Playing the Cyclical Game

Thursdays are match days, which means it’s time for another installment of the always-popular and long-running series, “How I Screwed Up Today and What Big Lesson I Learned.”

In this week’s episode, I was having yet another not very good day on court. Not horrible. Not the worst I’ve ever played. Just too many unforced errors caused by my very lazy feet. Is it possible my feet are aging faster than the rest of me? My brain says “Go!” and my feet are like, “But we just got here!”

Or, “We really need more notice than that.”

Or, “You go on ahead. We’ll catch up.”

(Spoiler alert. They never catch up.)

Anyway, I was playing just okay, but my partner was pretty on, so we were holding our own. We won the first set and were tied up in the second when I had a nightmare game. I hit my overhead into the bottom of the net. (It may have even bounced first.) Then I hit a simple volley wide. Then the opponents, no doubt knowing I was frazzled, set me up with another overhead. Another demoralizing miss. I don’t remember what happened with the fourth point of that game, but I’m sure I screwed that one up, too.

Once that game was over, I turned to my partner. Of course, I knew she wouldn’t be negative. I figured she’d say something like, “Okay, shake it off” or “Let’s keep our feet moving” or “We got this!” All perfectly reasonable and positive things to say.

Instead, she said maybe the most helpful words a partner has ever said to me: “Tennis is all about cycles. You just gotta ride out the cycle.”

After that, I didn’t miss another shot.

Wow, wouldn’t that make for a great blog post? But this is real life, and I’m an average player, so yes, I continued to miss shots.

Here’s what DIDN’T happen, though. I didn’t enter the tennis death spiral where all you can think about is your errors, and what a horrible player you are, and how your partner is rightfully going to blame this loss on you and ask to never be partnered with you again, and how you’re going to be the target now because it’s obvious to everyone on the court that you don’t deserve to be playing in this match, that you are the weakest link, and with that death spiral of negativity, your game deteriorates to the point that your arm now feels like rubber and your feet like blocks of cement.

No, instead of spiraling, I simply returned to my previous just-okay level. I was able to do that because my partner had completely normalized my streak of horrible playing. It’s like the ocean waves, she seemed to be saying. Up and down, another crest coming along any minute now, nothing to even think about. A bad game is just part of the natural ebb and flow of a match. I didn’t have to preoccupy myself with what I was doing wrong. I didn’t have to frantically try different tactics to fix things. I just had to ride it out.

So I did, and we won. But I know how close that match was to going the other way. The fact that it didn’t is testament to the complete unflappability of my partner.

So the takeaway for today is that that phrase—ride out the cycle—calms me down. Will I remember this mantra the next time I’m on the verge of the death spiral? Probably not. I don’t think clearly when I’m starting to panic. But if we all share this phrase with enough people, maybe my next partner will know to say it to me when my game is starting to circle the drain.

What positive messages help you get through a rough patch in a match?


6 thoughts on “Playing the Cyclical Game

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  1. I used to say sorry to my partners when I missed a sitter, hit two feet long, and on and on. My sorries led me to concentrate on the fact that I was letting my partner down, making me more liable to let her down again. Then, a few years ago, after one of my apologies, my partner turned to me and said, “No sorry unless you see blood!” That phrase has helped me to laugh off my obvious errors.

    1. Ah, the Sorry Sally Syndrome. We did a blog post about that a while back. I don’t think I did a lot of apologizing yesterday. (Wait—have I actually learned something from my blog?!) That probably helped me snap out of it a little faster, too.

      I love the blood line. I never see blood on the court unless I’ve hit myself in the shin with my racquet, a scenario that happens way more often than it should.

  2. Maybe you should emblazon “Ride out the cycle…” on your racquet bag. You’ll see it before every match and you won’t forget.

    1. Or I could make my teammates wear shirts that say “Ride It Out.” Then I’d see it every time I looked at my partner.

  3. This is really profound actually. For most of my tennis career I have fallen pray to the negative death spiral. Imagine the matchesI would have won if I’d been more aware of and ok with the cycles. Thanks for this Deb! I hope my game improves with this wisdom!

    1. Some people have commented to me that it’s a good philosophy for life in general. While that’s true, I don’t have death spirals too often outside the tennis court—maybe because the rest of my life doesn’t come with a stark score line.

      Let me know if you start winning more matches!!

Let me know what you think!

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