Play Each Ball

“I suck!”

A few weeks ago, my friend, Quinton, was kicking my butt in tennis. And I was pissed. Not at him, but at myself.

We’d been playing almost every week since the beginning of summer. At first it was a rediscovery for both of us. Neither of us had played in a while–in my case it had been something like 10 years since I’d played.

The first couple of weeks were awesome. Sheer joy. It didn’t matter to us who won or lost. We were caught up in the fun of whacking tennis balls back and forth.

So what had changed?

That’s what I asked myself that day each time I caught myself cursing a bad hit or stressing about Quinton’s killer serve. “Why isn’t this fun anymore?”

And the answer that came to me–the answer that seemed so clear and obvious–was that I was no longer present playing tennis.

Each hit was being compared to my past performance (“why do I keep flubbing my backhand shots?”) or measured against an ideal (“my placement on that serve was off”). Each moment between hits was filled with worry about the future (“if I lose this game, I’ll lose the set”). Good shots were no longer celebrated. If I scored a point on a really good shot, there was relief (“finally I didn’t screw one up”), not joy. And if Quinton scored a point on a really good shot, I felt discouragement, not appreciation.

The next question that hit me was a sobering one. “Why even play if I’m not having fun?”

The stakes couldn’t have been more clear to me: Start having fun again or stop playing tennis. So right there, at the end of the first set, I adopted a mantra I would repeat to myself for the rest of the morning…

Play each ball.

That is, play each ball that came towards me as if it was the first, the last, the only. What I noticed immediately was that all thoughts of past and future disappeared. No hit carried with it any more than what it was: a tennis ball coming at me across the net. Second, I began to appreciate the nuances of each moment–the ball’s speed and trajectory, the way the light danced on the ball as it flew through the intermittent shadows of the trees, the odd bounce. Even a bad hit became fun–“I didn’t expect it to do that!”

Soon, I noticed I was smiling. The joy had returned to the game. It became play again.

And paradoxically, the less I analyzed my performance, the better I played.

In the weeks since, the joy of playing has remained with me. I still try my best, I still play to win. But winning is secondary to being present…

To playing each ball.

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