After finishing a doubles match a few days ago, my tennis partner and I stayed on the court, discussing our key takeaways from the game, which we had won on a landslide after a shaky beginning.
You know, even if we won, I’m glad because I won the internal battle. When I play, I am mostly playing to better myself, were the words he said to me.
They struck a chord, and as the sun was setting over the rolling hills and its thin glimmers covered the lake nearby with their angelic white light, I began reflecting on my own journey. I remembered the first time I ever set foot on a court, and how far I had come.
During these recent months, as I have been rebuilding my life, one of the paths that I decided to pursue was to begin working as a tennis coach. I was a competitive player as a teenager, and having started at fourteen — when most competitive players start at three or four — I put myself under a training regimen that allowed me to be a decent competitor, and even win a few tournaments here and there. In fact, my career then — different than I know it now — ended with a title in the only tournament that I played while in college in Canada.
However, when I look back, the biggest shift was not in the increased top-spin consistency of my forehand or the strength of my backhand.
The changes, the really major ones, concerned the process of how somebody like me could go from shattering a racquet against a post, from bursting out in anger against rivals, against the crowd, and against myself — to somebody who could confidently set foot in a court and play anybody, regardless of who was watching. Especially regardless of who was watching.
The true transformation that I underwent, and that a sport brings to us is not just physical.
It is mental.
It is spiritual.
And even though my expertise is with tennis, I am well aware of how these principles can apply to any sport, and how they can apply to life.
I have spent, lately, a fair amount of time coaching the son of a good friend of mine, who is a competitive youth baseball player. As we stroll to the park, we often discuss how, at its core, the issues that we face are the same.
And of course, as it happens with any authentic coaching relationship, it is me who learns the most from him. At sixteen, he is one of the most self-aware and evolved humans I have ever met.
When it comes to tennis, my coaching method is based on the principles by Tim Gallwey, who authored The Inner Game of Tennis, where he emphasizes the importance of letting the body do what it already knows how to do, and trusting our state of flow. Through his work, Gallwey largely teaches life lessons, using tennis as a channel to achieve that goal. That is what, through my work, I also hope to be able to do.
Lesson 1: How to Remind Ourselves that We Are Enough
My friend was battered after his first at-bat ended in a strikeout in his Sunday match, mainly since he was supposed to be the team’s star. For minutes following this unfortunate event, he ignored his teammates and sat in isolation, repeating the scene in his head.
But then, I realised I was only hurting myself, he said to me. He took a couple of deep breaths and asked for help. I’m feeling very pressured, he echoed to his teammates, and he immediately encountered the support of his coach, who gave him a few pointers for his next at-bat. This contrasted enormously with his behaviour in the prior match, where he had isolated himself in self-defeatism.
But this time, practising mindfulness and self-compassion, he was able to hit a home run in his next turn.
First, because he caught the dialogue in his head, and was able to separate himself from his experience. Michael Singer, in The Untethered Soul, talks about this:
You will come to see that the mind talks all the time because you gave it a job to do. You use it as a protection mechanism, a form of defence. Ultimately, it makes you feel more secure. As long as that’s what you want, you will be forced to constantly use your mind to buffer yourself from life, instead of living it. This world is unfolding and really has very little to do with you or your thoughts. It was here long before you came, and it will be here long after you leave. In the name of attempted to hold the world together, you’re really just trying to hold yourself together.
Second, he talked about it. He was courageous enough to ask for help, to say something to clear the air that was suffocating him.
Not so long ago, I was able to do something similar.
In one of my recent lessons, I was losing a match against a client, 2–4. Usually, I would beat him 6–1, or 6–0, which is why this temporary result was strikingly surprising for me. But that day, my game just wasn’t there. I caught my old self, threatened by the possibility of defeat, endlessly searching for excuses: the court, the grip, the strings. The judge in my head was spinning full-force, showing no mercy.
Until I was able to bring it to a hard stop.
As soon as I stopped playing against my head, I felt a heavy load lifted off my shoulders, which in turn allowed me to focus on the game. In a stroke of luck, my opponent hit two double faults, and I hit two subsequent winners to break his serve.
Now it was my turn, my serve, which had been lagging for most of the game.
