Making immaculate mistakes

Objectively, tennis is perhaps one of the most irrational and unlikely parts of my life.

It has been the source of disappointment, fear and frustration at the rigid mercy of the black nets and white paint that dictate whether a shot is in or out, well-executed or poorly played. Because of tennis, I know what it is like to pour myself into a goal just to fall short over and over again. I know what it is like to barely miss qualifying for the state tournament three years in a row. I know what it is like to be cut from a team after an underwhelming tryout. I know what it’s like, after 15 years, to feel pressured to prove myself to others because I am still insecure about my game.

I know the hurt that comes with trying and failing. Yet, after years of practices, tournaments, workouts, injuries, tryouts, cuts, wins and losses, I realize that tennis is not only part of my life but inseparable from it.

In all these years of playing tennis, I have never once seriously considered letting it all go.

From an early age, I began to realize that the lessons I learned through this sport went far beyond strategy and technique. As I learned how to hit groundstrokes, volleys and serves, I also learned how to handle pressure, make quick decisions and stay positive in tough situations — tennis was teaching me about life.

The structure of a tennis match lends itself to personal growth. Tennis is unique in that, for the most part, it is inherently individualistic. There are only two to four players on the court at a time, and in most tournaments there is little to no coaching allowed. Fans are expected to stay relatively quiet, and most matches are played without officials, leaving the players to make their own line calls and keep track of the score.

Tennis is also an untimed sport. In theory, a tennis match could literally go on forever. To name one extreme example, in the first round of the 2010 Wimbledon tournament, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played for over 11 hours over the course of three days before a winner was determined. To make matters more extreme, once the players enter the court, they don’t leave it until the match is complete. There is no halftime, and water breaks are limited to a mere 90 seconds after every other game and 120 seconds after each set. Furthermore, it has been found that, on average, less than 20 percent of match time is actually spent playing. In high-level tennis, where most players have comparable skills and experience, the ability to focus and reset between points and develop routines during the remaining 80 percent becomes increasingly important.

With so much indefinite “alone time” on the court, there is lots of potential for pressure, frustration and uncertainty to overshadow focus, confidence and enjoyment. And for me, this has often resulted in fear.

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At a young age, I struggled with a heightened sense of guilt. I remember as a child making mental — and sometimes physical — lists of everything I had done or might have done wrong and feeling the constant throb of my confused conscience that would only be relieved by “confessing” my guilt to someone. I would often go to bed in tears and wake up fearful of starting a new day that would inevitably bring more mistakes.

I also began to rely on others, especially my dad, to assure me that I could move on from the things I felt guilty about — everything from “lying” that I liked my babysitter’s socks to thinking a bad thought. Even with this assurance, I began to take other people’s disapproval, approval and forgiveness much more seriously than I took God’s — I was more concerned about feeling clean than accepting and trusting that God had actually forgiven me.

This translated to how I approached tennis. Even before starting a match, I was already afraid of accidentally making a bad call or getting into a conflict with my opponent. I would sometimes win a match but feel guilty because maybe, just maybe, I had done something wrong and did not deserve to win. Fear was breaking down my spirit.

My dad, who is also a tennis coach, taught me that one of the most fundamental lessons in tennis is to keep your eye on the ball. When a player intently watches the ball, they enter into a new realm of perspective and focus. Yet, staying focused on the ball — the vehicle that directs the entire game — tends to be the easiest task to forget.

How often do we do this to God? How many times have I gone through a day only focused on accomplishing my list of tasks without keeping God’s agenda in mind? How often, blinded by my guilt, did I overlook the one who was offering me sight?

One of the most memorable and instructive matches of my tennis career was one that almost turned out to be a quick, uneventful loss. To grasp the significance of this match, it is important to understand the basic system of tennis scoring. A tennis score is broken down into games, which consist of individual points, and sets, which consist of games. To win a match, you typically need to win two out of three sets, to win a set, you need to win six games, and to win a game, you have to win four points.

On this particular day we were playing the best two out of three sets, and in a short time my opponent had gained and stretched the lead, winning the first set 6-1 and leading 5-0 in the second set. Up to this point I was hardly a contender in the match — my misses were interspersed with her winners, and I felt like there was nothing I could do against her.

But at that moment of what looked like hopelessness, when I was only a point or two away from losing the match, something changed. I remember making the decision that I was going to try to make this match last as long as I could. I told myself that the match was far from over and that I just needed to focus on playing one point at a time. And slowly, one point at a time, the match began to shift. This shift was accompanied by a profound sense of calm and peace about my play and about the results. I ended up winning that set in a tiebreaker and then going on to win the match.

That day served as a lesson in looking away from the final score and towards the individual points. I needed to take my eye off of the target and put it back on the ball. This experience is one that I can still reach back to as a reminder to keep fighting even when the finish line seems out of reach, whether it be in tennis or life.

Tennis may be an individual sport, but I never play alone. God’s hand of provision, faithfulness and power is made clearer to me through tennis, and when I truly play for him and not myself, I feel his peace and presence. While I still struggle with many of the same things that concerned me when I was younger, I realize that at the core, tennis is a game, and we are imperfect players in need of a higher purpose and source of strength. On the Wheaton tennis team, our goal is to play first for God and then for each other. It is such a blessing to have teammates and coaches that desire to have this focus.

Tennis, then, is not only a rational but also an inseparable part of my life because God has used it to meet me at my place of greatest weakness. Day by day he is casting out my fears with his perfect love so that I can play for him both on and off the court.

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