What Tennis Teaches

Return to the center

Meet the ball in front of you.

Forgive yourself immediately and get ready for the next shot.

Don’t watch your opponent, watch the ball.

Don’t analyze while you play.

Stay flexible and ready.

Finish the swing to full stretch.

Accuracy matters more than power.

Skill matters more than equipment.

Toss the ball higher than where you’ll be hitting it.

Let your partner handle her side of the court.

If you’re playing the net don’t look back.

Stoop to meet the low ones.

Don’t let points interfere with play.

Play is not performance.

Mastery is not anxious.

Though I love the feel of a solid hit and the racket in my hand, I’m not a particularly good player. But tennis has taught me some of my more durable spiritual lessons. Forgive yourself immediately, for instance, and wait for the next ball. It’s good to remember that as I make my way through the day’s tasks, trying to remember the adage that if a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly. Don’t just swing with your arm–swing with your whole body. In other words, to quote a worthier source than my inner coach, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Be fully present, fully invested, fully awake and available. Don’t analyze while you play. Overthinking, one of my more persistent forms of self-sabotage, is like driving with one foot on the brake. Hit the ball and let go of the result. It’s on its way. It will do what it does. Physics has taken over. Tensing and watching won’t help it along its trajectory. Accuracy matters more than power. My brother taught me this when he noticed I was trying too hard. “You’re a girl,” he said, “you’ll never overpower your opponent, but you may outsmart him.” And as the shots come and the pace quickens and you run to meet the wild ones just this side of the line, Always return to the center.

This last instruction, reiterated with irritating frequency by my hippie coach (who also urged me to loosen up and “go for the yogic moment”) began to leak into the hours beyond the tennis lesson. After a mad rush to find keys on the way out the door, after a frustrating encounter with a student, after 20 minutes spent searching for an inexplicably disappeared document on an aging computer, the simple instruction, “Return to the center” comes like a whisper from the wise woman within—who keeps rather quiet a good bit of the time. I like her when she shows up.

So where is the center? It’s the place from which I can remember that most of my problems are “first world problems”—solvable, manageable problems of the privileged that are not life-threatening, and may be offering me lessons I need. The center is the place from which I can regroup and reframe and regain an inventiveness that makes problems into puzzles. It’s the place where I remember my deepest purposes. It’s the place where I breathe.

Breathing takes me there. Every meditative tradition I know teaches this: stop. Breathe. Breathe into your whole body. Receive, Release, Receive. We receive life and release it. Every breath is a new lease—life again. This time. And every serve, every shot, even the missed one, is a new opportunity.

St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that “All knowledge comes through the senses.” Our access to things spiritual, metaphysical, even mystical comes by means of what Mary Oliver called the “five rivers” of the senses. What the body knows makes its way to mind and spirit as we begin the long journey of learning, rising and falling our way to first steps, swinging and balancing and throwing and catching, grasping the pencil and the paintbrush, bending into “downward dog” position and stretching after a long run. Tennis taught me that a tiny change in the way I grip the racquet can make a lasting difference in precision and control. And that skill is rooted in trust. And that finding the sweet spot is worth the work. And that right-minded work is play. And that the moment of grace, when it comes, is always a gift.

(see also at www.medium.com)





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