What does Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” have to do with tennis? Well, for starters, when the competitors walk on Centre Court Wimbledon before their match, an excerpt from this poem is printed on a placard posted on the exit above the locker room door which states “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”
I often wonder how, in the course of battle, two world-class tennis players can endure the endless ebb and flow of a tennis match. You are up one minute and then a break of serve changes the complexion of a match and you are down the next minute. Yet, the mentally-tough players are able to remain focused only on the moment and play only the next point, seemingly able to block out memory of the past points played thus far in the match. Why is that? Because the next point is the only one that can be can controlled and that is the one that matters most. This excerpt from “If” challenges me on how well one can handle prosperity or how well one can handle playing from behind.
I confess I have not competed in tournaments in many years and when I did back in my collegiate days I knew nothing of dealing with triumphs and disasters. Anyone who knows me will remember that when I was losing, my body language was poor and my whole self-esteem was tied into whether I won or lost a match. That was a weight of, at the time, seemed like 1,000 lbs. I was carrying on my shoulders. I wish I knew then what I know now. How much better could I have played? How much better could I have been? I worked on my ground strokes, volleys and serves, and they improved incrementally, but when a match got tight, these skills I possessed did not perform at the optimum level. For years, I did not know the answer and later found out why.
While teaching tennis at a local club here on Long Island in the early 1990s, I met Bob Litwin, another teaching tennis professional who became one of the better amateur players in the world using a variety of skills to become mentally tougher. By watching and listening to many of these techniques, I became a better teacher and coach.
If you have read some of my articles in the past in Long Island Tennis Magazine, you may remember that I wrote about how important the skill of tennis is and the lifelong lessons the game can bring. I want to share some points on this. My bio at the end of the article will share with you that, in addition to my many years of teaching, I have extensive experience working in the corporate world. My positions were directly tied into revenue, and therefore, I decided to make the game of earning revenue for my employers a game of sorts (a tennis match so to speak). I have had bad years in terms of revenue and good years. Rather than letting my self-esteem and ego get to me when things got tough, I used the coaching lessons learned in the early 1990s as mentioned earlier. I was able to stay poised and controlled and develop strategies that would improve my revenue position. Henceforth, control only the things that I could control. In tennis terms, that would be the next strategy to be used in the next point.
So, when I did write in a previous article of some of the skills learned on tennis courts that can be utilized with some of life’s experiences, I meant it in every way, both strategically and mentally. These skills can be used in school, the board room and even in social situations.
So, analyze “If” … “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.” Many of my students know that means to be sound mentally on the court and just know going into a match that you could be up or down. Isn’t that what life also has in store for us, you are up one day and down the next. Take a deep breath, step back for a moment and figure out what comes next in both good and bad situations.
Prosperity on a tennis court feels good, but if your opponent is trying to figure out on how to come out of a tough situation, you must be ready to handle the prosperity as well. What a great lesson to pass on to your children, doubles partner, friends and students.
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail email@example.com.