MAMATA VENKAT has learnt a lot about herself from playing tennis. Especially, it has taught her to let go of imperfections and move forward in a healthy way towards continuous improvement in all aspects of life.
I was twelve years old the first time I stepped onto a tennis court, reluctantly encouraged by both my mom and my cousin to take up the sport as a way to strengthen my college eligibility and build my stamina, and also face my aversion of trying new things.
Fun fact: I’m not good at trying new things.
I was skeptical, stubborn, and totally terrified as I walked onto the court for the first time, gripping my dad’s dinky old Head racket in my right hand and my water bottle in the other. And when coach Kent smacked that first ball at me and my return shot embarrassingly soared way over to the other side of the court, I became even more determined to hate tennis and prove that my mom and cousin were wrong.
Spoiler alert: I fell in love with tennis.
Tennis carried me through my teenage years, giving me a sense of confidence that came from feeling strong. When I started playing high school tennis, it also fostered a camaraderie amongst girls my age during a period when we wrongly thought we needed to compete with one another. And I just loved being on the court. I loved inhaling the smell of brand new tennis balls, hearing the sound of the racket smacking a forehand or a volley across the net. I loved the feel of my feet zigzagging across the court as I moved to hit my opponent’s spinserve, the high-fives that my doubles partner and I would share when we won game, set, match. To this day, a tennis court always feels like home.
But I had one major problem on the court: I had trouble letting go.
Raise your hand if you’re really hard on yourself. So it’s not just me, right? Okay, good.
Consistency is key when playing tennis – after all, it’s the only way to keep a match going, to challenge your opponent and wear them down enough that you might have a shot (no pun intended) at winning the point. For the most part I was good at being consistent. But there were also many moments when I’d miss a serve, hit the ball into the net, smack a shot out, or just plain miss the ball completely. And of course, I had to move on to the next shot, while my mind was focused on the error I had made. Mentally, I would beat myself up, wondering why that shot hadn’t been perfect, or why I still wasn’t a good tennis player after all these years. And immediately, my performance would decline. As a (mostly) doubles player, that mentality not only affected my game, but also my partner’s, who had to spend her energy lifting me up and picking up my slack because I was having trouble recovering.
And here’s the thing: I would do this in nearly every area of my life! Whether I made an innocuous error at work, said something that unintentionally hurt a friend or family member, or missed a shot on the court, all I did was hold on to that ‘mistake’, which kept me stuck in my head, filled me with anxiety, and ultimately made it very difficult for me to move forward. It has only been in the last year that I have learned to cut myself some slack. But I still have days when I allow myself to worry too much, even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong.
I’ve done some digging in the last couple of years to try and understand why I’m so hard on myself. I realized that it is because I expect nothing less than perfection from myself in everything. The problem with setting such high expectations is that, more often than not, I and the people around me will end up disappointed.
I’m human. I’m going to make mistakes.
The more I recognize that and give myself grace,
the healthier my relationship is with myself,
and the stronger my relationships are
with the people I care about the most.
To help me overcome this problem on the court, my mom would remind me of how Maria Sharapova handled blunders. She would walk behind the baseline, adjust her racket strings, tuck her hair behind her ears, then walk back to the baseline with renewed resolve. She left her mistake behind the baseline and kept moving.
“And that,” my mom would say to me, “is the only way you’re going to win.”
Applying that mentality improved my tennis game significantly, but it’s also a metaphor that is relevant to all aspects of life as I work on not being so hard on myself. I can already see vast improvements. But I’m human. I’m going to make mistakes. I am not always going to be the perfect person, daughter, sister, best friend, acquaintance, worker, or meditator. The more I recognize that and give myself grace, the healthier my relationship is with myself, and the stronger my relationships are with the people I care about the most.
All of us are doing our best, but giving ourselves grace even when we slip really helps. Let’s keep lifting one another up.
Article by MAMATA VENKAT