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Loyalty

When it comes to sports, I am loyal to a fault.

In a previous post, I talked about the delusional level of optimism that my brothers and I must channel at times to continue to cheer for UVA football. My brother emailed me recently to ask if I wanted to renew our season tickets–which I did. Even though we only won 2 whole games last season.

I captain several tennis leagues every year. And every year, I invite all of the players from the previous season back to the team unless they’ve done something I consider egregious–like not show up for a match. Or not respond to my emails. Or cause drama on or off the court. I can tolerate a player with a losing record, but I won’t tolerate a person who disrespects me or other people.

There are many captains who have the opposite recruiting strategy: they will tolerate a strong but less likeable player but get rid of a nice person who is a weak player.  Because the point of forming a team is to win, after all. I get that. And I’ve had winning teams. But I’ll admit, I sometimes choose loyalty over winning.

I’ve had friends leave my team and play for other captains because of this. I can’t really fault them for wanting to be on a winning team. But I am grateful for the friends who continue to play for me, because it makes our team feel more like a family. In fact, the tennis family that I featured in a previous post are all long-standing members of my mixed doubles team.

This team happens to be my winnningest team, too.  So loyalty does pay off sometimes.

This year, for the first time in 38 years, UVA won the ACC tournament in basketball. And for the first time ever, we were both the regular season and tournament champions. And we did it without any superstar athletes.  Without anyone noticing, really. Because when you win with defense, it’s not flashy.  So we didn’t get as much press as some of the high profile teams in our conference.

I was there when they won the tournament, and what impressed me the most about them–other than how awesome they are–is how humble they are. No one sticking their faces in the camera talking smack about how they proved their haters wrong. Not even any “we’re number one” stuff. No ego at all. Just a joyful celebration of their accomplishment as a team. As a basketball family.

It takes faith at every level to be loyal to a losing team. In the post-game interview, Tony Bennett thanked God for getting his team through the low times. Bennett had faith that a team without a single McDonald’s All-American player could accomplish great things. The players had faith that defense and unselfish play could win championships. And UVA fans had faith that someday, our basketball team could return to the glory days of the Ralph Sampson era.

So this post is dedicated to the 2014 ACC regular season and tournament champs. See you in Texas at the Final Four!

Competitive Latch-Hooking

When I was a kid, my mom got my brothers and me to entertain ourselves through arts and crafts. One year she bought us latch hook kits. 

My first project was a picture of Scooter from the Muppets, which she turned into a pillow. I quickly moved on to a picture of Linus. I can’t remember what my brother Jr.’s project was, but I do remember that what began as a fun activity for the 4 of us turned into a fierce competition between him and me.

My brothers and I had this unspoken code of ethics. If there were a box of 12 Fudgesicles, we were each allotted 3. Once my brother Romeo was looking for something to eat and my mom told him that there was a Fudgesicle in the freezer. He had already eaten his share so he didn’t take it. He knew better. She was confused, though.

When someone left the room, their seat was saved. This is because whoever was closest to the phone had to answer it and hunt my dad down, because it was almost always for him. We would pull in every chair possible into the TV room to avoid sitting next to that phone.

Of the 4 of us, Jr. was the most law-abiding. He never cursed. He followed all the rules. He never lied or cheated. Unless he was competing against me in something like latch-hooking.

As I reached the end of my Linus project, I ran out of yarn. Which really pissed me off. What kind of project lacks the necessary supplies to complete it? I thought it was only fair that he stop working on his rug until I bought more yarn. Since I’m the oldest, I made up and enforced most of the rules, so I took his latch hook. He did not protest because this was consistent with his sense of justice, too.

But he wanted to win so badly that he secretly worked on his project without the latch hook. Because you don’t need it if you’re really determined. He quickly gave himself away though with his guilty laughter, so he didn’t get very far. Still, I took his rug from him, just to be safe.

I don’t even remember who won. He probably does, though. But we both remember how fun it was to compete against each other–in that instance, at least.

