Although I gave up on playing on a tennis team, I continued to work on improving my game. One summer when my kids spent the mornings at the pool at swim team practice, someone got the great idea of getting a group of women together to take group lessons. The same guy who was giving our kids lessons offered to give us lessons, with the last day being a tournament among us – with prizes.
There was one ringer in the mix from the beginning. She was a great player, the rest of us were in varying degrees of experience – but none of us were exactly tennis stars. The winner of this tournament was undisputed from the first morning of warm-ups.
When Friday morning rolled around, we’d had a lot of fun and learned a few things too. I came ready to play, but was unprepared to win. This was one of those double-elimination deals, and I lost my first game in the first round to the de facto star of our group. This put me in the losers’ bracket. Do you know what that means? I’d have to play every single fellow loser, and all the winners, to make it to the finals. But I hadn’t been prepared to win, so what does it matter?
After the first defeat I had to sit and wait my turn for the next loser to play me. As I sat there, I thought about my disappointment. I realized that I wasn’t upset about the loss – that particular match outcome seemed inevitable, but I was very upset with my own attitude. Didn’t I tell my own kids to do their best and forget about the outcome? I felt like a hypocrite.
There is this little phrase in the famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians – “[Love]…always perseveres.” I wasn’t persevering. I was throwing in the towel. As I watched my friends play their little hearts out, I decided that I wasn’t being fair to myself or them. I may be a loser, but I didn’t have to be a coward too. I made a commitment to try even if in the trying, I failed. At least I would go down swinging.
So guess what happened. I lost in the final game of the championship to the same woman who had beat me in the first. But between the first and last game, I managed to win against every loser and every winner in between. I won a case of tennis balls for my effort, but more than anything, I felt my heart grow three sizes.
I’ve spent a lot of my life avoiding disappointment by taking myself out of contention. Have you ever done that? After that hot, humid day of court competition, I’ve tried to follow the advice I so often preached to my children. Sometimes the outcome isn’t nearly as important as the mindset. I hope today you find a way to persevere. You just might surprise yourself!
Did you know that stress can really mess with your ability to perform? Oh sure, experts say that low levels of stress can heighten performance. All that pumping adrenalin adds strength, speed, and improves reflexes. But chronic stress is another matter indeed. The body isn’t built to keep pumping out adrenalin. Life, it seems, isn’t mean to be lived in high gear.
I cannot remember the nature of the suffering, but I recall a time when Pete and I were under a great deal of stress. We were having trouble sleeping, lacked energy, were moping around like someone ate the last cupcake without any hope of a new batch. We decided to go play tennis and see if that would help our mood.
It seemed like every time the ball came over the net, it was a swing and a miss for me. The first few times it was aggravating, but once the pattern as established, it eventually became amusing. After a miss, I’d take an exaggerated swing at the ball. Pete would chuckle and shake his head. What else could you do?
My klutzy play seemed to be contagious. At one point, Pete made a service toss, swung and missed the ball entirely, and the ball bounced off the top of his head. We were rolling on the court laughing. Who can make this stuff up?
Everything that happened soon became an excuse for laughter. We played bad tennis but had the first enjoyable night in a long while. Eventually we packed up our equipment and grabbed an ice cream cone on the way home.
The next morning, whatever had ailed us began to lift. Circumstances didn’t change right away, but our attitude seemed to shift. Whatever happened, whatever the outcome of the current dire situation, we were in it together. And as serious as the issue was, it wasn’t the only thing going on in our lives. We could always go play tennis.
Isn’t it interesting that today I remember the evening when we had so much fun not being able to hit the ball to save our soul, but I have no specific memory of the suffering that had us limping along? There’s always plenty to suffer over, what can you go out and enjoy today?
Have I mentioned that I’ve been playing tennis with Pete for decades? This means that when we started on this adventure, we were both really, really young. Pete had that fire in his belly to win win win. Pete has never been the kind of guy who gets angry with teammates or opponents. In a game, he is always toughest on himself. He doesn’t like to flub a serve, or miss a backhand into the net – even though both these things are likely to happen at times. Even Roger Federer doesn’t make all his shots! So when we were really young, he’d get mad at himself when we were playing and he thought he missed a makeable shot.
I cannot begin to explain to you how annoying this was. Here I was, happy to win a POINT in a game, and he was across the net, stomping around and banging his racket because he didn’t make the perfect return of serve! Arggghhhhh!
It was difficult for Pete to understand my point of view on this issue. He didn’t think his outbursts really had anything to do with me – and, there’s some truth to that. But they AFFECTED me. My immature self was doing all she could to continue to show up on the court, month after month, year after year, playing a match that regularly went 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, with games that had similar results. How dare he, I grumbled, complain about the occasional miss-hit?
