Mortified, I made my way forward, past students and parents, amidst laughter and applause obviously much too loud to be genuine. I did my best to put on a fake “it’s funny ’cuz it’s true” smile and resolved then and there to never step foot onto a field or court for the sake of sports ever again. Like my friend Jasper, from that day on, I turned all of my extracurricular time and attention solely to music.

It’s a fascinating thing, being on the opposite side of the world for the first time, and recognizing smells that remind you of growing up in the Midwest. Apparently, no matter where you are, a locker room is a locker room and they all smell the same.

With only a couple minutes left before taking the stage, I couldn’t help but realize that over the past few months of being on tour, a smell that once reminded me of failure and my own lack of athletic ability was slowly being replaced with memories of some of the greatest moments of my life. Here I am, about to step onto center court of a sports arena, and for the first time, I’m not trying to come up with excuses on why I need to sit this one out. I’m not worried about looking like an idiot or getting made fun of by my peers. I’ve got nothing to prove. I’ve never felt more accepted in my life, and I’ve never appreciated the smell of a locker room more than I do right now.

About Rob Morgan

Rob Morgan is an internationally touring bassist and music director who’s obsessed with great stories. Best known for his work with multi-platinum recording artist, Owl City, when he’s not performing on stage he can be found coaxing compelling stories from his guests on his new podcast, "Rob Morgan is a Curious Person," or online at www.therobmorgan.com.