The Bright Side of Failure

My husband played tennis.  He had several tennis rackets and the right shoes, shorts, shirt and even a tennis coach.    I had taken tennis lessons as a child at the old Army Depot not so far from my high school in central Ohio.  These were tennis courts that were built on the land where equipment were washed down from potential contamination during the war years way before the days of the EPA. 

This all had relevance when I moved to London in 1990 to join a coaching company whose founder methodology was based on the Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallway.   The methodology was that in paying the game of Tennis it was not only the skill of playing the game but the manage of the mind when the inner critic attacked the central nervous system and told you, You were an Idiot, a scambag and who did you think you were paying tennis.  The premise was if you were to be great you needed to both learn the skills of tennis both in your body and the mind.    This is a simplistic explanation but for the benefit of this article it will do. 

Comparing myself to my husband when asked if I played tennis: my answer was No, I am terrible.  This was the image I had of my tennis playing.  Although I had been on the university track and gymnastic teams, so I was no slouch athletically,  but tennis had not been my sport.  However the belief within the company was that one could be coached to pay great tennis, if they could manage their belief about the ability to play and to stop the inner critic from sabotaging their performance. 

This resulted in me signing up to attend a Tennis Camp in Portugal.  I was to join 10 other participants to improve our tennis skills.  These were the days in Portugal when donkeys still walked the streets pulling carts with various wares for sale.  As well as you could go down to the beach and enjoy fresh grilled fish charred to the delightful control of the local chefs: bight boats, blue water and sunshine warmth that crawled into the skin.   We were to play three hours of tennis rounds each morning: the winners and the losers matching up as the matches completed. 

Of course of the 10 confident players (or at least to me they looked totally confident) bounced onto the court the first morning, doing their squats and arm stretches with their rackets and bouncing the green tennis balls with complete accuracy with deft hand coordination.   I stood there humbly and in textbook case: my inner critic started screaming what are you doing here, you can’t play tennis. 

The leader matched us up and whom I played with and if I won or loss (I am most certain I lost) has now faded from my memory but at the end of the three hours I could not stand up straight.  I had pulled a muscle or was it muscles in my back and it seemed that I would no longer be able to play tennis for the rest of the week.

A doctor was found as I did not want to take pills and continue playing but also I could not walk because all the muscles in my lower back had seized up.  He was an angel.  He came and saw my situation and pain and he sat beside me and held his large heated hands on my back for an hour and created a aura of calm (who  does this these days?) and slowly my muscles released their twists and cramps and I was able to walk again.   Not to play tennis, but at least I could enjoy the sunshine and lay by the pool and watch others play.  I would have liked to have written that I jumped back into the games and excelled above all other but, that is not how this story ends. 

I felt humiliated that I had come to play tennis but my psychology had so overwhelmed my brain that I had the physical manifestation of not playing because I could not bear the devastation of failure.   I believed my self-talk was so strong that it handicapped me.    This you can image would put anyone in a bad mood. But the leader came up to me, as I lay humiliated by the side of the pool.  She said:  I so want to thank you; you gave everyone such a gift.   I looked at her sideways as what did she mean.   She elaborated: you gave the gift of being the worst player so they did not have to feel their own limitations.  Someone always has to be the worst.  It makes everyone else feel relieved not to be exposed.

Thus in my life, whenever I am the last person crossing the finish line in a 5K race or the person that forgot my lines on the stage in a play or played the wrong musical note in an exposed piece of music, I have come to think of these errors as gifts that I could give to others because it wasn’t them.   In that tennis camp, I learned something more important then playing the game of tennis.