Life Lessons From The Tennis Court

I never got bitten by the “sports” bug, never played them as a kid, wasn’t any good at them. And if you put me with a bunch of guys who are happily bonding over beer, pretzels and football, I’ll feel like a total alien.

At my niece’s college graduation, my brother told me our seats were on the 50-yard line, and I didn’t know what that meant. And I’d rather have root canal than be forced to watch the Superbowl. Sorry.

So I’m not generally a big fan of sports analogies, or lessons from the playing field, or any of that stuff. But I am an avid tennis player. And, much to my own surprise, I’ve learned some powerful life lessons on the tennis court, a few of which I want to share with you now.
The best thing about these lessons is you don’t need to know anything about tennis to appreciate them.

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1. Your mental game can make the difference between winning and losing.

I’ve seen (and experienced) defeats on the court that were entirely mental. I even saw it happen to the great Roger Federer when an umpire ruled against him on a call. His frustration and annoyance was palpable, and even after the point in question was long over, you could see that he was unable to let go of it. Well into the rest of the match, Federer was still stuck in that earlier game when the call went against him, and was unable to really focus on the present. He ultimately lost the match.

How many times do we do that exact same thing to ourselves in real life?

How many times do we tell ourselves a story about something (I suck as a tennis player, I can’t do anything right in my relationship, nothing ever works out for me, I can never lose weight, I’m too (fill in the blank) to ever be worthy of love… that effectively prevents us from getting what we want?

What stories do you tell yourself that disempower you? And, more important, what’s a different story that you could come up with that might empower you?

Here’s an example. I’ve had days when I’m playing great and many days when I’m playing badly. When my mental game is off, I react to the bad days with frustration and anger, neither of which, by the way, makes me play any better. When my mental game is good, however, my inner dialogue is completely different.

Instead of wanting to pull a John McEnroe and break my racket into a thousand pieces, I’ll have a dialogue with myself that goes more like this: “OK, I’ve been making real progress over the last year, and am playing at a whole different level. But this particular shot is still giving me problems and that’s something I need to work on. And since I seem to be having an off-day on the court, I’m going to try for a safer strategy of just hitting every ball in the middle, keeping the ball in play, and waiting for my opponent to make some unforced errors.”

Which inner dialogue is more likely to produce a better result?

Which type of inner dialogue do YOU have with yourself when you get frustrated with something in life that doesn’t go your way? Could you improve that dialogue? Could you be gentler with yourself?

Moral of the story: we can’t always change what happens, but we can always change how we deal with it.

2. Keep the ball in play

When all else fails, keeping the ball in play is a strategy that will never fail. I call it “staying in the game”. And it doesn’t just work on the tennis court.

In fact, when you think about it, there’s a “stay in the game” message behind every great success story.

Jackie Robinson hit an amazing 52 home runs in 1965, which was the same year he also struck out 71 times. He stayed in the game.

In the early 90’s, John Travolta was just about washed up as an actor but he stayed in the game. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino tapped him for a role in “Pulp Fiction” and the rest is history.

Jay Leno, who’s had a roller coaster of a career with some very public failures was once asked the secret of success. His answer:

You know, it’s all about…. Ya just… You know… Stay in the game!”

Moral of the story: In tennis– and in life– you can’t win the game if you stop playing. Staying in the game (i.e. keeping the ball in play) doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win it. But giving up guarantees that you won’t.

3.Use what you got.

I regularly play tennis with a group I affectionately call “the old guys”—who range in age from about 70 to 86.

Good luck trying to win a game from one of them.

These guys don’t run all that fast. Some of them hardly run at all. They don’t have a lot of power, and they don’t have 100 mph serves. In fact, they hit the ball rather gently.

But they’re next to impossible to beat.


‘Cause they have one “weapon”: they can place the ball any damn place they want.

You can be hitting your best power shots, running around like crazy, sweating bullets trying to defeat them, and they will sit there, calmly, and simply put the ball wherever you’re not. They’re uncannily clever and tricky. They have a court sense developed over 40 years of playing, and a remarkable ability to anticipate where you’re going so that they can hit the ball exactly where you’re not.

They don’t have (or need) power. They don’t have (or need) speed. They have learned to use what they do have, two skills which together make them virtually unbeatable by any player at my level.

One, they have an outstanding mental game. And two, they can place the ball anywhere.

They’ve learned to use what they have very effectively instead of bemoaning what they don’t have.

I’ve seen this same kind of thing with performers. Dudley Williams was the star male dancer in the internationally known Alvin Ailey Dance Company. He danced professionally till he was almost 67. I saw him many times in those years. He no longer had the agility and athleticism he had as a youth… but he had something else even better.

He never lamented about the loss of any skills he once possessed. Not once. Instead, he developed and nurtured what he did have. Experience. Inner strength. Wisdom. Artistic vision.

And it was more than enough. Even in his later years, you couldn’t take your eyes off him when he was performing, because he literally dominated the stage with sheer presence and magnetism. The memory of seeing him perform I Wanna Be Ready (from Ailey’s masterpiece, Revelations) in his late 60’s, still brings a tear to my eyes.

How many times do we concentrate on what we can’t do instead of celebrating what we can?

Even a non-sports guy like myself can’t miss the wisdom in these sports-related lessons.

Stay in the game, use what you’ve got, keep your mental game sharp and never give up.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Something similar could be said of these three lessons.

They may not be the most profound lessons in the world— but they’re better than anything else we’ve got.