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Life is Like Pickleball, Part One

Updated on December 11, 2019

The Benefits of Feeling Lost

I have been playing and watching sports for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was essentially a seasonal athlete, playing whatever sport was in vogue at the moment: basketball, baseball, soccer, football, whatever. While I never focused on any one sport long enough to get really good, I don't remember ever being bad at any of them. I suppose that sports of all kinds have always come pretty naturally to me.

While I was never a sports specialist, basketball was definitely my first love. From the time my dad put up some homemade hoops in both the back and front yards, I had a knack for putting a ball in a basket. I played off and on competitively in one form or another until I was in my early thirties. While I still loved the game, I grew tired of the constant twisted ankles and jammed thumbs, and I knew on some level that worse injuries were likely in the near future. It is still today the only professional sport that I follow, and as a lifelong Lakers fan, I am thoroughly enjoying the start of this season. Every now and then, I'll pump up the basketball and go out and shoot it for a while. Even when I haven't touched the thing for months, it is not long before I am burying shots from all over the court.

After hanging up the basketball shoes, I decided to take up a sport once again that I had gotten into at various times in the past: racquetball. My first memory of swinging a racquetball racquet was back around junior high school on an outdoor three-wall court, although I don't remember playing all that much. From the first day, however, I could at least keep the ball in play pretty easily. It helped that this was not the first racquet/paddle sport that I had tried. For much of my childhood, we had a ping pong table in the garage or back yard. I can't remember the first time that I picked up a paddle, but like basketball, I do not recall a time when I could not at least play pretty competently. I have many fond memories of playing family doubles games, blocking my dad's forehand smashes, and eventually learning to smash it myself. When I eventually went off to college, I mostly lived in dorms with 24 hr access to a ping pong table. Looking back, it's amazing that I managed to get any studying done, particularly with all the basketball I was also playing at the time.

Somewhere in the middle of the basketball and ping pong games, I managed to mix in some indoor racquetball, playing with a friend or taking one unit college classes. While I didn't really know what I was doing, I got by on quickness and modified ping pong shots. But since I rarely played anyone really good, I won a lot more games than I lost. And when I decided many years later to give up basketball and really focus on this "new" sport, it was just a matter of time before I learned how one was "supposed" to play. I had always done pretty well just by running around and hitting the thing as hard as I could, so developing actual strategy and learning to hit a variety of shots was just an added bonus. Over the course of the next 15 years or so, I grew accustomed to playing against tough competition and generally feeling like I knew what I was doing. With almost a lifetime of having some kind of a paddle or racquet in my hand, I never really felt like a beginner anyway. (Although people often commented on my strange ping pong like swing.)

A little more than a year ago, after hearing off and on about some sport called "pickleball," I decided to get a couple paddles and balls, find a court somewhere, and drag someone over to hit with me a little bit. After about five minutes, I knew that this sport had some definite potential. After a couple more trial runs and a little internet research about rules and places to play, I decided to try playing in an actual game. It wasn't long before I decided to hang up the racquetball racquet for a while and focus on this new little game. I haven't picked up the racquetball racquet since.

Part of the appeal of this new sport was that it was easier on my 50 something year old body than racquetball, and right from the start, the paddle felt very natural in my hand. But there was also something else that made the game both appealing and disconcerting at the same time: it was new. For the first time in a very long time, and in some ways for the first time in my life, I was playing a sport where I felt like a beginner. Yes, this was a paddle sport, and both my foot work and hand eye coordination were much further along than your average beginner, but this game was different.

As any advanced pickleball player knows, much of what works in other paddle or racquet sports does not work so well in this game. The court feels very small, especially when playing doubles. The ball moves slower and doesn't bounce as high as a racquetball or tennis ball. You must learn to hit soft, finesse shots. You have to patiently wait for the right opportunity to attack and learn to hit the ball without stepping into it. You must often hold back the urge to crush the ball around or through your opponents. A lot of the instincts I had developed over so many years of playing ping pong and racquetball didn't necessarily apply here. I suddenly had to think rather than simply doing what had become automatic. The game is only now starting to feel a bit more natural. I'm getting a better feel for the ball, playing more patiently, and learning to hit a variety of shots. Still, I often relapse into the same old mistakes, and when going up against really tough players, I sometimes feel a bit lost out there.

Coincidentally, I have often had that general feeling of being lost, of not knowing what the hell I am doing, in various contexts lately, lost as a teacher, parent, husband, friend, and human being in general, staring blankly into the fog. As with sports, this feeling of being lost in the fog is not something I am used to. As a general rule, I have been successful with most of the things I have ever tried and have managed to avoid the big mistakes that often screw up people's lives. Because of this general success, I have tended to see myself as more rational, self-disciplined, skilled, and intelligent than others. Sure, there have been times when I felt in over my head, but I always managed to pull through in one way or another. But for whatever reason, many recent developments have made it clear that this sense of having things together was actually an illusion, and when lost in the fog, I couldn't grab on to those crutches to prop myself up. All I could do was throw my hands up, like a newbie pickleball player who still can't figure out why he keeps losing.

There is a silver lining, however, to that feeling of being lost in the fog. When the crutches that made me feel secure enough about myself and my circumstances were no longer working, I was forced to recognize something very simple: I was still standing. Sure, I may have been totally lost at certain moments, but the entire universe didn't crumble when I had no clue what the hell to do. It turns out that maybe those crutches, those inflated views of myself and of my abilities, were not necessary to survive after all. Letting go of the crutches for those fleeting moments, in fact, was actually kind of liberating.

This feeling can also have another important benefit. The next time I see someone else who is lost for whatever reason, maybe I will be a bit more empathetic than in the past. Having realized that I am more flawed and human than I had previously recognized, maybe I will be more understanding and sympathetic toward my fellow flawed humans. And maybe when I am playing pickleball with players less experienced and/or skilled than I, I can be a bit more patient too. It wasn't that long ago that I was a beginner too, and it is much easier to be lost in the fog when someone else is there with you.

So often, people talk about the importance of stepping out of one's comfort zone. Like most cliches, this little piece of advice must be lived out in order to be understood. All humans on a regular basis should do something that makes them feel incompetent. Too much comfort leads to complacency, and complacency makes us less sympathetic toward those who, either by choice or out of necessity, continue to struggle.

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