During the break, I questioned:
What is it that is bothering me so much? The answer was obvious. I was feeling insecure that I would lose against somebody who was paying me to play with him. It brought up previous insecurities, the feeling of not being good enough, and self-created defeating prophecies, such as the possibility that I might lose my status as a pro — at least in the eyes of many — or that it would cause me to lose my client because he would try to find someone better.
I remembered what my therapist used to say. Is it true? And if so, why is that bad? Then, I remembered, how every trainer that I’ve ever had has encountered himself in a similar situation against me, who was then the trainee.
From Alabama to San Francisco to Dubai to Chihuahua, every tennis coach that I’ve had has missed easy shots, and even lost against me the odd time. Did I fire them? No. What they brought to the table was a lot more than the technical game. And eventually, when I won, I saw it as an honour. As something that I had earned through training. As the popular quote says, the pupil overcomes the master.
So I decided to let some of that pressure off my shoulders.
I’m feeling some pressure here, you’re playing a really good game, I said, only half-jokingly, but in a light-hearted way.
As simple as it sounds, doing this liberated me, and I was able to let go and shed all of the fears and pressures that were mounting inside of me.
I stopped playing as if I had something to prove by being the pro, and began playing simply for the joy of it. During my two next serve games, I served three aces in each one of them.
I won the set 6–4.
And perhaps, in the process, I was able to give the best lesson, which had nothing to do with strokes or technique and all with mindfulness, vulnerability, and mental fortitude.
Lesson 2: Show Up To The Present Moment
If we are driven by external praise, and we live for it, then, we will never be enough. But if we show up, day by day, with consistency, then our results, in the long run, will speak for themselves — even if in the short-term they might be disappointing.
Attach yourself to the process, but detach yourself from the result. First, because you cannot control it, and second, because it is temporary, too; even though it may not seem so.
Roger Federer can explain this a lot better than me. When, in 2019, he was astonishingly knocked-out from the Cincinnati Masters by the then-up-and-coming Russian youngster Andrey Rublev, he simply explained: And there you have it. He was super clean — offence, defence, serving well. He didn’t give me anything. He acknowledged his opponent, and he moved on.
Did this affect his ranking on that said week? It sure did.
Did this affect his status as one of the greatest players of all time, possibly the greatest? Not at all.
I can attest to the power of showing up to the present moment, and not showing up and respond to our wounds of the past, or to our fears of the future.
A practice that I’ve adopted for tennis — and that can apply for anything — is, first, pausing, and second, having a mantra that keeps me grounded and that brings me back in connection with my higher self, right at the moment at hand. For me, the mantra that works is the Ho’oponopono, a Hawaiian prayer that is based on four simple quotes: I’m sorry, Please forgive me, Thank you, I love you.
Anybody that has seen me play might have taken notice that between every point, I take a pause. When I am serving, I bounce the ball four or more times before tossing. It is at that moment when I recite the prayer. I do that because it helps me cleanse any negativity that might still be there from the previous point. It allows me to let go of the mental dialogue, and bring myself to play my best game into the now.
It reminds me that the most important thing is to show up, and to show up now.
When I was younger, as I began my tennis career, I kept tabs on all my results. In consequence, I suffered in anguish when I experienced a losing streak. Ironically, the more I suffered, the longer it took me to break it.
Last year, as I returned to tournaments after a ten-year hiatus, I won the three tournaments in which I participated in. But that was not a result of excessive obsession. It was a result of showing up to train, with a disciplined schedule, and keeping that schedule no matter where I was. It was also a result of showing up to every match as an event of its own, knowing that if I lost, I would be okay. Slow and steady wins the race, especially in a world where people frantically want to get somewhere — or anywhere.
As a reminder, for five years, Babe Ruth led the American League with the highest number of strikeouts. He, also, is — and always will be — one of the best baseball players in history.
Lesson 3: The Key to Self-Awareness and Concentration
As a coach, my role is not to tell my students what to do. It is to guide them in their process of figuring out what to do.
I have numerous students that, as soon as they hit a wrong shot, ask me: What did I do wrong?
I don’t blame them. We live in a world that is so driven by external validation. We want others to tell us what to do, how to do it, and if it is wrong, how can we correct it. But the real world does not function that way.
