This is going to be a pretty lonely weekend. The Curmudgeon is away. My sister is away. One of my best friends is away.
Come to think about it, half the people I know are away competing in USTA Districts. I used to be away the first weekend in August, but I stopped playing competitive tennis. I could blame it on arthritis, but that’s not entirely true. The fact is I took it way too seriously, and something that began as fun began feeling like work. I guess you could say I psyched myself out.
Tennis became a lifeline and social support system for me when my kids were young. As one of the few stay-at-home moms in my old neighborhood, I desperately missed adult interaction. After a friend suggested tennis, I drove to the nearest indoor tennis facility and signed up for weekly clinics.
I looked forward to those 90-minute breaks from parenting, smacking the ball to release frustration, break a sweat and shift my focus. And being a goal-oriented, super-competitive person, I was intrigued when the head pro Charles mentioned Districts. To get there, you had to finish first or second in the league. Charles urged us to “play like a lion” to make Districts. I wanted to be a lion.
It was fun. I made a lot of friends. And though I often had “Mommy brain,” I learned that I could still focus and keep my composure during matches. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. When you’re home with kids, knowing you can still concentrate for two hours feels like a major accomplishment.
I played USTA for 12 years. But something happened along the way. As my intensity grew, so did my anxiety. I became so focused on the outcome of matches that I stopped enjoying them. I walked around with a sense of dread and a pit in my stomach before matches. I forgot that it’s a game. I try to remind my family and friends who are playing in Districts to remember that this weekend, but I know they won’t.
It’s been impossible not to hear the word “Districts” around here for the past month. There are videos advising teams what to do. There have been clinics, drills, matches, strategy sessions and pep talks. There have been discussions on uniforms, line-ups, hotel accommodations and post-match entertainment.
I haven’t seen my sister, who’s captain of her team, without an ice pack on her right arm all summer. There’s been a run on Tiger Balm, Icy Hot, knee and elbow braces and cortisone shots. And this is before the first serve has been struck at indoor courts across the country.
The Curmudgeon, who is playing singles today for his team, announced last night: “There will be no drinking of alcohol!” as part of his pre-game prep. (I guess he thinks he’s playing in the U.S. Open.) We spent an hour last night discussing whether he should eat lunch before the match, and if so, what to eat. We’ve discussed bed times, whether he should warm up and what to do between matches.
As he left, I told him to remember to have fun, to which he replied, “You know that’s impossible.” And I do. As much as we try to remember it’s a game, something inside us shifts when we’re keeping score, our rating’s on the line, our team is counting on us and spectators (jerks) are rooting against us.
I didn’t like it when parents would root against me when I played high school tennis, but I deplore it as an adult. I once stopped a match when one of my opponent’s shots hit me in the head and her fans erupted in laughter. I didn’t mind getting hit, but their reaction struck a nerve (court rage?). “You think that’s funny?” I asked, sounding a little like Joe Pesci’s character in “Goodfellas.”
I think kids are much better suited for competition because most don’t take it too seriously. Kids want to win, but they don’t bring adult baggage like pride, ego, fear of humiliation and failure into the mix. I don’t know what age that seeps into our psyches, but it’s there. Just ask any golfer teeing off on the first hole.
I’m not necessarily happy with my decision to stop playing competitively right now, but I’m content. My stomach is calm, my palms are dry and I’m not worried about proving myself. For me, that’s a major victory.