18. Aug, 2020

From Russia With Love


I play tennis. I am still not very good. Despite this, playing and learning tennis gives me so much pleasure.

I continue to thrive from swinging open the doors of opportunities to learn and to find and share titbits of wisdom. I cannot walk onto the court with a mindset of let’s see what happens today. That would be a waste of the session, a waste of an opportunity to learn, a waste of others' time who have lovingly and boldly walked out with me. 

The synergy that can be created between tennis players can be life enhancing and a joy to observe as well as experience. I should know, I have felt it on more than one occasion. Playing for 4 years together Mikkeline and I seem to naturally create this electricity while on court. We are both competitive, but champion each other's talents, sometimes rather too loudly for the local residents on a Sunday morning. I have begun to master my serve and practising it against someone who is not only truly skilled, but intermittently shouts 'What a serve, Paula!' can only serve as encouragement and testimony to my hours of practise. 

Together we have found a myriad of ways to play tennis and improve, through the wind, rain, scorching heat and even in times of lockdown due to Covid-19, such is our thirst, not just for tennis, but for tennis with each other. Seeking the energy and moments of fulfilment. Despite playing with others I have never felt the energy that I feel when I play with Mikkeline. It is life enhancing and life affirming.  

I play tennis. I am still not very good. Despite this, playing and learning tennis with others gives me, and I hope the others I play with, so much pleasure.

Today I partnered with Annika for the second time. Heralding from Russia Annika has been playing for more than a decade. I don't know much about Russia, other than what I have heard or seen on the TV, so I asked Annika to tell me about it. What are three things I should know. It was interesting that she referenced only buildings/places. Now maybe if I had framed my question as, tell me three things about Russian people I should know, I would have got the answer I wanted. Annika is a significantly more skilled tennis player than me.  Her back hand volley is perfection personified, whereas mine is non existent. 

I have only recently joined this club where Annika plays and because of Covid-19, I have only been playing regularly with her and other members since government guidelines allowed.

I play tennis. I am still not very good. Despite this, playing and learning tennis teaches me so much more than I could have imagined.

Community over competition is a model that some of us Brits entertain and pursue, particularly the older we get, as our ego shrinks, and we become ever more reliant on the loving kind spirits of those around us. Community over competition can be viewed as forgiveness over selfishness or altruism over egotism. In a community where the average age is that of a young pensioner, it is no surprise that this mantra sits comfortably amongst most club members I play with. Many a time I have started the rally session with several cries of ‘sorry’ as the ball goes wide or hits the net. ‘No need for sorry. It’s just a game amongst friends. It’s not Wimbledon dear.’ No place for battle cries or scowls at your partner as they miss the easiest of shots then!  

I play tennis. I am still not very good. Despite this, playing and learning tennis gives me so much pleasure.Yet this is part of a problem. It gives ‘me’ so much pleasure playing and learning tennis. When playing with a partner, should you not ensure that those feelings of ecstasy are extolled upon them too, by you matching their magnificent skills? If you are not on par with your partner's skillset is the game not doomed from the beginning. Maybe so if you place community over competition and they place competition over community, the game is likely to culminate in a show of fireworks. 

Cue Annika!

I had played with Annika just once before. She offered my mistakes no remorse. When playing with Annika there was definitely a place for battle cries and scowls at me as I missed the easiest of shots.  After a gruelling 50 odd minutes of electric energy and behaviours ranging from silent anger to rolling eyes, I fell into a pit. Every scowl told me I had let my partner down and it was all my fault. We were on the brink of losing. We were 5 - 2 down, but miraculously made it back to 6 all with a tie break. We still lost. Annika’s blood pressure visibly mounted as the fireworks blew 100m into the sky. She said to me that I needed to watch the ball, she said I had to do lots of things to improve, presumbaly so that I was 'good enough' to play with her.  I thought, I have listened, I have learned and I am still learning. I was insulted by her response, I was hurt. I would not behave or respond thus to a player who was less talented partly because I exercised a community over competition mentality and I wanted to take that person with me. I wanted them to learn, but learn to progress with compassion and empathy that was extolled upon them by me and others. 

