There’s a sign I drive by most weeks, usually on my way to play tennis. Although it stands outside a car repair shop, it reminds me of a resolution I made when my tendency to self-judge was sucking the fun out of my chosen sport. I decided, in short, to bring back the joy.
Before choosing to look for joy in tennis, I thought what would bring me pleasure was playing better, so I focused on that alone. I took lessons, watched videos, read books, kept track of wins and losses. And guess what? I didn’t play better, and I didn’t enjoy myself.
Step back, and it’s obvious. A recreational activity like tennis should be enjoyable – if not, what’s the point? But it’s easy, especially for us women who’ve given up careers and are looking for a way to evaluate “productivity” outside of making school lunches and coordinating book fairs, to take something we do for fun and start to measure our progress. There’s nothing wrong with this. But I let it go too far – I lost perspective. I lost the joy.
No more. I’m taking practical steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again. To start, I remind myself constantly: “bring back the joy.” It’s one of the things I say to myself during matches. Or I ask myself on tough points, “Are we having fun?” Because whether I win or lose the point, I want to enjoy playing it, and not “having fun” usually means tightening up and playing worse anyway.
Here’s another one, but it’s a bit touchy. These days I avoid playing with people whose styles don’t match up well with mine. Many times, it means I try not to partner with women who are more serious and intent on winning. It’s not that I don’t care about winning – but if I concentrate on the score too much, or think about whether I’m living up to my partner’s expectations for me, I start making more mistakes. I feel bad about playing poorly, so I play worse – it’s a downward spiral. My progress is slow, but I’m learning to put negative thoughts aside, stay loose and have a good time. This helps me play better.
A corollary of focusing more on the experience of playing tennis rather than on the score itself is a decline in my concern about my USTA rating. It’s somewhat embarrassing to acknowledge that I’ve played league tennis for ten years, yet I’m still rated 3.0, but that betrays the side of me which cares about the destination more than the journey. Sure, I’d like to win more matches. Sure, I’d like the USTA’s computer to move me up to 3.5. But if I’m having fun and playing at a level where I feel challenged, where the competition seems appropriate, isn’t that the objective? Sometimes we get a hung up on a number as a proxy for our personal status, or even an indication of our worth.
One last thing I’ve tried this season cones from a tip I received from an Australian player I met last year – she and her partner were really fun opponents, even though they dominated our team. After we finished, she told a number of humorous stories. She also shared her secret for coping with nerves when she was facing a really important match: “A shot of Stoli — always works for me,” she said.
I don’t much care for straight vodka. But a couple of weeks ago, I had to play my USTA first singles match — well, if you don’t count the sacrifice match I played as a sub last year. My foot was still sore, plus I worried about my ever-aching tennis elbow. And I was nervous. I decided on a 1/1/1 plan: 1 Vicodin, 1 Tylenol, 1 shot of Tequila. It worked great: I experienced no pain, and my stomach butterflies disappeared.
One of my players even arrived late, something that usually has me, the team captain, going crazy. Yet I was calm. It was a beautiful evening, and we all got to play tennis instead of making dinner, putting kids to bed, or finishing up projects at work. My opponent was friendly and seemed to appreciate my relaxed attitude. I played pretty well, winning in a second set tiebreak.
So try some of these things and see if any of them works for you. One or two might even translate to life beyond tennis. Let me know about your experiences. Just don’t forget, life’s too short to take things so seriously: bring back the joy!