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Category Archives: Sports

The Uses of Prayer, Part 2

angel

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about praying for sports. Here is the revised version of the prayer from that post:

Dear God, please let my team and my opponents remain injury-free, be kind to themselves, their partners, and the opponents, and if at all possible, to win. 

I don’t think God is some kind of Santa Claus who grants your wishes, but I have heard that God wants to be in conversation with you, which is what prayer is. And God is like a parent, and I would tell my parents that I want to win, even though they can’t make that happen. They don’t always give me what I want, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Although I really do pray for wins occasionally–when it’s a big game–most of my prayers are not about sports. What I pray for the most, which I wrote in another post about angels, is that God will send an extra angel on my behalf to people who I know are suffering. For me, angels are the metaphor for what in Buddhism might be called loving-kindness or compassion, which you send to people during meditation practice. I like the idea of having actual angels who look out for us. And when we pray for someone, we can ask God to let that person borrow one of ours. Sometimes I’ll ask for an extra one if I’m really struggling.

I do think angels are real. I don’t think they always look like celestial beings dressed in white, with wings and a halo. Most of the time they look like people. Friends who just happen to text and ask me how I’m doing while I’m in the midst of a mental breakdown. Strangers who stop on the freeway and ask me if I’m OK while my car is stuck in the median. A boyfriend who genuinely takes pleasure in helping me with the 2 things I hate the most–cooking and grocery shopping. These people seem like angels to me.

I imagine I have been an angel to other people, too. I do genuinely believe that my purpose in this life is to alleviate other people’s suffering, to whatever extent that is possible. Maybe that’s what we’re all supposed to be doing while we’re here on earth. To be angels to one another, using whatever unique skills and abilities we have. To provide whatever comfort we can, even though we can’t fix everything, or keep bad things from happening.

When I did that self-compassion retreat a few years ago, we were practicing a meditation in which we sent compassion to people who are suffering. I asked the leader if he really believed it helps the other person. Whether sending compassion really makes a difference. He told me that he didn’t know if it makes a difference to the other person, but it made him feel better. That has really stayed with me. That’s really the main use of prayer for me. It just makes me feel better to do it.

What Winners Do, Part 2

What Winners Do.jpg

This weekend my tennis team made it to the semifinals in the state tournament. This is not an easy feat. It is only the 3rd time I’ve experienced it in my 15 years of playing in leagues. A few years ago I wrote about What Winners Do after districts that focused on positive self-talk and mindfulness. This run at Regionals reminded me of some other things that winners do.

  1. Winners don’t make excuses. My tennis partner started cramping at the beginning of one of our matches but didn’t tell me. And she said it didn’t affect her game. I believe her because she plays through a lot of injuries and ailments. Some players tell you that they haven’t played in weeks. Or they ran 3 miles before the match. Or they’ve been nursing an injured hamstring. Sometimes before play even begins. Just in case they lose. Just so you know… it’s not their fault. Players like Federer and Nadal don’t even reveal that they were struggling with an injury until well after their loss. Because winners aren’t afraid to lose.
  2. Winners put their team first. As with any sport, playing time is a big deal. You take it personally when you aren’t in the lineup at Regionals because you paid a lot of money to be there. We don’t have sponsors like professional players do. Plus, it makes you feel like your game isn’t good enough to be in the lineup. But this weekend, our captain did not put herself in the lineup for our semifinals match, even though she is a strong player, because it didn’t benefit the team overall. In my experience, not many captains put their team before their own personal interests. But that’s what winners do.
  3. Winners learn from difficult losses. In one of our matches in the semifinals the opponent made 3 bad calls. Unlike professional tennis, at our level you are expected to be honest and make your own line calls. However, at Regionals you can call an official to watch if you think your opponent is cheating. Even though my teammate was upset by the other player’s poor sportsmanship, she said she learned an important lesson about asking for an official next time. Because that’s what winners do.
  4. Winners come up with new strategies. Last night at the U.S. Open, Maria Sharapova got crushed by Serena Williams. She probably had no chance of winning, but one of the things Sharapova has been criticized for is not changing her game plan. She hits hard, and if she’s losing, she hits harder. She won’t stand further back if her opponent has a good serve. She doesn’t try to use drop shots or lobs. Federer also played last night and lost the first set to some guy that no one has ever heard of. You could see him trying different tactics after that, determined to find a way to win even though he wasn’t playing well. Because that’s what winners do.