The energy often flows between people when there is a mutual respect for each other’s position, for each other’s ambitions. The energy between Mikkeline and me flows like a fast  river, at times its hard to keep up with and you need a lifejacket as the waters are so invigorating. Whilst we are competitive, there is a healthy respect for each's ambitions and this is what helps each other progress. I respected Annika’s ambition, but I had limited evidence that she respected mine. Mine was not to win the game at all costs, it would have been great to win and of course that has to be an aim, but when you are outplayed, as I often am, you still feel and embrace the joy of learning. Getting the odd shot in past a partner who is significantly more talented than you expedites that joy right to your heart and mind and keeps the love of tennis alive.

As we walked back to the baseline to collect our things, I thought with the best intentions it was necessary to let Annika know what behaviours help me progress my tennis and which behaviours hinder it. I wanted to let her know that I felt insulted by some of her behaviours she had shown to me over the last two sessions. 

Telling others how they affect me comes quite naturally to me, as you will note from my blogs. I aim not to insult, but to enhance the relationship so that we can continue to learn and flourish together. I could not play with Annika again unless we understood each other better. ‘Annika I am still learning, I am more than happy for you to direct me on the court, but by suggesting that I am thinking of dinner or not focussing is unhelpful and I don’t appreciate it. My progress will stall, and I will be unable to play any further games with you if the tirade of what you consider to be helpful advice is unable to be subdued.'  

Normally at this point I am used to people who I have told that I am insulted (which seldom happens), responding with, if you don’t want to play by my rules, so be it. But that is not what Annika did. She went on to say she was trying to help me improve. She explained to me how she ‘learnt’ the hard way. She explained how she had asked for help from many people on the court to ensure she improved, and she said the advice she got from people was not helping her.  By club members saying ‘you are doing fine, no need to worry. Just keep playing,’ she claims did not help her to improve.  Was this rhetoric the club members' manifestation of community over competition or  competition over community? Annika saw it as the latter. She viewed it as by them saying 'don't worry', they didn't want her to improve, so that she couldn't be a better rival. 

She wanted to improve. She felt that if she was to just keep playing she wouldn't improve fast enough to be a better rival to the people she was playing regularly with.  So she went to a tennis coach. The coach told her off several times for not concentrating. The coach told her to go home until she was ready to improve and have the right mindset. She was upset, but that harsh lesson taught her that if she wanted to improve, she would have to  employ the discipline that was necessary as her Russian coach had taught her. Is this a competition over community or community over competition mentality?

I play tennis. I am improving. Playing and learning tennis gives me so much pleasure. That morning with Annika taught me two things – there is a place for community over competition and a place for competition over community on the courts and when you argue with someone it is uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as getting lost in your own ego and seeking to protect it. I was making mistakes, I was hiding behind using ‘I am learning, please forgive me’. Using it as a defence mechanism for not stepping up. I am capable, but because I have become accustomed to feeling comfortable in the community over competition mantra – it’s ok if we lose, it’s only a game mantra, I will improve more slowly.

We later played a variation of a singles game as there were 3 of us, so we used USA rules – doubles players play doubles court rules and single players play single court rules. I won 2 Annika won 2.

I am a huge fan of paradoxes, contradictions or conflict, through these, as Educational Living Theories teaches, is where you find the lessons to progress your life to help you and others flourish.  However, a wise general only fights when she's sure to win the day.  You can never be sure in tennis of a win, that is why I think the term unforced error was invented. You can never be sure of when you will make an error; there are seemingly thousands of variables in tennis and it is one of the hardest strategic games to learn. What you can be sure of is the lessons you will learn when playing and if you are learning to be better,  a better person, and a better player, then you are winning. 

I play tennis. I am improving. Playing and learning tennis gives me, and I hope you, so much pleasure.