I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts yesterday – No Challenges Remaining – and in it Ben Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen discussed Andrea Petkovic’s possibly dwindling tennis motivation. Courtney said that Andrea has a wide range of interests, only one of which is tennis, and apparently she sometimes feels that tennis is not her true calling, that perhaps she was meant to do something else.
The podcast also mentioned Mallory Burdette (who retired in 2014) as an example of a tennis player who wrestled with the same types of thoughts while playing professional tennis. I found an interesting article (also written by Courtney) that expanded on the podcast chat.
Burdette felt that there was a huge difference between college tennis – where it was all about the team – and professional tennis – where it was all about her. Some Burdette quotes from the article:
I thought that being a professional tennis player I would just get to focus on tennis, but there’s so much more that goes along with that. Taking care of your body, taking care of your mind. It was also different because it was all about me. I was the racehorse, I was the one everyone was looking at. How can we get the most out of you?
Coming from a team setting [in college], obviously they want the most out of you, but it’s also about all these other people. Sometimes it was hard for me to think of myself. On the team I was very focused on everyone else. I wanted to be a captain, I wanted to lead. It was definitely a learning experience to have to be at peace and quiet with myself and focus on myself. That was a life-changing time and something I will never forget.
It seems to me that Burdette felt like professional tennis was a selfish activity – that she wasn’t contributing to society in the way she wanted to. Burdette did acknowledge that a big part of the role of professional tennis players is to motivate younger players, but she felt that she could be better doing that in a different profession, and the one in particular she mentioned was psychology with an emphasis on understanding motivation in children.
Courtney’s article and podcast got me thinking: Is tennis a selfish activity?
At the amateur level, tennis is played by people of all ages, at all stages of life and with many different motivations for doing so. Some are children who watch the pros with desire to be like them one day. Some are 80 years old and out there to get some exercise and socialize with friends. Some are middle-aged athletes who love to train and compete.
Improving at tennis is largely about self-improvement. Improving our technique. Improving our timing. Improving our bodies. Improving our minds. Since I’m not a professional tennis player, winning a match will not earn me any money with which I can feed my family. So is my pursuit of tennis greatness selfish? Does it benefit anyone other than me? I’ve come up with a few reasons that I think tennis can improve our lives as well as the lives of others around us. Take a look and let me know if you agree.
Tennis helps us learn to live in the moment
While I’m playing tennis, if I’m not careful, I think about my 3-year-old son and feel guilty that I’m not spending enough time with him. I worry that he’s eating too much sugar and not enough vegetables. And I plan dinner in my head. However, when I’m at home with my son, if I’m not careful, I think about my forehand – why it’s falling short so often and what I might do to fix it. I think about what we’re going to eat for dinner, and whether or not I’m being a good wife.
When I was working full time as an engineer I would worry about home when I was at work and about work when I was at home. If I’m not careful I easily slip into the habit of not really being fully engaged in the present moment. I find it hard to turn off the chatter in my mind and focus on whatever it is that I’m doing.
As I delve deeper into the world of tennis – playing, watching, and reading – I’m starting to learn more about the mental side of the game. A well-known strategy for playing well in all situations is to be able to tune out distractions. These distractions could be the roar of the crowd, a million dollar cheque on the line, a ladder match score, an upcoming presentation at work, or a grunting player on a neighbouring court.
Learning to focus on what we’re doing right now is a transferrable skill that we can apply in all areas of our life. I’m working on my ability to stay in the moment on the court, at the gym, at the dinner table and at the park. I’m not the only one benefitting from this. By learning to focus my thoughts and energy on what I’m doing I’m able to fully engage with my son when I’m with him rather than think about the million other things I tend to think about. I’m learning to be mindful and present, and while tennis is by no means the only way to learn how to do this, it is what opened my mind to the concept and a great way to work on it.
Tennis encourages us to be physically healthy
We all have different motivations for going to the gym. Losing weight and gaining muscle come to mind as common factors. I go to the gym to increase my mobility and strength so that I can play lots of tennis without getting injured. Whether or not this is a noble goal is irrelevant as it accomplishes something greater: it gets me to the gym on a consistent basis.
Since playing tennis I’ve stuck to workout programs like never before and have decreased my body fat percentage by almost 5% while maintaining the same weight. I’m learning about strength and mobility as it relates to tennis and am incorporating that into my programs. I have researched and experimented to find the ideal diet for my body, and now enjoy having more energy on and off the court.
My family and I benefit from this as my mood is happy and stable, I have the energy to go the park with my son, and I am lowering my risk of developing a serious disease down the road. My son is seeing a positive role model and the benefits of healthy habits. Taking care of ourselves is a great way of taking care of our families, and can also hopefully reduce the social resources we’ll use throughout our lives such as hospital visits and medical treatments.
We can add value to other people’s lives through tennis
While tennis is often thought of as a lonely sport, particularly if you think of a singles match, we typically need at least 2 people to play tennis. In doubles we need 4, and many more people make up clinics, leagues, ladders and clubs. We might have one close friend that we play with a lot and can strengthen this relationship on the court, or we might be part of a team or club in which we interact with lots of different people.
Think of how much you appreciate the people you play tennis with or even just talk about tennis with and think of ways you likely add value to their lives. Perhaps some positive encouragement on the court, going for coffee after a practice, or pushing someone to work harder and improve more.
Similar thinking can be applied in your non-tennis life as well. I recently left a full-time chemical engineering job to stay at home with my son, and I was worried that I would feel I was making less of an impact on the world than I did when I was working for a large, prestigious company. I’m learning that even though I might not impact a lot of people, I can do my best to improve the lives of my family, friends and community, and am taking a more active role in the administration of my tennis club. And, while I’m not sure anyone will ever read this blog, I’m hoping to be able to connect with a few people who also love tennis through this medium so we can improve at tennis together.
The professional tennis scene is obviously different than the amateur one, but I do think that the same arguments apply to professional tennis players.
A key difference is that professionals might have a wider reach than amateurs and therefore have the ability to impact a greater number of people. Top players like Djokovic, Federer and Serena have done incredible amounts of charity work, fundraising and advocating for various organizations. They use their positions of influence and financial resources for good.
This is not necessarily an option for lower ranked players, but these players are necessary too – without them there would be no-one pushing the top players to be better, no one nipping at the heels of the front runners, and no one dramatically upsetting the favourites in big moments. These roles, while perhaps not as glamorous as starting a foundation with your Wimbledon title earnings, are important for keeping the sport exciting for fans, highlighting it in the media, becoming the top players themselves one day, and of course the biggest one – inspiring people to pick up tennis racquets and give it a go.
I don’t in any way mean to say that I think Petkovic should stick to tennis if she’d like to try something else, or that Burdette’s retirement was misguided. I admire the self-awareness of these two women and their curiosity about other options. The point of this is really just to say that any activity can be done selfishly, and any activity can be done with a greater purpose in mind. It is up to us to find ways to improve our lives and impact the world around us, no matter how big or small that impact or world is.
I also don’t mean to say that I’m good at doing any of this. I am far from a perfect wife, mother, or tennis player. I get distracted both on and off the court, I binge on cookies and then am grumpy because of it, and I’ve been guilty of envying my tennis partner’s success rather than celebrating it with her. But just as my forehand has evolved and improved since I first picked up a racquet, I believe I can improve at these things too. Tennis is not the most important thing in the world, but playing it can help us take on the important issues in our lives with greater ease.