In an effort to be more like Serena and Federer, our team has decided to change our strategy for next year. We’re going to adopt a team uniform, because that’s what the best teams do. We’re going to get the outfit that Serena wore last night in her win. Even though her outfits aren’t always flattering, she’s still one of the greatest tennis players of all time. And it would be a perfectly legal way to distract our opponents!

Serena's outfit

Words of Wisdom, Part 2

UVA basketball 2018

I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love Tony Bennett. Almost as much as I love Federer. In fact, Bennett might have a slight edge because he’s local, and Federer is rarely in the U.S. Not that locality increases my odds of being with either of them, but it is easier to be in the same building with Bennett, at least. The last 3 tennis tournaments I’ve gone to for Federer I did not get to see him. But when I go to a game, Bennett is always there.

By the way, if you don’t follow basketball, I’m not talking about the 80 something year old Tony Bennett who sings “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” This is the men’s coach for the University of Virginia basketball team. Not only is he really, really good-looking, he is also a great coach, a great leader, and a great human being.

Last weekend UVA had a loss in the NCAA basketball tournament that has been described as the biggest upset in all of sports. Not exactly the way you want to make history, some might argue. Although my brothers and I take a more positive spin on it: if it’s the greatest upset ever, we must be that good.

And we are. We are the only team to start the season unranked and end the season as the unanimous #1 seed in the country. The ACC regular season and tournament champions. The only team to go undefeated on the road in the ACC. The only team to win after being down by 4 points with .9 seconds left on the clock. The overall #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. A huge favorite to make it to the Final Four. To win it all for the first time ever.

And then we lost to a 16 seed. The weakest 16 seed in the tournament. And we lost badly. Embarrassingly. The worst loss we’ve had all season. Praise for Tony Bennett as the favorite for National Coach of the Year has turned into criticism of how he isn’t capable of winning in the tournament. Doesn’t have what it takes. Maybe UVA should just fire him.

It was painful and heartbreaking to watch them lose. I couldn’t bear to watch the Retrievers celebrate their victory. I went to my room and lay down on my bed and thought about crying. Because, as you know from my last post, I’m on the verge of crying all the time.

But I didn’t. I thought about what I teach clients about mindfulness–how what goes up must come down. Happiness, sadness. Success, failure. Love, loss. They all come in waves. When you’re up, be sure to take it in. Be fully present to it. Savor it. Memorize it with all 5 of your senses, rather than focus on when the other shoe will drop. Because it will drop. That is how life goes. That’s the ebb and flow of it.

And when you’re down, take that in, too. Comfort yourself. Console yourself. Then put things into a larger perspective. And know that you will not always be down, because that, too, is the ebb and flow of life.

But the next morning I still didn’t want to get out of bed. I had been looking forward to watching basketball all day, and now I would just hear about UVA’s loss over and over again. But eventually I got hungry so I had to get up. And I was going to avoid social media so that I wouldn’t have to see what all the haters had to say, but then I decided to just get it over with.

Luckily, one of the first things I came across was Tony Bennett’s press conference after the game. I was so moved by it that I have included the majority of it below:

A week ago we were cutting down the nets at the ACC tournament. They had a historic season, they really did. And then we had a historic loss, being the first 1 seed to lose. And that’s life. The adulation, the praise, we got a lot of it this year. But then on the other side there will be blame. But in the end that can’t define these guys, or our team, or us. Because it was a remarkable season. But we got thoroughly outplayed, and that’s the reality of it. If you play this game and step into the arena, this stuff can happen. Good basketball knows no divisions, or limits, or qualities. All that matters is who plays the best. They earned their right to play in this tournament and we earned our right. They earned their right to move on. It’s who played the best for those 40 minutes and they absolutely did.

It must be so great to have a coach who can say this to you after what may be the worst loss you will ever experience as a player. Someone who tells you to enjoy the highs, accept the lows, and know that none of it defines you. Don’t get too caught up in the hype, and don’t believe the haters. Be the same person in victory and defeat.

If you watch UVA, then you know that’s exactly what they do. What Tony Bennett teaches them to do. As an alum, I am loyal to UVA, win, lose, or draw. And right now I couldn’t be prouder to be a Wahoo, even after the biggest upset in all of sports, because of Tony Bennett.

