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Tennis and the Art of Losing

I play on a USTA tennis team. When I first joined, I loved whacking the ball as hard as I could, sprinting nimbly across the court, and making shots. I thought I was pretty bad ass. But when I played in matches, I choked under pressure and lost. Every. Single. Time.

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. So, why did it bother me so much?

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

When I worked as a news reporter, 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 that molded my identity and self-esteem.

As a stay-at-home mom, however, success was defined by things like, oh, brushing my teeth before noon. Failure was if someone didn't like dinner that night. Who cares, am I right?

Instead, my experience with success and failure became tied to my family's experiences. If my husband got a new client, if my son got a bad grade.

It had been a long time since I felt the threat of my own personal failure. In short, I had lost my edge.

Realizing this was a revelation. Tennis filled that void in a safe environment. I mean, sure, I hated to lose, but it's not like I was fired.

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, letting hot waves of defeat wash over me. And then float away. I even went so far as to say that I was “grateful” when I lost. Which probably drew some strange looks.

The more I sat in failure, the quieter my thoughts became. Instead of whining about a loss, I humbly set about improving my tennis.

I broke down my entire game and built strengths. I volunteered as team captain and ordered cute uniforms for everyone, because, let’s face it, I mostly play tennis for the fashion.

Tennis is very much a mental game, which my brain needs. You observe and stalk your opponent and exploit their weaknesses. You can also take this lens to yourself and shore up defenses.

But what I most like about tennis is how it keeps me firmly engaged with the present. When I'm playing, I can't think of anything else.

Tennis encourages me to let go. Once the point is over, there's nothing you can do — except get ready for the next point. And the fate of that point relies on one's mindset.

Similar mindsets began to sprout elsewhere in my life. Things bothered me less.

This really came in handy during COVID. Oh, there were certainly times when I hid in my bathroom and wept, but I credit tennis with building the resilience that got me through.

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

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