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  • Milly Skiles

Tennis and the Art of Losing

Four years ago, I joined a tennis team. I loved whacking the ball as hard as I could, sprinting nimbly across the court to get a shot just out of reach. I thought I was pretty bad ass. But when I played in matches, I choked under pressure and lost. Every. Single. Time.

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With each loss, I’d spiral down into the biggest pity party the world has ever seen. All I could see was my failure. I was so frustrated. I disappointed myself, let down my team and could only redouble my efforts in vain.

Eventually, I realized that I was acting like a big baby. This was tennis, for God’s sake. People across the world suffered bigger consequences every day for bigger failures. So, why did it bother me so much?

Then it occurred to me: I was simply out of practice with losing.

When I was a working as a journalist I was a hunter. I chased down stories, persuaded people to talk to me and got chills when my name appeared in print. My work provided clearly defined opportunities to succeed and fail, and that helped mold my identity and self-esteem.

As a stay-at-home mom, however, I was rarely put in the position to lose. Success was defined by things like, oh, brushing my teeth before noon. It was more of a reaction than a pursuit. My successes and failures became tied to my kids’ and husband’s.

But I neglected to provide myself with an arena to experience failure. In short, I had lost my competitive edge.

Realizing this was a revelation. Tennis took on a whole new meaning for me, one where I could experiment with failure in a safe environment and learn from it.

Failure and I became good friends. Rather than avoid situations where I stood to lose, I embraced them.

When I did lose, I didn’t resist. I sat in the feeling, indulged in it even, letting the waves of defeat wash over me and then flow away. I even went so far as to say that I was “grateful” when I lost. Which is kind of weird.

The more I sat in failure, the quieter my thoughts became. Instead of whining about a loss, I humbly set about improving my tennis, which I should’ve been doing all along. I slowed everything down, focused on form and stayed light, jumping into a split step to prepare me for what came next. The fate of the next point relied on how I acted between points.

It became easier to let it go when I didn’t win a point. That point was gone, nothing I could do about it. But I could do everything about the next point, so I'd better stay sharp.

Similar mindsets spouted up in my everyday life. Things bothered me less. This really came in handy during 2020 when every day seemed like an endless nightmare. Thank God I’d built up that resilience! To be sure, there were times when hid in my bathroom and wept, but I truly believe tennis helped prepare me for these moments.

I ended 2019 feeling strong and so ready for the 2020 spring battle season. I had even procured cute new uniforms for the team, because, let’s face it, I mostly play tennis for the fashion.

Of course, Covid had other plans and the courts were closed for months. When we did get back to playing, things were different.

Gone was the stress of the USTA matches that tweaked my ranking. My tennis buddies and I played for the sheer joy of it. I got to relax and work on some new tricks, like drop shots. I took more calculated risks and they started to pay off.

And to think, I owe it all to my good friend failure.

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