Have you ever paused to think of the many life lessons you can learn from playing sports?
I am not a sporty person. I mean, that is not how anyone would have described me growing up. However, I have always aspired to be fit and healthy so over the years I have taken part in activities which help to that end. My belief in the benefits of fresh air and the outdoors has informed my choices. But as I’ve become more involved in coaching, there are so many life lessons I’ve learned from the sports I’ve done. Here are a few of my favourites.
Once the ball goes over the net, it’s the other person’s turn. That’s obvious, right? Maybe not. I was in an organisation years ago and struggled to get on with someone who started at the same time. She was my senior by about 12 years but we had the same level of field experience and were on the same level. I believed it was important to get along for the harmony of the organisation but could seemingly do nothing to please her. After I had tried ‘everything’, I went to the leader with my hands in the air. What more could I do? He very simply pointed out that I had done everything I could, played my best shot, and the ball was now in her court. That’s where the expression comes from, I realised years later when I took up tennis. Sometimes you just need to do your job and let other people do, or not do, theirs (incidentally, we have become good Facebook friends in recent years and there are no hard feelings).
“Lean in” to the game. I read a great book I have recommended before, called Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She has a TED talk by the same name. The subtitle is “Women, work and the will to lead”. I didn’t realise that it would inform so much more than my work and leadership role; it changed the way I think. I stopped apologising – being apologetic even. There are times when an apology is appropriate, but for goodness sake, never let it become a default setting! I took up tennis at 40; all the other players who carried on after the coaching that Spring had started as children or teens. It took time for me to improve and hold my game. I apologised for my dud shots and my excellent ones, calling them flukes, instead of just accepting that it was part of the game and my improvement. Then one Saturday a few seasons ago, I turned up at Rusty Racquets and there were two new ladies and none of the usual players. I decided not to tell them I wasn’t much good and just played. I didn’t apologise and I didn’t act surprised when I played a great shot. My confidence really increased as I realised I was doing okay and everyone has variations in their game. Just play, and enjoy the game whether it’s work or sports! Just playing means striving for your very best. No one decides to play an average or bad game.
A good team makes all the difference. I believed I was useless at school sports. I still remember poor Mrs Bailey trying to promote the virtues of hockey to me. She even won me over but ruined it by putting me in goal! I was ashamed to admit that I wasn’t a team player. But when I started Drama at 16, I realised it simply wasn’t true. I just hadn’t found the right team. When I started playing tennis, I was really fortunate and still am, to play with lovely people who accept me for who I am and what I have to give. We mostly play Doubles, so it’s always good to have enough people to play. I’ve never competed and I probably never will, but we’ve been consistent in turning up and playing together. It’s a game, not a competition and when the latter is needed, the right people step forward. But importantly, I’ve always felt welcome and never come close to giving up. I’d like to say that’s down to my wonderful resilience but I know it’s not; it’s down to a supportive bunch of individuals who gave me a sporting chance. So that’s where the expression comes from!
The same goes for golf, which I did start playing as a teenager. I’ve taken it up again in the last year – just a Par 3 course nearby which still allows me to get a full day’s work done. My golf buddies are flexible and fun, as are the other course users. If it wasn’t so, I wouldn’t want to do it. So remember to be a good team player too; I certainly hope I am.
Even world champions need a coach. No matter how good you are, coaching is always necessary for improvement, or even maintaining your level. Three instalments of coaching over the first few seasons of tennis made a big difference to my game, one technique at a time. I’ve plateaued in the last few seasons because we haven’t been able to get a coach, and I have to say I’m frustrated with my game. I know some advice would make a significant difference and the people I play with are busy with their own development needs so we can’t coach each other. But the smart people at the Driving Range have set up a golf clinic twice a week and with just 5 minutes of input a week, my game is moving on and I’m feeling elated with my progress. Guess which sport I’m more engaged with at the moment?
What makes us believe that it’s not the same in our personal and work lives? On a personal level, a friend, partner or parent can often help with related struggles we’re going through, especially if they’re already at the next stage. But so often people in business seem to perceive that they’re doing fine or they need to avoid doing something, instead of getting professional coaching to move on. It’s a strength, not a weakness to ask for help. Serena Williams and Rory McIlroy would definitely agree!
Incidentally, you might wonder why I only took up tennis at 40. As a drama teacher, coach, leader and facilitator for over 18 years, I expect my students and clients to push themselves and dare to do things they have never done before. In order to continually experience being a student myself, I resolved to take up something new every year in order to maintain that vulnerability and ever-learning mentality. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Why not give it a go yourself?