I’ve blogged about tennis failures – things like how I’ve let my emotions get the best of me, or how my game has suffered due to a “crisis of confidence.” But I also want to pass along what I’m learning about how to overcome these problems. My tennis journey may be a long one, but it’s not so different from other roads I’ve traveled. In fact, there are days when my “tennis journey” and “the midlife passage” have a lot in common. And I don’t just mean the effects of gravity.
I reached a point where I felt as though I had invested so much time and money in learning a sport, watching the pros play it, buying trendy clothes for it, and even taking some “tennis vacations,” that I felt I deserved to be playing better than I was. I held myself to a higher standard than I should have and was constantly evaluating my improvement against better players. As a result, I was always coming up short. By my own standards, I was never going to measure up, never going to get out of my USTA 3.0 “rut.”
But at the same time as I was tired of not improving, I felt locked in: I had put so much of myself into tennis, for so long, that I didn’t want to quit. I was addicted to an activity that wasn’t going anywhere for me. Aside from a bit of exercise and socializing on the court, I couldn’t point to many positives about my involvement with tennis – I wasn’t having fun, and I could have gotten a better workout by going to the gym.
So what started my turnaround? Well, I was complaining about my frustration with poor play in matches and my irritating “voice of judgment” to Coach Alan Margot. He told me, “You can’t silence the voice, but tell it to quiet down. When you worry about what other people are the court are thinking about you, remind yourself, as if you were speaking to them: ‘What YOU think of me is YOUR business.’”
This seems simple, but it’s deep. For years I’ve taken ownership of how others perceive me on the tennis court, and more generally, in most other sectors of my life. Since I’d rather please people, I end up pressuring myself to make a better shot than I’m capable of, let my partner choose when she wants to serve and whether she wants the ad or deuce side in doubles, try for a heroic poach when simply getting the ball back over the net would be good enough. Outside of tennis, I rearrange my own schedule to accommodate an appointment that works better for my husband, or I ask a friend to give me a ride so my son can use my car.
At the end of the day, however, I don’t feel satisfied about setting aside my best interests in order to make others happier. I’m not sure they even notice my efforts, to tell you the truth. But it’s helpful to acknowledge that what someone else thinks of me is his or her responsibility, not mine. It doesn’t give me license to be obnoxious — rather, it reduces a burden I shouldn’t be carrying anyway.
I don’t imagine self-evaluation poses as much of an issue for men as it does for women, since females have been socialized to put others’ needs before our own. However, just reminding myself that I can’t do much to change someone’s opinion about what kind of tennis player I am gives me the freedom to “swing away.” When I worry less about what others are thinking, I stop observing myself through their eyes. This frees up mental bandwidth to notice things like the ball – and isn’t that the point of this sport?
Something that’s helping me quiet my personal VoJ (that’s what I nicknamed my Voice of Judgment, since it’s my constant companion) is playing more singles. I used to avoid singles because it involves more running than doubles, and I don’t have the best knees anymore – plus striking the ball as often as one does in singles aggravates my tennis elbow. But physical problems aside, I love singles now. It allows me to escape the complicated interpersonal dynamics of ladies tennis – I’ll return to these in a future post, but women who play know what I mean.
It’s just me, my opponent and the ball. Reminds me of a memorable scene from that classic baseball romance, For Love of the Game, starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston. She breaks up with him, saying, “You don’t need me: you, and the ball, and the diamond — you’re perfect.”
Not that I’m perfect, by any measure: but when I play singles, I’m not worried about letting my partner down, plus no one cares if I talk to myself (which I do). I still haven’t found a phrase like Billy Chapel’s, “Clear the mechanism,” that I can use to shut down outside distractions. But I’m working on it.
In the meantime, just remembering that I’m not responsible for other players’ opinions of my game is allowing me to concentrate on the things I actually can influence. It might even help me reassess what I do outside of tennis that inconveniences myself in the interest of pleasing others. If trying to “put others first” not only causes me to feel resentful, but also fails to benefit friends and loved ones in ways that matter to them, then fewer assumptions and more honesty are in order.
How to strike the balance between selfishness and self-care: that’s the real issue here, and I have lots to learn. I welcome your comments and suggestions.