Tony Bennett

What Winners Do

Winning

I have a running joke with one of my tennis partners where we make up all these statements about what winners do. It started when we played our first match of the season and we were on the verge of elimination. I told her that winners hold their serve and break serve when it counts. Which we did. And we won. But then we just started making up stuff that wasn’t particularly profound because it was funny and it helped us relax on the court. Winners win! Winners wear tennis shoes instead of sandals when they play!

I actually think a lot about what winners do. Often people think that they need to improve their skills to win–develop a topspin forehand, for example. The problem with this strategy is that it takes a long time to improve a skill, and working on a weakness will still not make it one of your strengths. I’ve been working on a topspin forehand for 15 years now, but it’s still not my go-to shot when the game is on the line.

It’s actually much better to focus on your mental game, and it doesn’t take years to get better at it. I don’t consider myself to be naturally gifted as an athlete, but I am a psychologist, so I make sure I capitalize on whatever mental strategy that allows me to have the advantage in a match. I am aware of when people are using head games and don’t let them get to me. I compliment my opponents to make them feel guilty about using head games. I frame my goals in terms of what I want to do instead of what I don’t want to do (e.g., reach up and follow through rather than don’t double fault). I give my partner positive feedback, pump them up by reminding them what winners do.

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of what winners do involves practicing mindfulness. Federer and Nadal, arguably the two greatest tennis players in the men’s game, illustrate this perfectly. Federer is known for how long he can keep his eye on the ball. How easily he shrugs off losses, puts things in perspective. He savors his victories because he is in his twilight years. Nadal often says that he knows that any win could be his last, so he doesn’t take playing for granted. He attributes his success to what he can control–his effort, his practice. All players talk about how they try to focus on this match rather than looking too far ahead. They give themselves time to enjoy their victory. They express gratitude for the people who put on the tournament, their team, their fans when they make their speech in the finals.

Sure, some of this stuff is probably scripted–things they know they should say, whether they mean it or not. But I believe that winners do mean it. They are focused. They take things one game at a time. They don’t fixate on mistakes. They are grateful. They savor the moment.

I know practicing mindfulness has made me a better player, if for no other reason than it helps me to watch the ball–which is often my only strategy when I’m playing. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t guarantee a win, but it makes every aspect of the game, on and off the court, more enjoyable. Which counts as a win in my book.

Happiness is…

Sectionals

It’s been a year since my brother got out of the hospital and I invited him to live with me. The past week has been a series of anniversaries of traumatic events, and in that series, today was the worst day.

A year later, I am having a stellar beginning to my academic year. Further proof of the benefits of practicing mindfulness–the reminder that all things pass, and ultimately you will be OK. I have also learned how to look for happiness when it seems as though there’s nothing to be happy about, and how to savor it when I experience it.

This year began with my tennis team advancing to sectionals. If you don’t know anything about league tennis, this is a big deal. It’s sort of like advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And if you don’t watch basketball, then just think of it as a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the lessons on happiness that I often write about is that you never know how you will feel about something until you get there. I had always imagined that advancing to sectionals would be a joyful thing. And it was joyful, but it was many other things, too. That seems to be the general rule–we never feel just one thing. Instead, we feel multiple, often contradictory things. I was happy we won but it didn’t make me a happier person in general. I still worried about the same things, had the same insecurities. Winning didn’t make me less neurotic, and it didn’t change my life for the better. It was a reminder that, because all things pass, happiness is also fleeting.

During the weekend of the tournament I had the opportunity to get to know two players who I had never spoken to before beyond saying hello. Although they barely knew me, when I needed a place to stay, they invited me to stay in their room on the spot–which helped tremendously with my obsessing about money. Many of my friends helped in whatever way they could–negotiated a lower rate for my room, shared their food with me. It was a reminder that making meaningful connections with other people is the thing that brings me the greatest happiness. It’s why I have the job that I do. Why I captain so many teams. Why I want everyone go out to dinner after our matches.

In a few weeks, we will be off to sectionals, and I am excited about the chance to advance to nationals. I will enjoy the challenge. I will channel my inner warrior. I will go all out to win. But win, lose, or draw, I know that the time off court with friends old and new will give me plenty to be happy about. And after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fades, the friendships will still remain.

Optimism, Part 2

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am a captain who is known for trying to be encouraging and positive, even if our team isn’t that good. Sometimes I make stuff up on the spot to say to my partner to get them to laugh, be relaxed, and fight for the win–even if I think we’re going to lose.

