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What I learned about life from my tennis debut

The role of self-talk in the attainment of success, and the importance of harnessing your inner monologue for growth.

My heart pounds in my chest. There’s a scratch in my throat and I repeatedly tuck a strand of hair behind my right ear, a ritualistic tic that activates in circumstances of extreme pressure. I focus my gaze downwards, with fervent glances at each new arrival. Like a sheepish dog, I shrink further into my corner with every new face that appears. I feign an oddly intense interest in the photos displayed on a cork board outside of the men’s changing rooms, to avoid small talk or any awkward meeting of eyes. A sea of anonymous faces stare back at me from the wall, smiling.

For context, I never played tennis as a child. In fact, I have played tennis a grand total of somewhere in the realm of 5-6 times in my entire life. All singles matches, all social, all with my husband or brother. I had never played competitively or in an organised event, with anyone other than family, and never ever a game of doubles. This would be my debut for all of the above.

I am suddenly hit with an overwhelming melancholy of childhood; nerves and nausea before show jumping competitions, birthday parties or events where you knew no one and were forced to mingle painfully, walking into the older kids classroom at school to deliver a message to the teacher. Just as I had on those occasions, I try to shrink back into my own brain, willing myself not to engage with the situation. I try to make myself as physically small as possible, to sequester my 5’9″ frame behind any prop that I can find. I run through my brain for an escape, knowing that there is none. I will have to pull myself together and push forward. ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, as the cliché goes. So that is exactly what I do.

I am off to a steady start. My serves are in and I manage to return the ball. I even win a few points. Notwithstanding a near miss of almost clocking our septuagenerian opponent on the head in the course of trying to politely pass the ball for his service, it’s going OK. The nerves are still rife, and I pull my sweater arms up, and pull them down, up and down at each pause, turning the racket over and over in my hand, a rhythmic chorus of nervous energy.

And then.

A few near misses, aimless swings and ludicrous trajectories and my ‘confidence’ is shot. Three double faults. I spend the next three games focusing all of my energy on biting down as hard as possible on my bottom lip to control its quiver. Tears sting my eyes and there is a lump to rival the size of the ball that eludes me throbbing in my throat. I avert my eyes and refuse to make eye contact with my partner. I try to mutter an apology with each miss, but a faint whisper is all I can muster for fear of breaking down right there on the court. I want to go home. I want to walk off the court without saying a word, and quite literally run away from the frustration. My focus is MIA from the game and my motivation to try is rock bottom. All I want is for this to be over, and it is all that my brain can process. In a domino-style cascade, my thoughts rapidly devolve into a flurry of frustrated self deprecation and berating. I am no longer a debutante tennis player having a shaky run in a social game at a local club; I am a FAILURE at tennis. Actually, not just tennis, I am a failure in the world of sporting. How come I don’t run 10k any more? I used to. I missed a gym session last week. Oh God, why do I even bother? How could I possibly have thought I could carve a successful career for myself out on my own – I can’t even keep a ball within the tram lines! I’m a failure at life. I should just quit now, before I embarrass myself any further.

This is the genuine devolution of thoughts gathering momentum, sprouting legs and running away with my sanity as I stand there on the court, distrait; a fully grown woman blinking back the pricking heat of tears like a defiant child who has just been scolded by a stranger.

Then something miraculous happens.

I suddenly become aware of the ludicrousness of this thought spiral, and I give myself a firm mental shake. Am I really about to write myself off in LIFE because of a few follies on the court? I almost laugh out loud at the sheer amusement of it. Then it hits me. So subtle, in such an insignificant situation, I truly came to appreciate the power of the mind and more importantly, our capacity to control its influence. Our inner monologue determines our thought processes, our sense of self, our self beliefs and our self image. We live or die by that perspective. The impact of the monologue to which we choose to subscribe, determines where our energy flows, and where that energy flows, our behaviours, perception and ultimately the constructs of our reality go. In that moment, I took a deep breath; I took a few seconds to recalibrate, centred my mind on my achievements, however small or seemingly insignificant. The fact that I was even there, standing on that court; the fact that I had showed up and put up, that was an achievement in itself. The rest was all semantics. Just like plucking up the courage to take the leap, to walk away from stable employment, secure income and a good job to start my own business was an achievement, regardless of the trajectory of success thereafter. Accepting the challenge, pushing yourself, handling the fear, the consequences, the ‘what ifs’ – this is where we earn our victories; where real success lives and real growth breeds.

After the realisation struck, there was an instant transformation. Every cell relaxed and my mood elated. I was back in the game and I was ready to try with a clean slate and a sense of determined gusto. And it worked. We lost the match, but only by a whisker. I could hold my head high as we shook hands with our opponents. I walked away with a renewed sense of energy, determination and confidence that I can make anything happen once I set my mind to it.

I appreciate that a debut match in a social tournament at a local sports club is not exactly Everest. But it was my Everest. You see, the interesting thing in life is that we tend to perceive our accomplishments, failures and performance in terms of objective standards. That is to say, we rarely acknowledge our performance in subjective terms relative to the degree of challenge or effort required on our part. How often do we compare our startup businesses to those of the industry magnates? Or wistfully compare our physiques to the seasoned athletes beside us in the gym? It is important to set the bar high, to push your limits and to invest your full effort, dedication and spirit into your ambitions. However, it is just as important to ensure that your evaluation of progress and success is calibrated to assess your individual strengths, weaknesses and genuine achievements.

How you assess your progress determines your commitment to perseverance, your levels of motivation and your self efficacy beliefs, all of which directly influence the likelihood of achieving your goal. It is crucial to become aware of your self-talk and engage with your inner monologue to take control of what stands to be either your greatest asset or your greatest detriment; your mind. The role of mindset in shaping our realities and the attainment of our goals is phenomenal. If you learn to harness the power of your mind and work to cultivate a positive, growth mindset, the world becomes your oyster. The capacity to develop and achieve becomes limitless, and the drive, motivation and determination to pursue your goals becomes boundless. Take control of your self-talk, shape your belief system and expand your horizons.

Limits are created, enforced and dissolved within the realm of our minds. Choose your boundaries, or choose to be boundless.

Originally published at aretepsychology.com

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