One day during the summer, a bird got trapped in my outdoor light fixture. At least, in his mind he was trapped. All he needed to do to escape was fly down through the open bottom, but he couldn’t see it. Instead, he kept trying to head straight out through the glass. With each blocked attempt, he grew increasingly agitated, fluttering and squawking madly.
It’s possible he wasn’t the brightest of his species. Maybe his buddies were all perched in the nearby maple tree, rolling their eyes and shaking their feathered heads sadly.
But more likely he was just an average-intelligence bird caught in a moment of panic. I recognized the symptoms.
Panic does funny things to your brain. It prevents you from seeing what’s right in front of your face. When you’re in a panic, time starts flying by. Everything feels so urgent–your mind’s racing and you have to do something NOW! You don’t have the mental wherewithal to just take a breath and think.
I’ve had these moments on the tennis court, when I’m losing to aggressive players. Two-love, three-love, four-love–the games rush by in a blur. The faster they go, the more the mind panics–which makes time fly by even faster. Even the changeover feels frantic.
A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I played a match like this. Our opponents were good–honestly, just plain old better than we were. We got down in the first set quickly. Very quickly.
At the end of one point, I stood at the service line as one of the opponents hugged the net to angle off a volley winner. As I watched her clench her fist in celebration, a phrase passed through my mind:
Who’s doing what to whom?
It was a question I’d read recently in Brad Gilbert’s classic tennis book, Winning Ugly. In one section, Gilbert says recreational players often don’t understand what’s going on in their match and can’t identify why they’re losing. Only by taking a step back and analyzing “who’s doing what to whom” can a player hope to find a solution to an opponent’s game.
Once I asked myself that question, I could understand the match so much better. I could see the match the way my coach would see it, if he’d been watching from the sidelines. Our opponent had made that volley winner because she was closer to the net. They were winning because they were taking the net away from us. We’d become defensive in the face of their aggression and had ceded control to them. The answer: We had to get to the net first.
Now, this is where I should inspire you all with our fairy-tale come-from-behind victory. Sadly, I can’t give you that ending. We did take a game or two from them with our new strategy. They then proceeded to lob us. Turns out they had excellent lobs as well.
A win wasn’t in the cards for us that day. But I can’t feel bad about that loss. My bird-brain managed to break through the panic of the beatdown we were receiving. I managed to stop flying into the glass long enough to see the way out. That in itself is a victory, even if that way out ended up leading straight into the mouth of a hungry tabby.
Often when I’m losing a match, I ask my partner, “What should we do?” I’m going to retire that question. It carries the whiff of desperation about it. From now on, I’m asking the much more analytical “Who’s doing what to whom?” I won’t necessarily win, but at least I’ll understand why I lost.