Competition: The Juice is Worth the Squeeze 3


Competition: The Juice is Worth the Squeeze

I played a few tournaments as a junior player. I can’t recall it being enjoyable. I would play badly. I would get frustrated. Embarrassed. I would misbehave. I would lose. Winning felt like the only reason to play and the only way I could find something about the experience that made it worth doing.

In my early 30’s I decided to try again. More of the same except that I cut out the misbehaving. I thought if only I could win, I know I would like this.

At 35, I started to win. In local tournaments I became a serious contender. Results, though, didn’t feel very good. Losing always felt crummy because it reinforced my story of being a weak competitor, an excuse maker, undisciplined and lacking in focus.
It was never about the other guy being good. Winning brought with it more doubts about myself. I won because my opponent wasn’t any good. If he was good, I won because he played badly. Or I was lucky. It was never about me being good.

Well over the next 30 years I found out that I had it all wrong. Competition is about much more than results. Sure, the wins feel good and the losses sting.

But the wins and losses, when hard fought, when challenged and when I can bring the best parts of myself to the court are what make competition truly special.

I am on my way to play the Atlanta Senior Invitational, one of the strongest tournaments on the USTA senior circuit. For the several weeks leading up to it, my mind marinated with ambivalent, uncertain thoughts. Do I want to take time to play? What if I take a bad loss? Am I playing well enough to win? The old story thoughts that always have to do with results. All the while I had been practicing, getting in three practice matches a week. Going through the motions. Focusing on winning in practice.

Oops! Got that wrong. After all these years, tripped up again by the need to win.

Thankfully, one week before the tournament I, once again, found clarity. The Bob who has a way of disappearing resurfaced. My forehand had been a bit unreliable. I couldn’t figure it out so I called Dean Nogrady. We had taught together for many years at the legendary Valley Tennis. He is an expert and I knew that he would be able to spot something that would fix my forehand. It was something simple, as technical breakdowns often are. More important, though, was that he reminded me to pay attention. To go internal. To process. To separate from the outcome. He told me what I already knew.

Outcome thinking is the enemy to playing at the high end of my talent and skills.

So, as I sit on the plane on my way, my ambivalence has shifted to full blown excitement. The excitement that comes with competing.

What excites me about competing is rarely the outcomes. Every match I have played in 30 years ends with me shaking hands having won or lost the last point.

The excitement is that I enter a world where I am challenged, over and over again, to be a version of myself that feels good.
I get to experience the battle between who I have been and who I aspire to be.

I love the work because I get to work on pulling out of the experience what makes each match special.

I love finding the positive experience regardless of the outcome. I love searching to find the quiet within the storm. Finding relaxation in the midst of a perceived stressful situation. Developing my craft. New ways to hit the ball. New places on the court. Having a sense of purpose for each and every shot. I love trying to work it out while my opponent tries to keep me from doing it. I love the engagement. How long I need to pay attention to really get the job done. I love the stress and pressure of each point being a win/lose experience. I love attempting to impose my will on my opponent as he tries to do the same to me. I love when it is close and I had to deal with pressure. I love searching for the state of effortless effort. I love, when I have lost, having to be a dignified loser. I love having to be a modest and respectful winner. I love being faced with losing and giving full effort at pushing it away for as long as possible, and sometimes, if lucky enough, being able to win from the precipice. It excites me when pushed to my limit, when it feels like I just can’t squeeze out one more drop of focus or effort or energy, finding a little bit more. I love the effort that I need to put in to get myself to exercise in the gym, to run sprints, to do agility drills when I would prefer to chill out for a while. I love having a reason to eat well even though I would rather eat badly. I love the texture of the experience. I love the bonding experience and relationships that deepen with my opponents. Most of all I love that I constantly need to do the work of making my days on the court meaningful and special.

Competition brings all of these to my life.

I fail at some or all of these things on some days and I am disappointed but just decide that I will do better the next time. I want to look in the mirror at the end of the day and say, “you did good.”

The joy of working on the details every day has kept me engaged, focused, interested, happy and young. The fact that I am better today than I was 10 and 20 years ago is a huge payoff. The fact that I can work to be better tomorrow is what makes me jump out of bed each day.

THE JUICE IS WORTH THE SQUEEZE.


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3 thoughts on “Competition: The Juice is Worth the Squeeze

  • MEL DI GIACOMO

    VERY WELL EXPRESSED .I ALWAYS PASS THESE ON TO THE TENNIS COACHES IN THE LOCAL HIGH SCHOOLS.

    KEEP THEM COMING AND TANTE AUGURI BELLO.

  • Eben Burger

    Dear Bob
    Thank you for another inspirational and encouraging message. I am listening intently to what you are saying….because I am 34 years old and aspiring to STILL become a professional player one day. Since I have nothing to loose and since tennis is one of the greatest passions in my life, I give it my all, and so far I have been enjoying every moment. I’m enjoying the exciting journey that I’m on and I’m looking forward to the new things I’m going to learn and the people I’m going to meet. At the moment I’m inspiring a handful of students that I’m coaching and hope to ONE DAY be an inspiration to many more – just like you! Glad to knw that you are STILL enjoying the game at this stage of your life….Keep going and keep encouraging those that cross your path… God bless…. Eben Burger