The Accidental Winners

Sports offer a great mirror to reflect the psychology of life and how we go about pursuing (and avoiding) our dreams. In particular, whatever we believe we can or can’t do, that’s how we consciously and subconsciously play, which, in turn, determines what we get. We always fulfill our own prophecies. In this post, I’m sharing 3 reflections about life and the pursuit of dreams from the game of tennis. If tennis isn’t your sport, I invite you to come along this brief odyssey with your own favorite sport or hobby in mind, and reflect upon what it may teach you about how you approach your life and your dreams.

Reflection #1: It often gets worse before it gets better.

tennis ballA couple of years ago, I worked with a pro to improve my serve. Among other things, she immediately had me change my grip so that I could add spin to my serve. For months, it was horrible! The grip felt completely unnatural to me. I couldn’t serve to save my life, and my old dinky serve didn’t seem so bad by comparison. It was very frustrating. Yet, I knew that if I stuck with it, I’d eventually get used to the new grip and a new serve that I could continue to build upon in time. Now, even though my serve still needs a lot of work, I’ve gotten used to the grip, and my serve could occasionally do some damage on the other side of the net. Moreover, when I serve well, I play better overall.

I find the conscious commitment to stick with something new, foreign and uncomfortable very applicable to life, even if it means things getting worse before getting better. After all, when we want to pursue a dream, such as a new career or a new relationship, it often represents a departure from what’s truly familiar to us, and requires us to step outside our comfort zone to acquire new skills, habits, bearings and outlook. It often also requires us to unlearn some of what has become second nature to us, to release reflexive thought and behavioral patterns inhibiting us from moving forward. That’s despite the fact that our self-preservation instincts want to hang onto what’s familiar and comfortable, even if we’ve outgrown it—like a worn-out pair of old jeans that feels so soft and comfy next to our skin. Yet, if we stick with the unlearning and releasing of attachment to our comfort zone through the transition time, the foreign and uncomfortable eventually becomes our new normal—and the launching point for continuing to grow, evolve, and dream bigger.

Reflection #2: When we’re off our normal game and can’t rely on old habits, we may end up playing better.

foggyThe other day, it started raining in the middle of playing a set. So, my friend and I moved indoors, which meant my prescription sunglasses were no good. Playing with impaired vision, I had to really concentrate on seeing the blurry yellow blob coming over the net. This heightened need to focus on the moment effectively shut out a bad habit I have: I’d often get ahead of myself in looking at where I want to hit the ball, instead of keeping my eyes on the ball, and not hitting a clean shot as a result. Also, because my depth perception was off, I had to err on the side of moving up to the ball, instead of waiting for it to come to me, which I tend to do normally. As a result, I made contact with the ball early with forward weight transfer into the approach shots, and thereby hitting one “accidental” winner after another. In short, my blurry vision forced me to focus and step up, and kept out some of my bad habits. I was a better player for it.

I find the above experience to be a great metaphor for life. Often times, things happen unexpectedly, and we’re caught unprepared—without our proverbial glasses. After the initial shock and disorientation, our innate resiliency kicks in, and we instinctively dig deep to draw upon inner resources to compensate for our impaired vision or confusion. When we’re knocked off our normal game, we can’t get ahead of ourselves, nor can we remain complacent and rely on our habitual thoughts and actions. Our usual nearly automatic response to the familiar simply doesn’t work here. Instead, we’re forced to really stay in the moment with the unfamiliar situation, focus and pay attention to the conditions, adapt our thinking, and adjust our actions to meet the objectively suboptimal environment. We may also need to step up to meet the challenge, instead of falling back on our default stance of waiting for the ripe opportunity to come to us. In the end, we often end up doing better, because we’re challenged to come up with something more or different, thereby unleashing the perhaps underutilized talents and potential lying dormant within us.

Reflection #3: Persevere with what intimidates us until it becomes fun

sunny road

I used to feel like a fish out of water when it came to playing at the net, which is a critical part of the doubles game. For a long time, I felt like a total idiot who needed to wear a “Sorry, partner!” sign every time I set foot on the doubles court. The same pro who changed my serve told me to keep at it, that at some point, I’d get over my discomfort with being a net-player, and then it’d become a different game to me. Not sure exactly when the internal shift happened, but it did. Now, I enjoy playing at the net, and the doubles game has indeed become a lot more fun.