I realize that this fiercely competitive attitude is not the norm. Yet it still surprises me when people don’t feel the same way. I don’t understand why my colleagues don’t rush to turn in their paper work first. Or why some players don’t play in tournaments or leagues because they don’t like the pressure. Or why more people don’t read my posts about sacrificing my health for the sake of my team.

It’s not that I have to win. I often play in leagues above my level, so I lose quite a bit. It’s more about being fully engaged in whatever I’m doing. Competition forces me to do this, but it’s really more about competing with myself. That’s why I do things like spend 4 months knitting a dress for my niece by Christmas.

I’m so proud of that dress that I thought I’d show you a picture of it, even though it is only tangentially related to this post.

In Times of War

I find it fascinating to read accounts of the things people do to survive in times of war.  I will never forget reading this memoir of a refugee from Korea.  She described how one mother threw her baby in the river while she was fleeing.  That has become my symbol of survival at all costs–throwing your baby in the river.

One of the things I love about tennis is that you get to see what people would be like in times of war.  Competition can bring out the best and worst in people.  There are tennis players like Federer and Nadal, who are warriors but also class acts on and off the court.

And then there are players who couldn’t be nicer off the court, but get them in a losing match and you’ve got rackets, curse words, and insults flying everywhere.  They question every line call.  They cheat.  They resort to gamesmanship.  They do whatever it takes to win.  You probably know some of these people.  I have no doubt that in a war, these people would have a better chance of surviving than I would.

But I also read this book called The Noonday Demon where the author interviewed people all over the world to get different perspectives on depression.  One of the interviews was with this tribe that fought bitterly in a civil war to survive, but once the war was over many of them committed suicide. 

Apparently, the things you have to do to survive make it hard to live with yourself after you’ve won.

I try to play with people who are competitive but are still the same person on and off the court.  That’s why in my mixed doubles partner ad, I said I wanted a partner who demonstrates good sportsmanship, has a positive attitude, and never stops fighting for the win.  I want to win, but most importantly, I want to be around people whose company I enjoy.

I think that for the most part, I am the person I strive to be on the court.  In fact, I find it easier to be the person I want to be in tennis than I do in real life.  But because I don’t want to win at all costs, combined with the excessive empathy problem, I’d probably reduce my chances of survival by doing something like helping someone who has no chance of making it.

But then again, we never know how things are going to turn out.  We don’t know if we’re going to win or lose, survive or perish–because all the factors aren’t in our control.  So I try to make choices that I can live with, regardless of the outcome.

Warriorism

I captained 5 tennis leagues this year, which most people would describe as an exercise in torture.  Rescheduling matches is a pain, and it’s hard to make everyone happy, but for the most part I enjoy it.  I see it as an opportunity to be a sports psychologist. 

One of the messages I try to instill is the idea that, just as we all have inner children (Sophie, for me) we also have an inner warrior.  Granted, some warriors are more deeply buried and out of shape than others.  For those players on the team, we have the Warrior in Training program (WIT).  A good time to channel your inner warrior is when there is a crucial point, like serving at 30-40 at 3-3. 

The levels of warriorism have evolved over the years.  Last year I had an asthma attack during a singles match.  I’d had a few of them before but I just assumed I was out of shape.  But my friends saw that my lips turned blue and I was wheezing, so after the match they told me I was having an asthma attack and that I should have retired.  It was this match that made me finally go to the doctor, which is how I found out that, in addition to allergies and exercise-induced asthma, I also have GERD. 

For these reasons, I no longer play singles.  But at the time, I just thought I needed an extra-strength dose of warriorism.   I channeled my inner drill sergeant (we all have one of those, too) and started yelling at myself:  soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam didn’t get to quit.  They had to deal with fatigue and lack of sleep and mosquitos and rain and fear of getting killed.  So what if you can’t breathe?  So what if you’re losing?  So what if you can’t move?  You still have to finish the match!

My friends thought is was so funny that I used soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam for motivation that this became our new rally cry.  Before a team mate got on the court, we would yell “jungles of Vietnam!”  Later this got abbreviated to jungles for short.  I even got my team mates pins to put on their tennis bags with the word JUNGLES on it in an army-looking font. 

