Halfway through my third conference call of the day my cell vibrates with a one-word text: “tennis?” The weather is a perfect 72 degrees and sunny in Seattle. The courts are just blocks from my house and in less than an hour I will be knocking a fuzzy yellow ball around. Daily exercise has become a necessity. It keeps me performing at my peak—at work, at home, and on the court. Regular movement—and the focus it requires—helps me keep fit mentally, physically, and emotionally.
After my call I race inside to prepare my bag: towel, balls, shoes, snack, and a smoothie to fuel up. I have been drinking yerba mate’ all morning so I am feeling wide awake and ready to roll as I throw my gear over my shoulder and walk out to the car. Preparation is key, and even if I am a little obsessive, I am setting myself up for success.
We are fortunate today—there is an open court in the sun. The pregame ritual begins—shoes on, stretching, breathing, chatting. Preparing for an activity that requires physical, mental, and emotional focus demands consistency and routine to avoid sub par performance or, worse yet, injury.
We go through our warm up, rehearsing a series of shots from different parts of the court. Our movements are a conversation, a way to make sure we are both on the same page. We exchange shots with few words as we repeat a familiar process.
At first my mind wanders to movies I have seen in the week past, to my workday, and to tonight’s dinner plans, until slowly the only things I think about are the movement of the ball, the placement of my feet, and the angle of my racket. As momentum builds, we change the pace of the game and enter into a new dialogue. In this conversation we hold ourselves and one another mutually accountable for playing at peak level to get the most out of the experience.
Every time we get on the court the expectation is to strive for greatness, even though it is only a game. As we begin to rally I find my mind slipping—my shots are errant and inconsistent. My partner yells from across the court, breaking a ten minute silence, “Are you breathing?”
Of course air is moving in and out of my lungs at an accelerated rate but that is not the question
being asked. Am I being mindful of my breath?
“No,” I reply, a little embarrassed that I’m not holding up my end of the unspoken bargain to perform at my best.
Breathing seems like such a simple concept, an action we often take for granted. In this case, inattention to this essential detail means an inability to perform. Good tennis demands that my mind be focused on every facet of the game and nowhere else.
My attention moves back to breath, footwork, and the point of contact between my racket and the ball. Each time I move toward the ball I audibly exhale to remind myself where my attention needs to be. The results are readily apparent as my shots begin to fall where I want them to and the pace of our game picks up. For a solid 20 minutes we are in the zone, hitting the ball with speed and precision, exchanging winners, and pushing one another to peak performance. Even 20 minutes of strong, focused tennis is a success for my partner and me.
There will always be distractions that take me out of the game,challenging me to stay centered and bring forth my best self even when I slip. Tennis requires us to integrate a strong mental game with the intense demands of consistent physical exertion. At its pinnacle, what is a simple game becomes an integrated, almost spiritual shared experience.
This struggle is apparent in every activity. When I am distracted at work, I walk away from interactions with my clients feeling tired and disappointed that I did not bring my best self to the exchange. When I am on point, I feel energized, connected, and invigorated by the experience. Earlier today my kids were fighting, but as I walked down the hall to intervene I reminded myself to breathe, focus, and respond effectively to the negative stimulus.
Tennis asks us to prepare with repetition and routine so that when the time comes to perform at our best, we are ready. We train not only for the physical but the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of competition. These principles can be applied to our performance on the court, in the boardroom, through creative endeavors and in our relationships. My challenge through it all is to remember to breathe.