The same applies to our dreams. How often do we feel simultaneously drawn to something we want and intimidated by it? The intimidation has to do with the novelty of what we want and our lack of previous experience and established competency with it—along with whatever internal limits we’ve placed on ourselves unknowingly. If we’ve experienced setbacks in the pursuit of the same or a similar dream in the past, it further feeds into our doubts—like missing a couple of volleys leading to questioning our ability to play at the net. Yet, if our desire for the dream is strong enough, if we commit to sticking with it long enough, we will hit the tipping point eventually. And, before we know it, the process of pursuing what we love so much becomes fun, and then the whole experience is transformed into something that’s enjoyable.

There you have it, tennis as a mirror reflecting life and the pursuit of dreams. The psychological underpinnings are the same between the game and real life, even if to different degrees of seriousness. If we truly want something, we need to be willing to ride through the uncomfortable parts of the pursuit and unlearn some old habits, shed some old patterns. The rewards are that we may unearth our inner resourcefulness while learning and growing along the way, not to mention the fun we get to have when we surrender our inner objections blocking us from enjoying the experience of pursuing what we love.

So, what do you think about these reflections or ones you may be thinking of with your own favorite sport or hobby? Would love for you to share in the comment box below.

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Photo credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

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About Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Chan is passionate about developing conscious leaders and organizations. Her path to serve her life purpose has included being an award-winning Cornell professor and a leader in the corporate world for nearly 15 years. She’s the author of the book, REACH Your Dreams: Five Steps to be a Conscious Creator in Your Life, and creator of the program, 30 Days to Living Your Best Life. All content on this blog and website is her own, not the opinions of her employer.

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8 comments
Deone Higgs
Deone Higgs

Awesome analogy, Alice! I haven't played tennis in quite some time, but I can truly appreciate and relate to the reflections you've shared here. My swing was awful when I first playing, but thankfully I had a trainer who was gifted in not only the game; but he was also a wonderful instructor as well. I guess that is another great lesson that tennis loans us about life -- make sure you have the right life mentors. Thanks for a great sharpening message here, my sister. I really enjoyed the read. :)

Scott Mabry
Scott Mabry

As I read your post I became aware that I have sometimes given up far too soon on a dream because of the friction I experienced early on even though people told me it would pass. At the same time I know I have stayed the course at other times and can completely relate to the moment where you suddenly realize you have emerged on the other side and appreciate what you were working for. The difference was always in the passion I had for the goal, the encouragement I had in my life at the time and the ability to stay connected to an optimistic mindset. Thanks for "coaching" us to work through the difficult transitions that some time come with mastering a skill or REACHing our dreams.

Sal
Sal

Great write dear Alice. I have been there where doubt and fear and imtidation stood in my way but the strong committment to overcome the obstacles always seem to see me through. We all come to that certain plateau once in a while and get that little voice inside calling us to quit and it is where we call on determination and mental condition to override that obstacle. Conditioning the mind to accept the challenges and to see and take different routes is a must in order to push forward. Thank you for this share!

Shirley Billson
Shirley Billson

I love this analogy. It's perfect for reminding us to push past those doubts that even the most confident among us has from time to time. I can remember every breakthrough I ever had that took me to a better place was preceded by confusion, doubt, frustration and even fear. Thanks, Alice

Alice Chan, Ph.D.
Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Many thanks, Deone, for adding your voice to this conversation. Your point about mentoring is such a good addition. Often times, we feel like we have to struggle and figure it out alone, when that's not necessary. Also, in my coaching work with clients, one of the things we look at is whether their environment supports them, including relationships. I'm not there with them 24x7, so having a support structure contributing to an optimal emotional environment is important.

Alice Chan, Ph.D.
Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Thanks for sharing, Scott. I'm sure heads are nodding as people read what you wrote. We need the burning desire to fuel our perseverance through the initial challenges of the unfamiliar and self-doubt. Beyond that, as you pointed out, whether our environment supports us and our dreams--including having champions and cheerleaders in our corner--make a huge difference. With these two elements and having a clear vision, a sound strategic plan and the ability to master our human psyche, we have a winning recipe. Thanks again for sharing, Scott.

Alice Chan, Ph.D.
Alice Chan, Ph.D.

So nice to see you here, dear Sal! You are so right, that our mental conditioning determines so much. Life is a constant dance between fear and love. When we don't let fear get the better of us and head toward where love propels us, we grow and expand, just as our spirits intend for us in this human life. Thank you for YOUR share!

Alice Chan, Ph.D.
Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Thanks for sharing your comments, Shirley! It has become clear to me from my own experience and others' that there can be no breakthrough without pain. It's like what we physically went through during growth spurt(s). It literally hurt before we grew taller. We were stretched. Without growing pains, there can be no growth. Thanks again, Shirley!

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