She hit line drive after line drive in the playground. She — for that is how I then referred to the NBP (the nonbinary progeny) — drew spectators. Nine years old, but her gender unclear to onlookers. Someone asked, “How old is he?” I replied that “he” was a girl. “No way,” came the reply. The daughter picked up a bouncing ball and threw it to me. One boy said, “That’s a boy; No girl throws like that.”  (The daughter credits me for teaching her how to throw. I don’t remember that. I think it was her innate ability, but I confess her throwing pleased me.)

                She had those skills, but she did not want to join the school’s softball team. She was intensely shy, did not talk much, and did not make friends easily. I thought that with her athletic abilities, her classmates would notice and appreciate her more, but she would not join the team. She did not voice her fears, but I could picture the discomfort at being the center of attention and the potential panic when another player yelled, “Throw the ball to second! Throw the ball to second!” And in a team setting, she could fail to throw that ball to second, letting her teammates down. That would have been soul-crushing.

                That summer we had an August rental in a community with tennis courts. The daughter’s eye-hand coordination was again on conspicuous display. Soon she could hit the fuzz off a tennis ball. Once I started to play tennis, I found that she could hit the ball harder than most of the men I played with (admittedly, we were not the finest of all tennis players).   

Tennis seemed just right for her. She loved being active, and almost instinctively had great form on forehands, backhands, and serves. Not so much on volleys and overheads, but that would come. Her school did not have a tennis team, but perhaps that was just as well. She would not have joined it and faced all those team pressures. She could just shine on her own.

                She seemed to enjoy hitting a tennis ball, but never enjoyed playing the game itself, whether pickup or in the regional tournaments we went to. She lost more than her innate ability warranted. There were several good reasons for that. Tennis, especially in the city, is a rich child’s game. There are public courts, but it is not always easy to get time on them. Private courts, of course, cost money, and kids today don’t just hit with each other; they take clinics and private lessons and go to tennis camps. It’s expensive. Book a private court and a tennis pro and $200 flies out of your pocket. And since none of her few friends played, or even had much athletic ability, on the days without a clinic or pro, she could only hit with me, and she had soon exceeded my ability. I felt that regular sessions with a pro could have improved her game tremendously, but this would have cost thousands, thousands we did not have. She sometimes lost because she simply had less instruction and practice than the city and suburban kids she played against.

But her losing went deeper than that. Although she was bright, brighter than she realized, she seemed to lack a competitive killer instinct. I asked her once, “When you are behind in the first set and look like you’re going to lose the match, have you considered trying different tactics—bringing your opponent into the net; hitting looping balls—to see what might work in the second set?” She simply replied, “No.”

Even deeper. I once asked after a tournament whether when she was warming up with her opponent if she tried to see her competitor’s strengths and weakness? Did she hit to the backhand to see if it was weak or whether the person could volley? If she could see that the person had a weak backhand, did she try to hit a lot to the backhand during a match?  No, she said again. Delving further, I learned that the daughter thought that it was somehow unfair to try to figure out the opponent’s weaknesses and take advantage of them. If you were the victor, you had made someone else a loser. She did not like to lose, but he also did not like to win (!) because he felt sorry for making someone else a loser. Losing did not feel good but winning was not satisfying either.

I had not played much tennis until the daughter started playing and did not know much about the game myself. From her I learned a lot. I don’t mean that I learned how to have good strokes and hit good shots. I do not have her ability. Instead, I realized how lonely and brutal tennis is. The player may have had much coaching, but during the competition she is out there alone with no help. He is the one who has to adapt strategies in the midst of the match. He cannot look to someone else to give her a boost or to bail her out. It’s rough being out there all alone.

Once he was no longer required to compete (note the passive; I was the one doing the requiring), he gave up playing tennis altogether. He still enjoys hitting tennis balls if winning or losing is not at stake, but that’s it. His choice makes perfect sense to me.

Addendum: See Wednesday’s post by AJ himself on other reasons why tennis was a problem.

The Competitive Mind

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!