After a year of transition, I have made it back onto the mixed doubles circuit. And the other night as I was in a dog fight with my new partner some of the nuance of leadership and teamwork came to light.
Establishing a common goal. This lady and I had never played together, but she let me know that we had played against each other several years ago. It was interesting because then she switched to listing an array of problems with her current game. She was recovering from carpal tunnel surgery, she was using her daughter’s racket. “Okay,” I said, “The main thing is to have fun out here. As long as we play well and don’t get too uptight about the match.” She nodded. Agreement.
Focusing on the objective. The couple on the other side of the net was husband and wife. And unlike some husband and wife teams, who bicker, they were very connected. We lost the first set in a well-played duel. And through out the set my partner did complain a few times about her own play. And a couple of times she complemented me in a way that showed our common goal and our partnership. It’s easy for players to get down on themselves, and one way of getting over this is to recognize your partner’s efforts. In my favorite moment of the match, she said, “Beautiful footwork!” she shouted right after I closed the net and knocked down a weak service return. I pretty much rocked the rest of the match after that.
Adjusting to setbacks. In tennis, if you are a competitive player, you don’t give up. That’s one thing you never do. You play until the match has been won by the other team. And this process of not giving up is about making adjustments, finding ways to stay positive, and constantly communicating with your partner. Talking between points can be as simple as saying, “Okay, this time let’s keep our shots down the middle of the court, that’s where they are the weakest.” Or even, “All right, partner, let’s get this one.” I provided no feedback on her negative self talk. And as we established our partnership our team talk became the rally point for our efforts.
Staying light in the heat of battle. Sometimes making a joke or releasing some tension can be just what the team needs. Remarking on the beauty of the moment, the heat of the battle, and how “this is why we play tennis,” can go a long way towards sustaining the effort even as the odds are beginning to tip against you and your partner. There is something remarkable, for me, in learning how to play “mixed.” While the same male and female roles apply, the common goal can unite your partnership in a way that becomes a model for how men and women should work together all the time. There is a give and take. There is an etiquette of play that requires some chivalry while simultaneously, at the higher levels of play, allows for aggressive play from both partners.
Adjusting the game plan. As things in my match the other night, did not go according to our hopes, my partner and I regrouped. We tried a few alternative strategies. We continued the collaborative effort. And again, this is one of the transferable life/work lessons. Things will often not go your way, you cannot win every single day, so you learn to adjust, you learn to stay positive in the heat of battle, even when you are getting drummed. By learning to constantly look for different opportunities, you develop the habit of not giving up. It is important in almost everything we do, to not give up before the match is over.
Loss. How you deal with loss is often more important than how you win. Tennis is about getting out there and giving it everything you’ve got. If you lose, and it was a good/fair match, the overall goal was met. So even in loss we can win in the process of teamwork, levity, adjustment, and regrouping. My partner and I played a hard 3 set match. There were moments where we could’ve taken the victory, but the other couple won some critical points. But my partner and I kept at it. And in that bonding of mutual effort and mutual respect we became a team. And the trust that we developed allowed us to talk about adjustments we could make. She was able to tell me after losing one critical point, that I should’ve taken the baseline position rather than staying at the net. I learned. She led. We still lost, but we grew as a team.
Teamwork and renewal. So you pick it up and do it again. As my partner was icing her tender wrist after the match we talked about how fun the match was. And we exchanged some congratulations with the other team about winning a hard-fought 3-setter. Indeed, this is why we are on the court: to have fun, to fight, to learn and grow, and to recover as a team and get ready for the next match.
Some additional tennis as life teacher posts:
- The First Cut: Applying The Way of the Sword to Life and Tennis
- The Tennis as Life Metaphor: What Are You Made Of?
- The Inner Game of Tennis – Timothy Gallwey Returns with More Wisdom
- Zen and the Tennisball Machine – Alone with Patience and Agility