It frustrates my daughter that I always lose at tennis. To be honest, sometimes it frustrates me too. Given how well I play - and I do play well - you’d think that one of these days I would win a match. But I never have. Sure I’ve won games here and there, but an entire match? Forget it.
I have over the years insisted that I was simply not a competitive person, but in my heart I know this to not be true. I am very competitive. I would have to be to have enjoyed the many and varied successes that I have - outside of tennis.
But success in tennis eludes me. And this despite years of coaching that have resulted in a massive forehand, a wicked backhand slice, excellent volleying ability, lobs that you’d have to be a six-footer to reach, and a serve that is by all reports quite decent.
Needless to say, I have been quite the mystery to my coaches over the years. During lessons, I play exceedingly well. I do not exaggerate. I am a knock-up champion. And I also enjoy myself thoroughly. Tennis is my personal therapy. On a tennis court, I am stress-free, liberated, and happy. If you saw me play during a lesson, you would beg me to be on your tennis league. That’s how awesome I look.
Social critic, Alfie Kohn, might argue that I have the right attitude towards the sport of tennis, that the fact of my complete enjoyment of it should be the only thing that matters. His position is probably best outlined in his very first book titled “No Contest: The Case against Competition”. In it Kohn writes, “the more closely I have examined the topic, the more firmly I have become convinced that competition is an inherently undesirable arrangement, that the phrase healthy competition is actually a contradiction in terms.” Kohn believes that competition is an extrinsic motivator that sets up conflict between doing well and beating others. He believes that people should strive for a sense of competence and focus on their own accomplishment, not on doing better than others.
I wonder if he plays tennis? We’d make a happy mixed doubles team. We would lose repeatedly to the likes of Bud Collins [b. 1929] and Dodo Cheney [b. 1916], but heck, we would be so psyched up on intrinsic motivation that we could care less.
Some psychologists believe that anxiety is the underlying problem for people who cannot win at sports. Too little anxiety and one underperforms because of indifference. Too much, same result, but for a different reason. When anxiety becomes excessive, one loses grasp of one’s abilities. Take for example the student who spends weeks studying for an exam, but the minute the test paper is placed before him, he goes completely blank. Ask him what is 2 + 2 and he’d have no clue. Anxiety has crushed his focus. And like me, he may cope by feigning indifference, and pretend that winning doesn’t matter. But it does.
The solution to an inability to compete in one sphere is to first recognize the many spheres in which you do compete. And succeed. If you were truly indifferent to competing, you would be a complete loser. I am not.
The next step is to make yourself compete. Kohn is right, doing well is inherently pleasing. But winning sometimes requires beating the other person. There’s no getting around that. And the only way to win is to compete.
So I have joined a new tennis league. They saw me in practice and begged me to. We play twice a week. And when I finally get past my anxiety and win a match, you will be the first to know.