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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.

Suffering and Compassion, Part 3

love

This year I have decided to more fully participate in Lent by reading Wonderous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, by Richard Rohr, since I got so much out of reading Breathing Under Water. In each chapter, Rohr provides his interpretation of the scriptures for that day, then quotes the scriptures, and then offers a “starter prayer” for contemplation. I have found praying in this way much more fruitful. Although I usually don’t get an answer right away, by the next day I often have some insight that deepens my understanding of God.

One of the more difficult messages to digest in Rohr’s books is that God wants us to choose love, knowing full well that we will suffer as a result. Knowing that it will break our hearts. Because it is only through experiencing love, and the suffering that results from loving, that we can truly understand how much God loves us.

I have to admit, this really pissed me off. Like many people, I wrestle with the question of why God lets people suffer. I write about Easter every year in an attempt to understand the nature of suffering. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that God never promised that life would be free of suffering. The fact that Jesus died on the cross makes it explicit that no one is immune from suffering. But, on the bright side, God is with us in our suffering, even when we think he has abandoned us. Which is something, I guess.

But I still don’t want to suffer.

Now Rohr is trying to convince me that, not only must I endure suffering, which is hard enough, but that God wants me to actively and willingly choose suffering as a consequence of love. That this is how we fully understand what it means to be human. This is how we gain wisdom. This is how we can more fully experience God’s love. Those all sound like great things, but it wasn’t exactly making me want to sign up for more pain and suffering.

When I told my brother this, he pointed out how much suffering I was willing to endure for tennis. Which is true. I have written blog posts describing how I’ve had asthma attacks, thrown up on the court, played through depressive episodes and physical pain. I’ve been sick from hunger, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. I’ve experienced humiliating losses. I’ve had bad tennis breakups. But I would never give up tennis just so I could avoid the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of playing this game that I love so much. Life would be much worse without tennis.

I’m pretty sure God loves us more than I love tennis. Which means he must really love us a lot. And, consequently, suffers a lot. All the time, billions of times over. Regardless of whether or not we choose to love him, or how many times we mess up. Willingly, repeatedly, from now until the end of time, God chooses to love us.

That’s pretty deep.

Who would have thought that tennis would teach me about the depths of God’s love? The benefits of tennis never cease to amaze me.

So I’m experimenting with focusing my intentions on being loving to myself and others whenever I’m in pain. Which is what the practice of compassion is about, after all. It’s going pretty well, I think. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but I guess it makes the pain more bearable. More meaningful. More worthwhile. I do feel happier, more peaceful of late. I don’t feel as anxious and depressed. Which could be because of Daylight Savings Time, in all honesty. But it could also be that the benefits of choosing love really do outweigh the costs.

I guess we’ll see.

Control What You Can Control

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My friends on my tennis teams and in my groups often tell me, in a teasing way, that I am bossy. And I have to admit, it’s true. But it’s sort of necessary if you want to make sure that people show up to matches and for court times, because it’s very bad when people don’t. Which is exactly why people don’t like to captain and be in charge of groups. Who wants all that responsibility? No normal person, that’s for sure. So really, I’m doing everyone a favor.

One of the things that all of the books on compassion emphasize is how little control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our circumstances in life are not in our control. In some ways, it’s a little disconcerting, given that so much of our culture is focused on the idea that we control our own destiny. This is why people don’t want to take meds (they’re for the weak-minded). Why we blame people who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our own (they’re just lazy). Why our failures are our fault.

When I tell people about this aspect of practicing compassion, skeptics are quick to respond with, you’re just letting people off the hook. You’re just giving people excuses for not taking responsibility. Which is not the case at all. Because the one thing that we are in control of is our intentions. To be loving or hateful. Forgiving or vengeful. Accepting or judgmental. And our instinctive response with ourselves and others is to be critical and judgmental. It takes a considerable amount of discipline and practice to counteract these negative responses. It is far more work than controlling, blaming, and shaming ourselves and other people.

I know it’s negative, but as I reflect on this past year, the first thought that comes to mind is that it really sucked. I know people have it worse, that people have harder lives than me, but a lot of it was still sucky. It would be unrealistic to aspire to a normal life, given how predominantly mental illness factors into every aspect of my life, but sometimes I wish it could be a tad easier. Just a little less painful.

I tell myself all kinds of things to try to keep from falling into a pit of despair. The most helpful strategy is a compassionate one. I cannot entertain these thoughts because they cause me suffering, and I don’t have enough energy to spare on unnecessary suffering. I must take care of myself or I won’t be able to function. I remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can. That all I can do is focus on getting through this moment. I need to take advantage of whatever small thing I can do to make myself feel even the tiniest bit better.

So this year my New Year’s resolution is to exercise more control over my intentions, which are to be mindful, compassionate, and accepting. Which means that I need to write more blog posts.

Eye on the Ball

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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.

Head Games,Part 2: Sportsmanship

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I have always prided myself on not using head games to win. However, this morning, as I started obsessing the moment I became conscious, I realized that this is not completely accurate. If head games are something you use to affect your opponents’ behavior, then I am guilty as charged. But not in the way you might think.

Last month while I was at districts, I played a match in which my partner and I were frustrating our opponents with our game. They tried to make adjustments, but they weren’t working. I could see that they were starting to lose it. They started arguing with one another. A few points later, they went ballistic when I called a ball out. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I tend to be overly generous with line calls because I’m afraid of going to hell. But it was so obvious that this was a ploy to disrupt our concentration that I was uncharacteristically dismissive of their protests. Then, during the changeover, they complained to the official that we were taking too much time. At that point, I actually started laughing, their tactics were so transparent.

In the next game, one of the opponents hit a good shot, and I acknowledged it, because that’s what I always do. My partner said they don’t deserve compliments, but I explained to her that if I let their behavior affect my behavior, they win. Their head games worked. It’s not that I wanted to be nice; I wanted to send the message that there was nothing they could do to disrupt my concentration. That I was mentally tougher than they were.

Interestingly, my good sportsmanship was so disarming that they, too, started acknowledging our good shots. And by the end of the match we shook hands cordially, and our opponents did not show a trace of the animosity they had demonstrated earlier. And I have to say, I was prouder of myself for the way I handled their head games than I was for the way I played. Although the win felt good, too.

What a revolutionary idea. That good sportsmanship can be as contagious as poor sportsmanship. It is the most effective head game you can use. It makes you look foolish if you continue to yell and complain when your opponent is complimenting your shots. It calls attention to your bad behavior. So unless you want to feel like a bad person, there’s nothing left to do but to be fair in return. In social psychology, this is called reciprocity: people give back the kind of behavior they have received from another.

Can you imagine if we applied this strategy in real life? If, whenever someone accused us of doing something that upset them, instead of getting defensive, we say I’m sorry I’ve hurt you. If, when someone tries to pick an argument with us about politics or current events, we say, well that’s an interesting perspective. I can see why you would feel that way. Not because we like them or agree with them, but because we don’t want to give them any more ammunition. Because we want to disarm them. That would be a much more powerful weapon than retaliation.

And when it comes to mental toughness, I’m all about winning.

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