One morning while on vacation, we left the children at the rental with Nana in charge, and we headed out for an early game of tennis. It was an unusually cool, beautiful day for August in the Virginia mountains. The sky was an amazing blue, the breeze light, the courts empty. Our kids were in able hands. We were on vacation and had all the time in the world. It should have been So. Much. Fun.
But Pete’s serve was off, and his temper short. I eventually had to call a timeout. I explained to him that this was more than I could take. I told him how much I wanted to win, fair and square, a game every time we played. I talked about how his frustrations not only seemed childish to me, but were kind of disrespectful. After all, if he demanded perfection from himself, how might he secretly judge me – a wife who couldn’t seem to win a game, much less a set? I told him that I thought maybe we should stop playing together, if this is what it was going to be like. Needless to say, we kept playing. And he worked on his patience with himself. Today, he doesn’t like it when his service game goes awry. In our last outing, he lost a game at 0-40 because he double faulted every point. I know he wasn’t happy about this result, but I also know he was very happy to be playing tennis with me. He simply sighed and sent the balls to me for my turn at serve. It’s no small thing to know that your husband has modified not only his behavior, but his desires in order to love you well. Are there any behaviors you need to modify in order to love another well?
The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground. 1 Peter 3:7 The Message
Over the years, as I’ve mentioned before, Pete and I have gotten frustrated with each other while playing tennis. He thinks I don’t do a good job calling a ball out that he hits; I think sometimes he’s tried to give me an unfair advantage by calling my shot in, when it is really out. We’re getting to old to fight this ridiculously, but when we were younger and DID fight just like this, I eventually learned a crucial marital lesson: believe the man when he tells you something.
Now, before you start blowing up my inbox with emails ladies – just listen for a second.
There are many, many times in marriage (or other relationships, I suppose) when we feel the need to challenge or correct someone’s perspective. This is normal – happens all the time. This is because reality isn’t often about what’s true, it’s about how we interpret and perceive an event. Big difference. It stands to reason that this might cause confusion and even necessary conversations for clarification. Too often, though, we assume that our perception is reality – and we just come out swinging with defensive correction of another.
It is a good discipline to practice NOT constantly correcting, challenging, and chastising folks – after all, our perception is not necessarily big T truth, it might just be little t truth. Maybe there are hundreds of interpretations for a given event, and the only perspective we have is our own. That’s not meant to devalue it, it’s just a way of saying – let’s breathe.
I work very hard (and not very successfully) at accepting what Pete tells me as truth. He’s not into lying as a relationship strategy, he’s a good sport, he loves me, and he’s not out to get me. I can trust him. So there’s no need to badger him in small matters over perception.
Now – there’s a lot said and unsaid in that life lesson. If he started lying about stuff and I found out – then he’s teaching me that I cannot believe him. If he does something that teaches me that his character and discernment is poor, we’ve got problems, right? Those are issues for another day and a team of people to help us sort out what’s going on.
But on a day-to-day basis, seeing as how we’re not playing at Wimbledon and a multi-million dollar prize is not at stake – I choose to trust his calls on the court, and in life. This doesn’t mean we never ask follow up or clarifying questions – oh we do, all the time, but it is not with a TONE that conveys suspicion or distrust.
How’s your tone? Are you in need of a tonal adjustment? Are you trusting people who have proven themselves to be mostly trustworthy? It’s incredible how disheartening it can be to be treated with suspicion when we don’t deserve the paranoia.
Have you ever wanted to win so bad that you were willing to cheat? Or if cheating is too harsh, maybe push the boundaries of fair play a bit too far?
In the game of tennis, etiquette requires that the person receiving the ball makes the call as to whether the ball falls within the bounds of the court. I’m not particularly good at those close calls. More often than not, Pete will say to me, “That ball was out, why did you play it?” This seems like weird cheating, right? Playing a ball outside the lines? But it can really mess with an opponent’s timing. They aren’t planning on the ball being returned, so a returned ball might go right by them. Pete and I, over the years, have felt that the other person was a cheater. Or a bad sport. Or just plain aggravating to play with when the other person didn’t make the “right call” on a close line shot.
I have accused Pete over the years of taking cheap shots. He is very insulted by this claim, repeating often his favorite phrase, “If I actually could intentionally hit that shot, I’d be amazing. But I cannot. So stop acting like I’m playing dirty.”
Cheating is not cool, the bible says so in plain English (now that it’s been translated).