I also found some monkeys and apes, so I bought those, too.  I would have preferred a variety of jungle animals, but it was pretty amazing that they sold apes and monkeys at all, with exactly 12 per pack–one for each team member.  Even more amazing is that I was able to pick a monkey that represented each player.  So then our rally cry became ape and monkey calls for those team members who can imitate them.  I can’t so I still yell jungles.

The last level of warriorism is when you are in the trenches of the jungles of Vietnam.  This would apply when you’ve lost the first set and are down match point in the second set.  Or when you haven’t slept in over 24 hours and have to play at districts in the deciding match, which happened to me this past summer.  Because it requires you to channel so deeply, this level should only be used in dire circumstances.

I remember at the end of that match, after mentally preparing myself for battle the entire day and spending a good amount of time in the trenches, I was shocked that we still ended up losing.   Then I realized that in war, there are warriors on both sides, and half of them will lose.  In fact, a bunch of warriors on the winning side will get killed, too.  So it’s not a fail-proof strategy.

Still, if I’m going to be in the trenches, I’d rather be there with my warrior in charge than any other part.

Hard Core Fan

I often get asked why it doesn’t depress me to listen to people’s problems all day.  I guess it’s because I find people’s stories fascinating–a puzzle to solve.  And I genuinely enjoy getting to know someone who is ready to deal with their problems.  It takes courage to acknowledge that you need help and to do something about it.

But probably the biggest reason why it doesn’t depress me is because I am an optimist.  I believe people can change, can make their lives better.  This comes in handy when you’re following a losing team.

My brothers and I are avid UVA fans because we went there.  It’s different to be committed to a team because you went there or because they’re from your state than when you choose a team because they’re good.  Anyone can cheer for a winning team.  Being a hard core fan, on the other hand, takes dedication, patience, and optimism.

One of my brothers is such a hard core fan that before the game he spends weeks researching the stats of our team and of our opponents, checking out the scouting report, the spread, comparing how our offense matches up to their defense and vice versa.  And he always has these grand predictions for the season.  In fact, it borders on being delusional, but in a good way.

For example, this year he predicted that we would be 8-5, which includes a win at a bowl game.  At best, we will win 3 games, and that will require some divine intervention to win the last one since we’re clearly so sucky.  I remember one year when we had a similar season, he had an epiphany as we watched another loss.  He turned to me and said, “you know, I’m beginning to think we’re not that good.” 

This year as we sat through the Duke game, which we lost splendidly in the 4th quarter, in the midst of frustrated fans cursing our coach and quarterback as they exited the bleachers, there was one woman who perkily said “see you next week!” to the usher on the way out.  My brother and I were struck by how unfazed she was by the loss.  We realized that we had briefly waivered in our faith in our team and channeled another source of optimism to motivate us to have hope that we could win the next weekend.

And then we lost again.  And again.  And again. 

We had another conversation about that perky woman and concluded that she must live in Charlottesville, so she could afford to be optimistic because it probably only took her at most 30 minutes to get to the game since there is no traffic and no problem parking.  We, on the other hand, had to drive 2-3 hours, spend money on gas and food, and make the long drive home in a bad mood. 

Still, my brothers and I plan on going to the showdown against Tech on Thanksgiving weekend.  I’m prepared to throw some punches if necessary to avenge any negative comments launched against my team in the event of a loss.

And if we end up being 2-10, then I can take comfort in the fact that basketball season has begun, and we’re supposed to be good at that.

The Uses of Prayer

LOVE UVA (2)

I often wonder whether God responds to prayers about sports.

I remember watching this football game where Boston College and Notre Dame were playing, and it was really close and dramatic. I can’t remember what year. Some time in the ’90’s. I’m sure there are sports fans out there who remember this game in more detail than I do. Anyway, they showed the players of both teams on the sidelines, kneeling and holding hands in prayer. I can’t remember who won, but clearly God could not answer the prayers of both teams.

Most of the time I try to pray for “noble” things when it comes to sports. For example, before my tennis team plays, I’ll pray that everyone stays injury-free, that we play to the best of our abilities, and that we are kind to ourselves, our partners, and our opponents.

