The Inner Game of Tennis

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Recently, I authorized myself to do what makes me most happy and I made a list of what I wanted to go after. At the top of the list was re-entering the world of athletic sports. Rediscovering the sport of my childhood and adolescence, tennis, without the competition and performance pressure opened up a new realm of consciousness for me.

Everything I’ve discovered in relearning the game of tennis over the last few years has been a metaphor for the way I take up leadership, group psychodynamics and my intrapsychic world. Of course I had a copy of a book my mom gave me “The Inner Game of Tennis” but I had no idea that playing tennis would be so closely linked to these deeper topics.

Last year was all about the power of my stroke, and the preparation to hit the ball. I had developed a habit of swinging my racquet back behind me twice in preparation for hitting the ball which led to all sorts of problems. Preparedness and power dynamics summed up my biggest leadership challenges of 2013. Putting the power into my swing meant being more consistent with my forehand: instead of getting under the ball and hitting high beams (power under) or on top of the ball hitting into the net (power over), I need to hit through the ball with a flat racquet face moving with the upward motion of the ball (power with). Shifting to a power with paradigm in my approach to leadership was just as important in my personal life and work life. It finally made sense to my why my backhand is much more powerful than my forehand: as a woman, I have learned to get power by going behind, under or on top, but not on equal footing. This is not because I am a woman, but rather because of how I have been socialized and how our systemic, organizational and group dynamics come into play.

In 2014, I made it a habit to play tennis as often as possible and for entire the week I spent in Ixtapa, Mexico this month I played tennis twice a day. It was a true luxury. There is something about playing in the heat of the tropics that makes the game an entirely mental one for me because my body becomes exhausted so quickly the only thing carrying me is my mental determination and physical discipline to hit the ball the same way time and time again.

The biggest issue with my stroke this year? Acceleration. Turns out, this not only had to do with the topspin I was putting on the ball but also the alignment, boundaries, timing and envisioning process with which I hit the ball.

To accelerate, I needed to remember each time I hit the ball that there was an imaginary ball directly aligned above it and imagine hitting both in an upward motion. I also needed to point to the ball and imagine a box around me consistently to keep distance between myself and the ball to avoid hitting the ball late. If the ball passed that boundary then I was late and going to compromise the acceleration of my stroke. I found that when I was able to imagine the second ball and the box, I could accelerate and usually hit the ball on time but what was most interesting was how I did this. I started to view the court and watch the ball with a sort of enhanced vision. In fact, when I would actually hit the ball I would no longer keep my eye on the ball but the imaginary ball above it and the placement on the other side of the court where I wanted to put it. The most important time I watched the ball was before it even reached my side of the court and just before I hit it, and even then I was looking under the ball so it wouldn’t drop too far down before I made contact with it.

From the matches I played on the court, I learned that in order to accelerate in my life, I needed to pay much more attention to my alignment, boundaries – internally and externally, my timeliness as well as my timing and my ability to envision and keep looking ahead with a slight bent toward the past while still being present. But, how does one do that? As I played tennis, I started to understand the interrelatedness of all these factors and it clicked. It made sense to me. It wasn’t as complicated as it seemed. I could do it and by doing it consistently I was slowly developing a muscle memory. In building this muscle, I found a gauge with which to check myself in future endeavors, and a very vivid one to draw on.

The many associations and implications this has on my leadership practice, group psychodynamics, and intrapsychic life are too many to count. It was worth the somewhat embarrassing experience of leaving the tennis court everyday back to a conference setting, drenched in sweat. Once, someone asked me if I had just come from a swim after I played a match, and when I replied “No, I was playing tennis,” they looked back horrified because I was quite literally drenched in sweat. 🙂

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