I’ll never forget my first actual for-real tennis match in an actual for-real league with actual and very serious tennis players.
This was about five years ago, after we had moved to Brentwood and a new friend group had introduced me to tennis.
I had never been so nervous in my life as I walked onto the court with my partner. I’d met her about five minutes earlier when she talked me into joining a team she herself had just joined five minutes before that.
I had been going to a clinic for a while, but this was my first day of match play. My palms were sweaty, my heart pounded, and I had already been to the bathroom twice, without much relief to my nerves.
It was a feeling similar to when you stand on a stage and have to give a speech to a room full of people. It didn’t help that one of the opponents looked like barely 20, lugged a bag stuffed with 5 rackets, and proceeded to warm up like a pro with the most beautiful strokes. (Full disclosure: Even after five years of tennis I cannot produce a beautiful stroke during warm-ups if you held a gun to my head.)
The reason I was so nervous? I was absolutely terrified of losing. Women in Brentwood, Tennessee, take their tennis seriously. I’m sure no one had big expectations of me as the new member on the team, but I genuinely felt that losing would end my tennis career before it even began.
As you might imagine, I did lose that day. Badly. Both my partner and I were outplayed by a much more experienced lineup. It didn’t help that halfway through our match loud shouting spilled over from the adjacent court about a questionable line call, and I distinctly heard the B-word being thrown around. I almost gave up tennis right then and there.
But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.
Losing, it turns out, is one of the best things that can happen to you – not just in tennis, but also in life. I know it sounds backwards. Isn’t winning better than losing? But bear with me here.
From an early age, we are trained to do well – in school, in sports, in everything. We are urged to work hard so that we can win. Winning is very important. If we do everything right, we are told, we will keep winning.
The first problem with this is that winning, if that’s all you ever do, is not very special. It’s like the tale of that place where everyone is above average – simply not possible. If you’re always winning, then your definition of winning might very well be wrong. Only if you’ve known the disappointment of defeat can you feel the true elation that comes with winning.
The second problem is that with an attitude of always needing to win, you will grow up to have the wrong motivation in life. The more you win, the more you will fear losing. Avoiding failure will become your guiding principle in life, and you will become cautious and quite possibly depressed.
I do think the epidemic of anxiety and depression among today’s youth can be traced to this very phenomenon.
We constantly herd our kids along that path to success and prosperity, and we don’t allow them to stray. We remind them to do their homework. We sign them up for the gifted program. We tell them they must do a service project to improve their resume. Failure is not a part of the plan.
The third problem is that very often in life, you learn nothing from a win, but you can learn everything from a loss.
Looking back on five years of tennis matches for various teams as I’ve worked my way up through the USTA levels, perhaps a handful of them stand out as extraordinary. And almost all of them were ones that I lost, or came within a hair’s breadth of losing. I remember them so well because I replayed them in my head that night, the next day, and for weeks to come. They stung, but they also gave me insights not only into my weaknesses but also into my opponents’ strengths. They motivated me to get out there again the very next day and work hard to improve the forehand that abandoned me that day, the crappy second serve, the inability to figure out how wind can be used to your advantage.
The fear of failure can become all-consuming. The longer we keep our perfect streak of pretty wins and the more we climb the straight and narrow path to success, the more terrifying it is to look down and see how far we could fall.
As the irrepressible JK Rowling once said (in her graduation speech at Harvard, you can easily find it online), one of the most liberating things that can happen to you in life is to have your worst fears come true. Hitting rock bottom and realizing that you’re still breathing can calm your nerves like nothing else. And it’s also a great vantage point to find yourself at, because there is no way to go but up.
With my first official tennis loss out of the way, I felt much calmer the second time around. I had lost and lived to tell the tale, and I was hungry for more.
To be sure, I have since then amassed a nice collection of wins – along with enough elbow braces and ankle supports and KT tape to patch up a Brontosaurus.
But I’ve also suffered my share of stinging defeats. The time I lost my singles line after a brutal battle in the sweltering Alabama heat and feared it had ended our team’s run Nationals might top the list. Couldn’t I have moved my feet better? Couldn’t I have swung with more conviction? Couldn’t I have looked harder for a weakness in my opponent?
The thing is, I never would have gotten to that place in my tennis career if I hadn’t mastered the art of losing in the preceding years. Losing and learning and trying again has become an important part of not just my tennis game, but life as a whole.
And here is a final thought: My losses in tennis have given me a perspective that wins alone never could have. They’ve taught me to love the game itself no matter what happens.
Each time I step onto a court, I feel a rush of excitement. Yes, it’s often tinged with a little bit of fear, especially if a state championship for your team is on the line and your opponent looks like beast on paper.
But mostly, I love the feeling that everything is possible that day. Win or lose, I have a new opportunity to hit the most beautiful passing shot of my life, a drop shot that clears the net by a hair and simply dies on the other side, or an overhead so strong and beautiful it travels into the next zip code before it bounces again. My ultimate goal is to chase down a lob and hit a “tweener” just once in my life before I’m too old to pick up a racket.
In my pre-tennis days, I used to be baffled by the more “colorful” players you see on TV. I didn’t understand their antics on the court – why would they go for the riskier shot instead of playing it safe and getting the easy point? Now I know it’s because of their love of the game. It’s even more powerful than the drive to win. In the big game of life, it’s those with a love for the game who truly stand out.
So pick up your racket or whatever it is that presents a challenge in your life. Then get out there and play the beautiful game.
Eva Melusine Thieme is a travel writer and avid tennis player who lives in Brentwood. She blogs at http://joburgexpat.com.