The Lord said to Moses, 2 If you sin: by acting unfaithfully against the Lord; by deceiving a fellow citizen concerning a deposit or pledged property by cheating a fellow citizen through robbery; 3 or, though you’ve found lost property, you lie about it; or by swearing falsely about anything that someone might do and so sin, 4 at that point, once you have sinned and become guilty of sin, you must return the property you took by robbery or fraud, or the deposit that was left with you for safekeeping, or the lost property that you found, 5 or whatever it was that you swore falsely about. You must make amends for the principal amount and add one-fifth to it. You must give it to the owner on the day you become guilty. Leviticus 6:1-5 CEB
Pete and I didn’t learn how to stop cheating as we’ve grown older – because truth was, cheating wasn’t our issue. Our issue was trust. Just last week we had one of these incidents where Pete hit a serve that I returned but he thought was out. We replayed the point. No big deal.
When Moses is setting out these rules in Leviticus (many of which we ignore today because they’re out-dated or weird or whatever), I think they all point back to one super big rule: treat others fairly. Be kind. Be a good neighbor, a loving spouse, a kind parent, a trustworthy person.
In our dotage, I think Pete and I don’t have an issue with cheating – not because we’ve lost our competitive edge – but because we wouldn’t want to hurt the other person in any way. Are there any relationships that we need to evaluate from this “do no harm” frame of mind? Tomorrow, I want to talk about another lesson I learned that I think is super important.
Some of my tennis lessons have been vicarious. When Scott was in elementary school, he also joined the tennis team at our local pool/tennis association. Like most sports, Scott seemed to appreciate the accessories and snacks more than the competition of the sport. If Scott is competitive in sports, I’ve never seen it.
When you play on a tennis team, there are these things called “challenges”, and this is how you move up that darn ladder. A player lower on the ladder challenges the player one rung up, and if they win, they trade spots. I can no longer remember the details, but Scott played a challenge match one time against one of the girls on the team. She is an amazing tennis player – really really good. Even at this tender age, you could tell this kid had game. Pete and I fully expected this challenge to be short and sweet and decisive.
There’s a reason we have to play these games, rather than just assuming we know the outcome.
This young woman had great form, a killer serve, and was clearly well coached. Her dad stood on the sidelines, studying her form, no doubt preparing to help her improve her next match by finding slight flaws in her execution.
Scott, on the other hand, was not particularly well coached. His game was…unconventional. He didn’t know where to stand on the court and his service form was atrocious. He made unconventional plays and was very lucky a high percentage of the time.
This flummoxed his young opponent. She wasn’t used to returning a serve that barely made it into the serve box. She couldn’t predict where his return was going to land any more than he could. He won the challenge. Her father appeared frustrated by the loss (as Pete would have been too if the tables had been turned and he was the parent of a tennis prodigy). Over the years we enjoyed watching this awesome young lady’s game improve and none of us were surprised when her prowess was often noted in the local paper. I have no idea how she and her dad navigated the landscape of such potential – maybe with grace and mutual enjoyment – I don’t know.
But Pete and I were reminded to pay attention to the values we set for our children, because if we don’t, we may unwittingly exasperate them. Win or lose, Scott was not particularly affected by the outcome. We learned how to follow his lead. We stopped signing him up for competitive sports – eventually – and found an awesome guitar teacher instead. Are there ways to encourage a child’s talent in a sport or whatever? You bet! But I think we have to be careful about our own motives too. Perhaps the sport we are aggressively pursuing on their behalf is a reflection of our passion, not theirs. Maybe in all our relationships we could take a few minutes and do a self-check. Are we checking our motivation behind the choices we make?
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4 NIV
This tennis team phase didn’t last that long for me. But while I was on the team, I learned that inside me lived a middle school girl who still wants to climb that invisible ladder. My neighbor didn’t have that problem. She didn’t buy fancy outfits or take private lessons. She won, she lost, either way she shook hands at the end of a match and went home without much concern for anything other than how she played the game. She was a real grown up, even way back in the day. I was not. Fortunately, I wasn’t spending all my time playing tennis. I also had a life that included a sincere desire to live faithfully. Tennis was one daily life example that was teaching me that my outsides were not quite up to par with the intentions of my heart. That’s a problem, but at least an identified one. One afternoon I came across this bible passage:
My child, accept my words
and store up my commands.
2 Turn your ear toward wisdom,
and stretch your mind toward understanding.
3 Call out for insight,
and cry aloud for understanding.
4 Seek it like silver;
search for it like hidden treasure.
5 Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
and discover the knowledge of God.
6 The Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
7 He reserves ability for those with integrity.
He is a shield for those who live a blameless life.
8 He protects the paths of justice
and guards the way of those who are loyal to him. Proverbs 2:1-8
I gave up the tennis team because the accessorizing was annoying and I needed to work on my maturity more than my cross court backhand. There was not one single thing wrong with the tennis team, the problem was me. What a great gift I received from this experience! My study time encouraged me to think that my intentions mattered and gave me a path forward; but it was my tennis experience that taught me that I needed the path. Are there any activities that you need to re-evaluate? Any ways you spend time that are teaching you that your energy might be better served doing something different?