About six months ago I started playing tennis again. I used to play all the time in high school but in truth haven’t done much other than move my racquet from house to house, closet to closet, in the years that have passed since I left home with the rest of the Class of 1987.
My 6-year-old daughter has been playing for a couple years now, and I have this dream that one day we will compete in a mother-daughter doubles match, hence the resurgence in lessons on my part. After that, she can quit tennis for all I care, but I’m determined to make it to that one match. That said, if recent play is any indication, it’s going to take me just as long as — if not longer than — it takes her to be ready for it.
Because let me tell you, playing doubles last Saturday gave me one of those Ratatouille moments where your entire being seems instantaneously transported back to a foundational memory from childhood. I’m referring here to the scene in the Pixar movie where the food critic Anton Ego tastes chef Remi’s transcendent ratatouille and recaptures a lost memory of maternal love. Only the memory I returned to was a familiar sense of dread, followed in quick succession by shame, disgust, and a sad wonder about how something that plagued me as an adolescent could still be alive and kicking today.
Because, no, my serves did not go in. My volleys were off the mark, landing in the net or out of bounds. And with every missed shot, my confidence became even more shaky than it was when I started. Not only is my 46-year-old body not nearly as spry as it was at 18, but apparently my coping skill are as hole-ridden as ever.
Ah, but age has some advantages.
First off, I’m not afraid to ask for help.
Our coach began by reminding me that everyone struggles to play as well in matches as they do during drills, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. He also encouraged me not to cower when faced with an opponent’s power but rather focus instead on just moving the energy they send my way back over to their side.
(For more on this, he recommended Dan Millman‘s book Warrior Athlete. Millman became famous for his book Way of the Peaceful Warrior, but before that he taught aikido to kids in Berkeley, one of whom was my husband. How’s that for small world?)
Secondly, I’ve got life experience to draw on.
When I was just starting my career, I took a seminar about how to apply the tenets of sports psychology to the professional realm. It was there that I learned a mantra I have been repeating to myself for close to 25 years now: Correct and come back strong. It means that rather than worry about a mistake that’s been made, it’s more effective to focus instead on doing it even better next time.
That seminar also taught me the importance of visualization — both in general, as a way to help turn a goal into a reality, and specifically, as a way to get an imaginary do-over after flubbing something up. Say I miss a backhand shot down the line. All it takes is 10 seconds of visualizing how I could have done it better (gotten there faster, set up quicker, moved into the shot rather than waiting for it to come to me, accelerated through it) and yet the effect is transformative, reminding me that I know how to do it right and will likely do it right next time.
But by far the most important gift that has come with age is that I’ve learned to be a lot more compassionate toward myself.
Although I’m still a perfectionist at heart (and those of you who like to comment on the persistent neatness of my house can attest to this), I don’t have quite the same merciless grip on perfectionism that I used to. Just last weekend I dreaded match play, viewing it as an all-or-nothing endeavor where the only permissible outcome was victory. And yes, I did melt down in a slew of unforced errors and mental swampiness, but heck, it’s only Wednesday and I’m already bouncing back! Why? Because I really have internalized the concept of “process over product” — that the process of learning is so much more rich and interesting than any end result could ever be.
It’s true I may never experience the thrill of victory, but at least I no longer experience quite such an agony of defeat.
And that is just one of the many reasons why I really do love 40.