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8 Life Lessons from the Game of Tennis


Yesterday I had my first ever city league tennis match.

I won.

Barely. By a 10-point tie-breaker (12-10).

Warming up with my opponent, I was pretty sure I had her.

I started strong. In fact, I was starting to feel preemptively sorry for her.

Somehow managing to exhibit a ridiculous amount of arrogance while also demonstrating a strong urge to caretake my opponent, this is what I was thinking:

“I hope I don’t beat her too bad. Yikes, what if she doesn’t get a point off me?”

So I was up five games to two. I just needed one more game to win the first set.


She won the following FIVE games, humiliating me in the first set by beating me 7 games to 5.

Thankfully my ego was restored when I won the second set six games to four and eventually beat her in a tie-breaker by two points.

The more tennis I play, the more I realize how much the game of tennis is a lot like the game of life.

It’s an entirely new way to learn about myself…

Here are 8 things I’ve learned from playing tennis that — tennis fan or no — we can all apply to real life:

Every point is a chance to start again.

It’s easy to think that you have the set won when you’re up five games to two. But my opponent yesterday reminded me of something important: Every point is a new opportunity to forget the past. When you’re down in tennis or in life, you’ve got to forget about the past. Stop making whatever mistakes you’ve made mean you can’t win. Focus on the next point or, in life, the next day. And just do your best.

Don’t underestimate anyone.

I play in a 40 year old and up league. We are the “old ladies” of tennis. By the look of many of us, you wouldn’t think we could hit a tennis ball. And you would be dead wrong. The gal I played was probably 10 years older than me (I’m 43). And she ran down every short ball I hit at her. Human beings are magnificent. Young, old, able-bodied or not, don’t ever underestimate what they can do — what YOU can do.

Persistence beats power.

We think we need to hit the perfect shot. And it has to be a “winner.” But the hardest shot can be your greatest weakness if you can’t keep the ball in the court. In life, we don’t even let ourselves “play” because we think we have to do it perfectly. The best players, in tennis and in life, get that it’s not about perfection, it’s about staying in the game, keeping your ball in the court, no matter how ugly its got to look. “Win ugly.” It’s your new motto.

Never give up on yourself.

In tennis, you need to know how to hit a serve, a forehand and, occasionally, a backhand, but the biggest part of the game happens between the ears. I’m not going to lie, losing the first set after being up three games and only a few points away from winning the set was pretty devastating. It’s tempting to give up hope, knowing that to win the match I’d have to win the next two sets. Luckily I know that tennis is all about staying mentally in the game. “I guess this is going to go to a tie-breaker,” I told myself. And that’s what happened. Success in life is the same. It’s 99.9 % about staying in the game.

Be patient but when the opportunity comes along, pounce.

Singles points can be long. Especially when you play someone who likes to stay back in the court. It takes a lot of hard work and patience to stay in the point when balls are coming back at you five to six times. In singles tennis, you want to keep hitting the ball deep at your opponent hoping she’ll give you something short that you can do something with. Once you get that short ball, you pounce. This is true in life. A lot of the time, it’s just a lot of hard work. But if you’re patient and you “stay in the point,” your big opportunity will come. Don’t let it get away! Pounce!

Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

Speaking of opportunities, I didn’t pounce every time. I hit with a lot of what’s called topspin. It creates a very loopy shot that “kicks” at the end. When I hit these topspin shots deep, especially to my opponent’s backhand, it’s hard to do much with it. This opens up an opportunity for me to sneak up to the net to put whatever they send back at me away as a volley or overhead. But each time I hit a deep topspin shot, I just stayed back. I didn’t come up when I had the chance and it made the points longer and more exhausting. In life you’ve got to be able to recognize the opportunities you created for yourself and “come up to the net” even when it’s scary. Otherwise it’s going to take twice as long and double the work to win.

There is dignity in kindness.

After a match is complete, both opponents come up to the net to shake hands. After our marathon match yesterday, my opponent beamed at me and gave me a hug. After she lost! I couldn’t help but feel ashamed. I know that had it been reversed, and I was the one who lost, I would have barely been able to muster a smile and a handshake. Then I would have sulked the entire day. (I wish this were an exaggeration.) Yesterday my opponent showed me that there is dignity in kindness. Kindness to ourselves. Kindness to our opponents. I will think of her, every time I lose a tennis match or encounter a setback in life.

But don’t be too kind.

Early in the match before my opponent put me in my place, I noticed my inner “mommy” come out. I wanted to save my opponent from feeling bad had I actually managed to beat her as bad as my ego thought I might. My opponent quickly quieted my inner mommy. Looking back, I find it fascinating that my inner caretaker came out, and so quickly! What was I going to do? Lose a couple points, even a game, on purpose? My opponent showed me how important it is to make every last point count. In tennis and in life, the emotional responses of the people around you — your opponents, your colleagues, your siblings, your co-workers, your partner — are NOT your responsibility. Allow yourself to win big. They’ll get over it. Hell, they might even learn something.

People are watching. Be inspiring.

I’m not doing as much coaching these days yet I love to inspire other people. Lately I’m finding joy in little seemingly insignificant places. In playing tennis. In taking care of my plants. In trips to the beach with the family. Thinking I had to do big lofty things to inspire others, I figured those days were over for awhile. So you can imagine my surprise when I was approached by my team and even by the opposing team — people wanted to tell me how inspiring it was to watch me come back from that first set loss. It just goes to show that our actions matter. Big or small, significant or not, there is always a chance to be what my friend Amy Jones calls a light and show others what is possible within themselves.

I know most of you are probably not into tennis like me. (If you are, let’s play!) So, thanks for indulging me as I extend the shit out of this metaphor 🙂

And one other thing, it’s pretty important so listen up:

Doing what brings you joy is NOT frivolous. It teaches you things and inspires people.

I’m fascinated to know what you do for JOY and how it teaches you about life. So please, please, please post a comment below!


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