I played tennis this week with a friend whom I haven’t seen since our last match together, back in the winter when emotional issues were affecting my game. In fact, the last time we played together, I felt like such a failure I considered quitting tennis entirely — it had ceased being fun for me, and I was letting my partners down by inferior play.
But this time, things felt different. I still made mistakes, we still lost our match, but I didn’t come away with the sense that my partner would never speak to me again, nor that I had performed so miserably as to discredit the sport. While there were moments where I double-faulted or missed an easy shot and started to panic, I was able to settle down and focus on the next ball. I even felt strangely calm when serving or returning serve on “pressure points” like “ad-in” – moments where winning or losing the point can decide the outcome of that game.
In spite of these improvements, though, I’m still not winning matches. But this is a journey, in my case a long one, and at least I’m taking a few steps forward. From my current vantage point, I now understand how strongly my attitude correlates with how I play tennis. Knowing this, I see that what I needed a few months ago was not more tennis tips to pull me out of a slump, but a partner who could step over court boundaries and be a true friend.
I’m not blaming anyone — since I hate to let on that anything’s amiss, others might not even see that I’m having a bad day. I’d prefer to give the appearance that all is fine, and I shy away from exposing vulnerabilities with anyone but family and close friends. However, I’ve learned from this and other experiences that not only do I need to be more open about wanting others’ help — I also should be on the lookout for people who might need someone to pay attention to them.
What I could have used that morning when I stepped off the court and wondered if I‘d ever step on it again was a friend who noticed I wasn’t doing well, wasn’t quite myself. The clues were probably subtle. But I was in such bad shape on the inside that even a simple question such as, “You seem a bit out of sorts — are you ok?” would have unlocked a torrent of emotion, which in turn would have moved me along the path towards healing faster than I was able to progress on my own.
For some people, approaching others like this comes more easily. I have a different tennis friend who paid attention when I joked after missing a ball that my error must have come from “a crisis of confidence.” We kept on playing our match and had obligatory socializing with the opposing team afterwards, but she followed up, and we went to lunch a few days later. I appreciated her taking an interest in how I was feeling, and she in turn was able to talk with me about some things going on in her life. We lost the match we played together that day. But I gained a measure of friendship worth far more than a tickmark in the “W” column.
The tennis court may be my venue for bridging emotional distances and opening doors to more authentic relationships, but for others, the place could be work, school or home. I was inspired by the example of an executive friend who wanted to be more of a “real person” at the office. Just by incorporating a question like, “How was your weekend,” into one-on-one meetings with employees, he learned more about their lives, and in the process started building stronger interpersonal and working relationships with them.
Authenticity — that’s something I want. I also want to start winning at tennis. I hope the two can go hand in hand.