The NBP is a terrific tennis player — or I really should say a terrific tennis ball striker. AJ played the game as a kid and even won tournaments but never enjoyed that winning or losing thing. Not surprisingly, the NBP did not like losing, but winning brought other bad feelings. The opponent was sure to feel bad, and AJ never liked making other people feel bad. Beating someone made the NBP feel even worse than winning. While AJ still hits tennis balls, there is no more tennis competition.

Seeing these reactions made me think about the differences in individual and team sports. A tennis player must deal with the stark winner/loser dichotomy of this one-on-one sport. I win; you lose. You win; I lose. I win and made you a loser. You win and made me a loser.

As a kid I primarily played team sports, and winning and losing are easier in team sports because the winner/loser dichotomy is a shared experience. I did not win; my team did. I did not lose; the team did. The lonely feeling that accompanies tennis is less in a team sport.

At some time in my undistinguished athletic career (it was hammered home time and again that there were many athletes better than I) my focus shifted. I took what I thought was a reasonable assessment of my abilities and realized that if winning were my goal, I would have to give up activities that I enjoyed and were an important part of my life. Instead I began playing against myself. Did I play well by a reasonable assessment of my own skills? If I had, even though I lost, I was satisfied. But winning was still often a part of this playing against myself.

In my early days in Brooklyn — before I blew out my knee — I played a lot of schoolyard basketball. The usual game was the first to eleven or fifteen of three-on-three, half court basketball. The convention was that if there were other people waiting to play, that group played the winners, and a team could continue to play as long as they continued to win. In the playgrounds I went to I was usually competitive, but every so often someone would arrive who was truly an outstanding player, and there was no way I was going to win. I accepted that and could only admire that other person’s skill. That did not make me feel bad or disappointed. But something else did bother me. Except when one of those stars appeared, I felt that I was one of the better players and expected to win often. I noticed, however, that while I was often on the winning side for two games, the third game was  frequently lost. Having “held” the court twice, there was a letdown. I regarded this loss of focus and intensity as a personal failing. I started keeping a mental record of the games during a week. It was only a satisfying stretch if I won 70% or more. No one else knew I was keeping this tally. I was playing basketball with others, but I was playing this other game against me alone.

 Tennis produced something similar for me. I took up the game at forty-five. Without childhood instruction and training, I knew that I had limited ability that was unlikely to improve much. At one point, however, I thought I was losing too often to players who had comparable skills, and such losing bothered me. I almost thought of it as a moral failing. Losing to better players was acceptable, but not this. My skills weren’t going to improve much, but still I ought to, and felt I could, play better. I studied the game a bit and realized that there were strategies and tactics and shots that were within my ability, and although my strokes and serves were not stronger, I won more often. This, too, was really a game against myself, and it was satisfying when I played as well as my too-limited ability allowed. The downside was that I was frustrated when I failed to play up to my own “standard.”

Such self competition came out most during my running days. I did win basketball games and tennis matches, but I was never going to finish first in any of the 10K races I entered. Instead, I would set a goal near the boundary of my ability for the race. I did not measure myself against the other competitors, but against that goal. Some days, but not every time, I would “win” and feel satisfied, but I won or lost against myself.   

I did win one race in my running days although I did not finish first. It was on a trip to the hometown. The race started at the Sheboygan “Y,” ran along the lakefront, up the hill at North Point, continued on Third Street, turned around, and retraced the route, finishing back at the YMCA.  The gimmick was that no one could run with a watch and there were no clocks on the course. Before the race all entrants had to write down their projected finish times. I sensed that many of the competitors were reluctant to enter what they really hoped to run, but at this point in my running, I was attuned to what my body could do. I did what I did in other races and recorded a time that was a goal for that 10K. I finished within a few seconds of my estimate. I was the closest by far, and a week or two after the race, I received in the mail a pair of running shorts with the Sheboygan “Y” logo. (I no longer have them; They either shrunk or for some other reason got too small[MJ1] .)

I have to admit that I have taken some perverse pleasure in “beating” others in running. Through the years I have met people who considered themselves runners. For inexplicable reasons they seem to think that I will be interested in their races and their times, even without my having mentioned that I was a runner, too. Almost always I have taken silent satisfaction that my times were better, usually much better. A few, but only a few, of the obnoxious prattlers ask if I ran and even fewer ask me about my times. When I do announce a much faster time than theirs, which is usually the case, I feel an unexpressed pleasure and a bit of gloating which I hope I keep off my face.

Now the NBP no longer plays tennis against others, but I am sure that when AJ hits the ball against the backboard, there is not only exercise, but also competition against themself. I can relate to and cheer for that. I hope it gives the satisfaction that I have frequently found in competing against myself.

 [MJ1]Where was I?! I don’t remember this at all!

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