Monday, March 16, 2009
Good Advice At Any Time
The first time I played across the net from Sloane she said to me, “You have to look meaner.” I don’t have a naturally mean-looking face and it’s hard enough for me to hit a backhand without having also to maintain a scowl. Besides, I don’t want to appear mean. I want everyone to like me.
Sloane is not on the court to make friends. She’s an aggressive player and she’s out for blood. This knowledge alone used to be enough to take me down.
We’ve played doubles together since September and my sole mission on those days is not to be undone by her. She says she likes to get into my head, and she does, but not exactly in the way she expects.
She thinks I’m intimidated by her hard hitting, take-no-prisoners game. That I’ll wince if she rips a ball straight at my face when I’m playing the net. She’s cocky and outspoken and frequently shouts orders at her partner. None of that rattles me.
But when she’s across the net, waiting for a serve, she does not assume “ready position” like the rest of us do. Her racquet hangs from one limp hand while the other is planted on her cocked hip. It’s a stance I might assume if were waiting for my dawdling child to hurry up and tie his shoes. Bored and barely tolerant, I imagine she is waiting for me to dazzle her.
That’s the Sloane I’m shaken by.
Even when we play on the same side, it’s not much better. I’m not a natural athlete – what I lack in strength, I need to make up with wit. But with Sloane, I try to play more aggressively, because I know she really likes to win. In my zeal to please her, my game falls apart. I attempt tricky shots and fail. I try to poach, even though I’m not a good poacher. Or hit down the line, even though I know it’s a tough shot to pull off. I’m trying so hard to do what I think she wants me to do that eventually even my reliable shots careen into the net. “Sorry.” “Sorry.” “Sorry,” I say.
(Sloane never says sorry. When the ball pulls her off to the side and she can’t make it back in time for the next shot she says to her partner, “Where were you?” She’s smiling, but the question stands.)
One day we were down 5-2 and I said to her, “I’m sorry. I know I should be hitting harder, but I’m just not good at that.” I expected her to start counseling me on my stroke, coaching me to play more like she plays: lean and mean.
But instead she said something to me that not only changed our losing streak, she got into my head in a whole different way.
“Play the game you know,” she said.
How long will it be before no one needs to remind me to just be myself? I think about Sloane’s advice every day, and not just when I’m faltering. I breathe it in like a little transitional mantra, and it fills me. When we stop trying to be who we think we should be, we can start to harness practically all the power we’ll ever really need.