Daily living has a lot in common with playing tennis – this does not suggest that they are exactly the same, only that they have some features in common when observed from an effectiveness viewpoint. As with any metaphor, to say that life is “like playing tennis” is to say that there are some aspects that are the same in each thing being compared. Life and playing tennis are characterised by uncertainty and challenges, require constant adaption, are affected by our mental and emotional state and can be a source of happiness or disappointment.
When playing tennis, as in life, you are uncertain about the next ball/challenge you will have to face. In tennis, the shot you have to deal with can vary in spin, speed, and direction and be affected by external factors such as wind and air temperature and the kind of surface you are playing on, as well as the condition of that surface. In life, we are faced with all kinds of challenges such as financial and health issues, relationship problems or adverse work conditions as well as broader issues such as financial constraints or heath crises such as the pandemic.
I have to admit that I am a “tennis tragic” having played tennis for over 60 years and continuing to do so in my 70’s. I only play social tennis now once a week (compared to in my youth when I played morning and afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, including different forms of fixtures and coaching). As with life, I have had to make continual adaptions as I age. I have decided, for example, that I need a new tennis racquet to provide better support for my game. I requested a new racquet from my wife for my recent 75th birthday – a racquet that is lighter and has a larger frame (for failing eyesight). This replaced my 20-year old tennis racquet which was badly in need of a restring to restore power and precision.
They say that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease you need to exercise and learn a new skill that challenges you and provides you with mental stimulation. Again to overcome the declining strength in my arms and wrists, I decided to learn how to play a two-handed backhand instead of the single-handed backhand that I have used for the last 60 years plus. This is incredibly challenging for me, not only from a technical viewpoint but also from the perspective of incorporating it psychologically in my game, with the high probability in the early stages of making a lot more mistakes when playing a tennis game. It means that I have to take more risks, reflect on what I am doing wrong and manage my mental and emotional reactions to the higher level of mistakes.
To help me start out with the requisite technical knowledge, I asked by my sons to pay for three professional coaching lessons (as a 75th birthday present) which gave me a good grounding in the technique required to achieve an effective two-handed backhand. Now, I just have practice to acquire the technical competency of a two-handed backhand and learn to manage my fear of making a lot of mistakes as I learn to adapt my shot and my positioning to different balls that I will face in a tennis game. Fear can prevent me from trying out the two-handed backhand in a real game and deprive me of the opportunity to learn as I go. As with life, I have to learn to manage my fears if I am to achieve a rewarding level of competency and joy.
Over many years, I have learned to develop a number of principles for playing tennis effectively – a set of principles that have relevance to achieving a life that is fulfilling and happy. I describe these principles below and they may serve to reinforce a positive approach to life.
My six principles for effective and joyful tennis playing are:
- As I approach each night of social tennis, I decide on one micro skill that I am going to concentrate on improving during that night (usually over three or four sets). There are so many micro-skills involved in playing tennis that it is not possible or effective to concentrate on everything. As with making resolutions in life to improve your behaviour, focusing on a single goal can prove to be more achievable, effective and reinforcing. This process employed on each occasion of playing, has served as the basis for continuous improvement, one micro skill at a time.
- When playing, I make continuous adaptions to my game to adjust to the circumstances – different players and different conditions. If some particular tennis stroke is not working or getting me into trouble, I try something different. Over the years I have developed multiple forms of spin such as top spin, slice, back spin, “out-swinger” (spins away from the body of my opponent) and “in-swinger” (spins into the body). I adapt my spin to suit the circumstances, e.g. the type of players I am playing against and the external conditions.
- Over the last few years dealing with declining physique, I have had to change my mindset playing tennis. Earlier on when I was much more physically able, I used to try to avoid making mistakes. But increasingly now, mistakes are a part of the game of tennis. So I have come to view playing each shot as an experiment – in the face of the numerous variables involved in a tennis shot (both received and hit), it realistic to view playing tennis as a process of conscious “trial and error”, with relevant adjustments for what is deemed to be an error in shot selection and/or delivery.
- Instead of dwelling on mistakes I make in a game, I try to savour my really good shots – those that were executed well with the desired effect. Over time, I have built up a mental video playlist of really good shots which serve to build my sense of self-efficacy – my belief in my capacity to competently complete a particular shot (e.g. a backhand, half-volley lob).
- The challenge when continuously making mistakes or doing the wrong thing, is to avoid beating up on yourself. I am learning instead to appreciate the fact that I can still run, play a tennis shot, enjoy a game with friends, have ready access to tennis courts and be able to afford to play. When I am tempted to chastise myself for a poor shot, I try to express gratitude for the things that I have and can do on a tennis court.
- Over time, as my physical capacities have declined, I have had to adjust my expectations of what I am capable of achieving. In my secondary school days, I was trained as a sprinter and achieved selection at GPS level. Now I am a lot slower off the mark. I have had to change my expectations about my speed and mobility around the court and capacity to hit fast tennis shot (owing to weakening strength in my arms and wrists). I do try to strengthen my wrists and arms through exercise but this can only serve to reduce the rate of decline. In the meantime, I have had to adjust my expectations (though sometimes, I attempt to play like a 40 year old…and suffer accordingly!).
- I have taken up again the regular practice of Tai Chi which helps to build balance, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and overall energy. I have learned that Tai Chi has quite remarkable benefits for playing tennis. This form of meditation-in-action also suits my personal approach to developing mindfulness and helps to offset my declining physical prowess as I age.
I have previously written about how tennis can build mindfulness if approached in an appropriate way. For me, playing tennis involves a continuous process of reflection. AS I grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, I am increasing my self-awareness about my thought patterns and emotional states when playing tennis. I am also learning to adapt and adjust my expectations and to approach my game more mindfully, enjoying the present moment without the contamination of continuous negative self-evaluation. There can be real joy in savouring the experience of competency and being grateful for what I have and can do. Despite the aging process. I am increasingly convinced that If you live a reflective and mindful life, wisdom becomes a natural outcome.
By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)
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