4 Tennis Lessons for Life and Work
My husband and I took up tennis when we moved to Detroit this summer. I expected tennis to be good exercise and a welcome relaxation from work stress, but what I didn’t expect was to learn so much about the way I approach life’s challenges. Below are some of those unexpected lessons playing tennis taught me about approaching life with more determination and passion.
1. Sometimes you’ve got to lose to get better
Starting out as very amateur players without instruction, our form was pretty bad. We started watching some YouTube videos on good serving form and racket grip and started trying to put the tips into practice. But our implementation was awkward and whoever was trying the new form usually lost the game. I was tempted to give up on good form altogether and keep the bad form that would get the serve in the box. But as I kept at it, something happened: my serves got better. They were faster, lower, and more accurate. I didn’t even know that it was possible for me to serve that well!
We all have certain parts of our jobs that are comfortable – responsibilities we can handle, ways of doing things that work for us. But the best jobs – especially those in rapidly progressing fields like social media marketing – aren’t about staying comfortable. In order to get better, you have to push yourself edges of your capabilities. So tackle new methods and projects with anticipation – of how much better you’ll become, how much the new approach will grow what you’re capable of – rather than with dread of how much time it will take to learn or how often you’ll fail. Sometimes you’ve got to lose to get better.
2. It ain’t over till it’s over
Through playing tennis I’ve recognized a dangerous thread in my thinking about competition – only try really hard when you know you can succeed. I would start out a set giving everything I had, but if my husband would start pulling ahead a few games, I’d settle into a defeatist approach: “He’s stronger and destined to win anyway. I don’t know why I thought I had a chance. It’s no use trying to win this set since I’m behind so much.” Once I identified those thoughts, I was able counter them with thoughts like, “I’ve won before from behind, so I can do it again. Why can’t I win this set if I give it everything I have? Shouldn’t I give it everything I have even if don’t win? Why is losing a reason not to try?” Sometimes, after talking myself up, I’ve even been able to win a set after being down 5-1 (winning 6 games straight).
Succeeding in life and in work means countering defeatist attitudes all the time – in yourself and in others. Someone always has a reason why the project will fail or the event fall flat. I usually have 3 or 4 reasons floating around in my head during meetings. Sometimes those thoughts are important to bring up – you need critical insights to make the ideas the best they can be. But you have to approach challenges with optimism – with a vision of what can be, and a realization that the possibility of failure is never a reason not to try.
3. Heroic saves require heroic follow-ups
One of the aspects of tennis that makes it so fun is that I’m the only one responsible for returning the ball. I love the thrill of returning a ball that I never thought I could return – the one that lands just inside the net on the opposite side of the court. I’ve hurtled myself at those volleys and hit the ball with the edge of the racket, falling down in the process, to have the ball miraculously go in. But there’s only one problem: I’m on the ground. And my opponent isn’t. Unless I can get up and return the next hit, my heroics were in vain because I’ve lost the point.
Sometimes projects require you and your team to exert heroic effort. The client’s demanding something right now, so you drop everything to make it happen. But you can’t pat yourself on the back and go out for pizza too quickly. What balls did you and your team drop in the process of throwing yourself into one project? Always be aware of the need to follow up quickly with clients and projects you’ve neglected.
4. Make the good returns even when it doesn’t matter
New tennis players like us are constantly missing the box on serves and returns. But instead of letting those balls go, I resolved to try to make good returns even when ball was out of bounds. Why? Because I always want to be mentally prepared to do whatever it takes to make the return. Even a split second of asking, “Is it going to be in or out?” can make the difference in whether I make a solid effort toward returning it. Additionally, returning bad serves is great practice at returning excellent, just in-bounds hits in the future.
Don’t let yourself relax on projects that don’t seem to matter. Sometimes you’ll get assigned projects that don’t seem to matter as much as what your coworkers were working on. Maybe you’re writing short stories for websites and brochures that few people are going to see, or conducting interviews you might not use and meetings that end up being pointless. But resolve to give those projects everything you have, no hesitation. Learn important skills through those experiences. As you get to work on bigger projects, the same mentality will serve you well.