Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Unforced errors

A little over a year ago, I began tennis lessons. My first teacher was a very sweet young man who was one of the lifeguards at our development pool. One afternoon while he was giving my children their lesson, I mentioned that I wished I knew how to play tennis. He said he was the captain of his high school team and that he’d be more than willing to teach me how to play. I paid him $20 an hour. He taught me how to hold the racket, swing it properly, and spent most of the hour teaching me how not to look like a complete idiot on the court. During the past two summers, in the scorching Charlotte heat I have hit hundreds of tennis balls. I run, jump, stretch in various directions, and hear odd popping and cracking noises come from my elbows, wrists, shoulders, and knees. What sustains me are the visions of Masters Tennis Tournaments all over the world, hearing commentators talk about the "tennis phenom" who started playing at 37 with a teenage coach and is taking on players who have played since childhood. These past two summers, I have dragged my very young son out to play as often as I could. Then when he got home from work, my husband has been forced to play another rounds with me. There was more than one day when I played three sessions of tennis. About eight months ago, I pulled into the driveway of a good friend’s house, and the car in front of me had a vanity plate that said, “DROPSHOT.” I walked into my friend’s living room and asked whose car that was. A week later, I was on the court with a “real teacher.” Rhonda is awesome. She is energetic, encouraging, and extremely talented at tennis. She runs me around the court, back and forth, up and down. That first lesson left me cramped, dehydrated, and smitten: I was absolutely hooked on tennis. I am still hooked on tennis. But there’s one catch: I am mercilessly critical of myself. If the ball goes out of the court boundaries, I collapse onto the court like I’ve been shot, ranting and raving like a lunatic. If I hit the net, I hit the court with my racket. If I miss my serve, I want to just crawl into a hole and die. It’s ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous, but when I’m out there, I just can’t help myself. I expect nothing but perfect tennis every time I’m on that court. Sure, I’m still a novice player, barely beyond the beginner level. I’m not totally unrealistic about my talent. When my coach serves her “real serve” to test my responses and make me push myself to the next level, I’m fine. I miss most of her serves, but that’s to be expected. When my husband lays down one of his impossible spinning shots, the ones that bounce on my side of the court, then head back towards the net, I get upset with him not myself. “Just hit it straight, Steve. Give me a chance. It’s not nearly as much fun for me to watch you hit those crazy shots as it is for me to actually be able to have a few rallies with you.” I’m getting more evenly matched with Steve, but I’m still a long way from beating him. With Rhonda, I am way out of my league. The one I really want to beat up on the most is me. There are two words that my coach has used more than once that just make me grind my teeth: Unforced errors. “Gail, when you get your unforced errors under control, you’re gonna do great. You are improving so much. You could get out and play tournaments, but the unforced errors are what you have to watch out for.” Those words echo in my head for hours after every lesson. Eventually, I shake it off and get myself back on track with my normal life, leaving that sweaty hour of power behind. Later, though, in the quiet moments, the reflective moments, those words roar through my mind again. I cringe when I think of the “unforced errors” I commit in the course of my daily life. The times when I get a little too angry at the kids and yell a little too loud. The times when I am unnecessarily impatient with my mother and forget that she’s doing the best that she can. The times when I push people a little too hard and expect them to live up to impossibly high standards that no one could ever meet. The times when I roll my eyes at the overwhelmed store clerks or inattentive waiters for no particularly valid reason other than my superiority complex. The times when I am critical of someone and express my disappointment in obvious and unrefined ways. Those are the unforced errors that make me want to fall down on the court – and ask for forgiveness. Those are the times when I wish I could ask for a “do-over,” an instant replay with an alternate outcome. On their own, none of those errors is a big deal. But taken together, they add up to lost opportunities for growth, lost connections that can never be remade, and lost time for togetherness that can never be recovered. Even the very best tennis players, the ones who get paid millions of dollars to play tennis commit unforced errors. They do nothing but play tennis all day every day, and they don’t play it perfectly. So what chance do I have to avoid the errors I make? What can I do to reduce their frequency? Practice, practice, practice. On and off the court. I stand in my kitchen and go through all the motions of the serve. I stand in front of my mirror and practice my swing. I need to do the same in life. Stand in front of my children and serve up an apology. If I don’t say it exactly right and it gets smashed back into my face, so be it. At least, I put myself out there and put the ball in play. If I listen attentively and give time, patience, and forbearance in a challenging situation without sucking my teeth or making a sarcastic comment, then I have given someone else the chance for a winner, or at least a winning moment. If I back down and willingly give up my right to demand an apology or explanation from someone, extending forgiveness before it is even sought, then I’ve come a long way towards winning a chance to go into a second set. Plus there’s always room for unforced laughter, unforced hugs, unforced encouragement, unforced love, unforced respect, and unforced graciousness. Let those be the passing shots that people remember about me. Let kindness and gentleness, reliability and approachability, mindfulness and tenderness be the trademarks for which I am known. The unforced errors are part of tennis and part of life. The goal in both is to do exactly what my coach advises: Get the unforced errors under control. Let the strength of your game, and not the errors, determine the outcome.”

No comments: