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Life is Like Pickleball, Part Two

Updated on December 26, 2019

Playing and Living in the Moment

Pickleball players on average are pretty into tournaments. Tournaments sanctioned by the United States Pickleball Association are going on all the time, and these things tend to draw huge amounts of people of all different age and skill levels. While I was happy to start playing in little "unofficial" round robin tournaments not long after discovering the game, I was reluctant to sign up for one of those "official" events. This was partly for practical reasons. Sanctioned events are expensive, at least $70 a pop, and a single event in these tournaments can drag on for most of a day. Round robins, on the other hand, tend be much cheaper and less time consuming.

There was a more significant reason, however, that I kept avoiding those official events. In a round robin tournament, each team plays a fixed number of matches whether they win or lose. You then add up the number of points each team scored in all their matches and declare a winner. Sanctioned tournaments, however, are generally double elimination, so lose two matches and you're out. So if you have forked out at least $70 to play, your price per game rate could be quite high if you lose right away. Historically, I tend to be a player who warms up slow, does not respond particularly well to pressure, and gets down on himself when things aren't going well, all of which are not conducive to success in an expensive tournament with a "win or go home" format.

Over time, as I got better at the game and got to know other up and coming players, I was increasingly asked about playing in tournaments. I'd hear about other people I knew who were putting themselves out there and sometimes winning, but I kept holding back. Finally, I was asked to play men's doubles at a tournament in Seal Beach - at the first place where I tried pickleball - and after mulling it over a while, decided to give it a shot. Another friend apparently found out I was playing in one of these things and asked me to play mixed doubles, and much to my pleasant surprise, I found out that it would only cost $10 more to add a second event, dramatically increasing the odds of "getting my money's worth." Given that I was a tournament "newbie" worried about losing too quickly, it was decided in both events that we would play at 3.5, an intermediate level.

Turns out that we ended up winning the gold medal in both events. While winning was very nice, and I definitely got my money's worth in terms of number of games played over the course of two days, it was not the most satisfying thing about playing in this first "real" tournament. What I enjoyed even more was the sense of camaraderie that we had with other people who were there both watching and playing. It's been a long time since I've played a competitive sport that's had any kind of cheering section. Given that this was sort of our "home court," I felt especially grateful through this experience for all the people I've gotten to know over the past year or so.

But the most satisfying part of the experience was something more personal. I have been a highly competitive person for as long as I can remember, whether it's sports, strategy games, political arguments, or whatever. (More about this in part three of this little blog series.) This desire to win so badly has helped contribute to a lifetime of choking under pressure, temper tantrums, and mulling over missed shots (often before the game is even over). I thought there was a good chance going into this tournament that I would basically choke, get frustrated, and lose right away. So I made a very conscious decision the night before the tournament. Whatever happened, I was going to channel the emotions that I was feeling into simply focusing on the next shot, regardless of what the score might be, what happened on the last shot, or how I was playing in general. For at least this one time, I was going to do my best to simply play in the moment.

While I did not always follow the Phil Jackson "zenmaster" approach perfectly, I was able to stay much calmer and more focused than at just about any other time in my competitive "career." And partly because of this mental approach - and the fact that my partners in both events hung tough and stayed positive too - we were able to pull out of some big holes at times and come out on top. But even if the final results had been different, I still would have come out of the experience feeling good about myself. Maybe winning isn't everything after all. I'll take a healthy mental state over being an angry, stressed out winner any day of the week.

Like all humans, there are things that I have said and done in the past that I deeply regret. Even worse are regrets about things I did not do: kind words never said, risks not taken, opportunities allowed to pass on by. For various reasons, I have found myself spending a great deal of time over the past year rewinding through my life and confronting regrets that I had almost forgotten about. To a large degree, this has been a healthy therapeutic process. But at times, I have found myself a bit stuck, beating myself up for past mistakes rather than using them as opportunities to process, learn, and move on. There's no point, after all, in obsessing too much about the past (even for a history teacher like me). I can't do a damn thing to undo past mistakes, just as I can't have a do over on the easy backhand volley that I just missed. That shot is gone, so move on to the next one.

You'd think that I would not have waited 50 years to try such a simple approach to playing sports or living life in general. But I decided after that tournament to keep on trying that same mental approach every time that I am on the court. I haven't always succeeded. I still have temper tantrums, tense up when hitting certain shots, and struggle to shake off a stupid shot I hit a few points earlier. But the tantrums tend to be shorter now, and I seem to shake them off more quickly. I tend to also be a bit more relaxed these days on the courts, and it definitely shows in how I play. And while this sounds a bit cheesy and childish, my little gold medals are sitting on a dresser in our study, and when I catch a glance at them, I am reminded just a little of what I can do when I let the past go and simply focus on what is happening now. We'll see how often I can live out that little life lesson in my next tournament, and also with the stuff that really matters.

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