I admit that thinking that we’re going to lose runs counter to the argument that I am inherently an optimistic person, but since I’m at war with myself most of the time, it just makes me want to prove that negative part of myself wrong and win, gosh darn it! So take that, Inner Critic! You don’t know me! I will beat you and your negative thinking!

But I digress. Back to the stuff I make up on the court to encourage my partner. I had a partner last year who kept getting distracted in the match because the pace was really slow. So I told her that she only had to concentrate for 15 seconds at a time, because that’s about how long a doubles point is. Or if my partner has to hold serve to stay in the match but she hasn’t held serve yet, I’ll say, that’s OK. That’s what winners do. They hold serve when it counts. Or I’ll tell my partner that we are capable of getting every ball back. They will not be able to hit a winner against us. I mean, they’re not that good. Or if we’re down 1-6, 0-5, I’ll tell them that I’ve come back from a match being that far behind before. Which is true.

I really believe these things, by the way. I say them to myself all the time. And they do often help me get the win. And even when they don’t, they help me fight until the end and make my opponents work harder than they expected to for their victory. So if I can’t win, I can at least make my opponents suffer, which is a victory in itself.

My latest strategy to keep morale up in the face of defeat is a more extreme form of what I’ll call alternative scoring. Kind of like alternative facts, but without the political controversy. I have always counted tiebreak losses as wins, but I’ve taken this definition of winning a step further. In my summary of the match, I will give the real score (we lost 2-3) and the alternative score (but since I count tiebreak losses as wins, we actually won 5-0). I will point out all of the players who have an “undefeated streak”, which may be defined as 6 straight tiebreak losses. And at the end of the season, I will point out that, rather than coming in last place with an an overall record of 3-6, we actually won 7-2 unofficially and should be going to districts, if USTA were keeping score by my rules.

And the funny thing is, sometimes it works. Last year I had a team advance to districts even though we came in 3rd place, just because we had enough people to go. Just because I tell players to make sure that they are available the weekend of districts. Because you never know….

Actually, I don’t think my positive attitude made that happen, but it was fun to go with the goal of making our opponents lose to a team that came in last place. Because of the whole causing suffering thing as a victory in itself. Which is perhaps a little bit uncompassionate (non-compassionate?), but still positive and encouraging. I think.

Eye on the Ball

eye-on-the-ball

When I went to that self-compassion retreat a few years ago, one of the teachers told me that she thought I loved tennis because I love practicing mindfulness. As you know, I’m a big advocate for mindfulness, but I was pretty sure I cared more about competition, burning calories, hanging out with friends, and wearing cute outfits than I cared about practicing mindfulness. But I can see her point. Tennis is the only thing I can do that allows me to block everything else out of my mind, and I almost always feel better afterwards.

For example, last Monday I was feeling so depressed that I actually did not want to play. Which almost never happens. But I knew it would make me feel better, and I was playing with a friend, so I forced myself to do it. It was tough, though. I thew up 4 times, which is a record. I’m not that good at singles anymore, so I was losing for most of the match. For the first set and a half I felt like crying.

But then I channeled my inner warrior. I told myself I could cry when I got home. I reminded myself of all of the times I was depressed during matches and played through them. How I’ve had to lie down for several hours after matches because of heat exhaustion–which is not a great thing, I know, but it does demonstrate my mental toughness.

And It worked. I won that night. I even saved a match point. I felt better afterwards, but I still cried when I got home. Still, I was proud of myself for my ability to fight through adversity. If there’s one thing that depression teaches you, it’s how to be resilient. To play my best under pressure. It has made me a stronger person.

The most helpful strategy was to keep my eye on the ball–which is pretty much always my strategy. If you’ve ever played with me, then you know that I often publicly announce that I am going to watch the ball before every point. I told myself that in that moment, I’m just a tennis player. Not a psychologist. Not a sister taking care of her brother. Not a depressed person. It’s just me and the ball. Nothing else exists.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you practice mindfulness, happiness is available to you at any moment. I can’t say that I was happy after the match, but I did feel better afterwards. And there were moments when I was in flow. When I was free from all the thoughts and feelings that plague me. And that is a great feeling.

So whatever your equivalent is to keeping your eye on the ball, be sure to call upon that strategy whenever you’re feeling down to help you ground yourself in the present moment. You’re bound to feel better afterwards.