If I take a closer look, most of the problems that people experience when missing shots — including myself — has to do with concentration. I remember, once, asking one of my tennis friends:
Have you noticed how many thoughts cross your mind before you hit a shot?
Tim Gallwey has an excellent approach to this, which is the Bounce-Hit technique. It is very simple and very powerful at the same time.
It goes like this:
When you see the ball bouncing, you say the word bounce, out loud.
The moment you hit the ball, you say the word hit, out loud.
What this does is that it wipes everything else off our mind, because for the moment-at-hand, we are strictly concentrated on the moment the ball bounces, and the moment we hit. It also helps us train our body to naturally get used to the rhythm of the hitting movement, which will help us, with enough practice, to hit the ball more efficiently and with better accuracy.
But the benefits go beyond that.
The real benefits of this exercise have to do with helping us take the first step towards self-awareness, towards being completely conscious of what we are doing, and approaching it with a blank slate.
Now, could you imagine if we could translate that into everything else that we do, on a day-to-day basis? It would mean that we would be actually paying attention to everything we do, instead of letting the autopilot run the show.
It would also help us catch ourselves if we make a mistake — on the court, rushing a shot, not having adequate positioning, etc; off the court, you name it.
As I’ve implemented this technique with my students, nothing makes me happier than seeing somebody throw up a ball for a serve, and realise that it is too low, and catch it back and say, that was too low. The fact that they can realise that for themselves, and that they have the ability to catch the ball instead of attempting a mishit — that’s where I see the fruits of my job, because it usually means that their awareness will impact other areas of their life.
It also means that they are learning to trust themselves.
Because this is something that we need to remember: we always have ourselves. We are our own coaches. We can be our own guides. And we can let our Higher Self assist us in that process.
As it is with life, in sports, the past does not need to define the future.
Lesson 4: Integrate
We are capable of doing more than we believe.
And as we begin to trust ourselves more and more, we will learn how to integrate the different parts — the different selves that compose us — and let go of the compartmentalization approach that we have been trained to take.
We can integrate our learnings from the court to other issues that we might be facing off the court. I’ve certainly done that.
For example, the nervousness I experienced as a young player when people came to watch me came from the fear I had that I would not be loved anymore if I made a mistake. And for my brain, missing a backhand or serving a double-fault was a mistake. And the mere thought of it terrified me.
Another example was that the best tournaments I ever played were the ones in which I was a complete underdog. Whenever I was the first seed, or one of the favourites, I usually lost in the first rounds. This spoke about the aversion I had to being the centre of attention, which was a fruit of the overbearing attention I received as a child.
Perhaps, if we are afraid of hitting the full swing, it might mean we are afraid of embracing life fully, or of letting go of certain things or aspects of ourselves. Perhaps, if we hold the racquet too tightly, it means that we might have something to examine the way our attachment style works.
As we gain self-awareness, we will see how our progress on-court mirrors our progress off of it.
My favourite tool to keep track of that progress is journaling. Journaling allows me to reflect, and to gain deeper understanding and insights of the way my mind works and why. It also allows me to see where my areas of improvement are, to forgive, and to do something equally important, which is to congratulate myself when I’ve done right.
It gets me to the point where it gets easier to do the work than to not do it.
Hopefully, it will do the same for you.
And hopefully, through this, the next time we step into a court, you will do so with confidence, happy to bask in the joy of playing, because then you will have won, regardless of what the scoreboard says.
- Catch and observe the dialogue in your head, and remind yourself that you are enough, regardless of anything. First, pause, and take a deep breath; and second, talk it out. As Brené Brown would say, shame cannot survive if it is brought out into the light.
- Show up to the present moment. A grounding practise I have is the Ho’oponopono mantra, which allows me to clear any negativity remaining from the previous moment and hit “reset” on the mental dialogue. Then I can show up with confidence.
- Implement a practice that reminds you of what you are doing and creates self-awareness. In tennis, the Bounce-Hit technique by Tim Gallwey is an excellent tool to bring your consciousness to the present moment.
- Integrate your learnings. Journaling can be an excellent tool to draw insights from your learnings on-court to your progress off-court, and it will help you merge your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual progress from a very holistic standpoint.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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