And when I’m desperate, I pray that we win. But since I’m ambivalent about whether this is a good use of prayer, it usually goes something like this:

I know you’re busy with more important things and you probably don’t intervene in things like sporting events, but if it’s OK to pray for, please let my team win. I read that angels can intervene if you let them, so maybe you could just send one angel our way. If you say no, I totally understand.

It’s sort of a neurotic prayer, I know, but I’m a neurotic person, so what did you expect?

Today I really wanted UVA to win. My prayer was sort of like a conversation with God during our last drive:

God, you must have intervened when Maryland completed that pass on 3rd and 23, so if there’s any way you can keep this drive alive for us, please do so. Please let us get this one win.  We really need it. In fact, if we win, I’ll make my blog about prayer today.

And I have to say, there were some pretty miraculous things that happened to give us a chance to win: calls that went our way, unexpected turnovers on Maryland’s part, penalties that helped us complete first downs. Everything seemed to be poised for an upset. In the end our 2nd string kicker had a chance to win the game with a field goal, but he didn’t make it, so we lost by 1 point.

It was a heartbreaking loss, but I do believe my prayer was answered. I think the most we can ask for is to be given the chance to make something happen for ourselves, and we had that. The rest is up to us.

So I decided to write a blog on prayer, anyway.

P.S.  My friend who is a hard core ND fan knew what game I was talking about:
Nov. 20, 1993:  ND (#1) vs. BC (#17) in the last regulation game of the season; BC won 41-39.

P.P.S. They just showed Texas A&M players kneeling and holding hands while Johnny Manziel leads them in prayer. Their kicker makes a field goal with 4 seconds left, beating Ole Miss 41-38.

 

Tennis Courtships

Finding a tennis partner is a lot like dating; there’s this nervousness and excitement about asking someone to play with you, whether they like you, and whether they want to enter a tennis marriage.

Once my friend set me up with one of her colleagues who was a really good tennis player. He was a 4.5 and I am a 3.5 and we were going to play an 8.0 mixed team together. The first time we practiced I was really nervous about whether he thought my game was any good. I got hit in the eye pretty badly by our opponent so I wasn’t really able to play my best tennis.

Afterwards I tried to get the scoop from my friend: Did he like me? Did he ask about me? Did he think I was any good? Unfortunately, we did not win any matches during the season so I don’t think he had that much fun and he never asked me to play again. I wasn’t too upset because he really was out of my league.

In many cases, spouses do not make good tennis partners. Usually the husband has high expectations for how he believes his wife should play, and this tends to get expressed as criticism on the court. Then the wife will get mad and tell the husband to worry about his own game. In fact, it’s often a useful strategy when playing a married couple to try to get them to fight during the match.

While tennis divorces are not as painful as real divorces, they can cause hurt and angry feelings and potentially end the friendship. Often tennis marriages end when one player moves up in rating, the pair goes on a long losing streak, or one partner cheats on the other partner by playing in a tournament and/or league with someone else.

I once had a tennis divorce when my partner moved up to 4.0. While we dominated at 7.0, I was not good enough to hold my own at 8.0.  He started to get frustrated with my game and was asking me to make shots that I didn’t possess at the time. I told him I thought we should both try to find someone stronger to play with and he was surprised and hurt by this. After some tense conversations, we were able to part on good terms.

Because I live in a small town, you pretty much know everyone’s game and who is involved in a tennis relationship. But if you live in a big city, it might be nice to have a tennis dating website that could help you find a partner. It could be called tennismatch.com and the slogan could be: we’ll help you find a winning partnership.

My description might go something like this:

Female 40 and over player with a 3.5 rating looking for a mixed doubles partner to compliment my game. I’m a lefty with a great backhand and serve and I am crafty with my use of spins and lobs. I prefer the baseline and play great defense but I am comfortable at the net and will put the ball away when I have the chance. I like a partner who demonstrates good sportsmanship, has a positive attitude on the court, and never stops fighting for the win.

That makes me sound like an appealing partner, don’t you think?