How Playing Competitive Tennis Helped Me Heal From Anxiety and Depression
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
From ages 14 to 17, I was a competitive youth tennis player.
According to those who fancy themselves as experts on the game, and who swear that, if I had only started at three, they could have turned me—or anybody else for that matter—into the next McEnroe, I was late.
But for me, it was perfect timing, because any other alternative for a teenager who had the up-and-down swings between depression and excitement that I had could have been catastrophic, as I would later discover.
For three years, I was at the country club from 3 to 9 PM, at least, and the clay of the courts gracefully absorbed everything: hopes, fears, joy, anxiety, and pain. Those comforting, white lines were there through thick and thin.
Of course, it was not always perfect.
When I played my first tournament, and I lost in the first round, I cried out of anger and smashed a racquet against a post, not once, but several times. Over the next few tournaments, I broke several more racquets, and I wondered if I would still be allowed to play. The underlying feeling was simple: I felt I wasn’t good enough, and it filled me with rage—a rage that I did not know how to release in a healthy manner.
It was not new for me.
I was raised under the smothering pressure of excelling at everything. I was tapped to be a prodigy who learned how to read at two and played the piano brilliantly at three. I was not expected to get good grades, but the best grades. Anything less than a hundred percent would result in a long Q&A session, and on the underlying premise that I should feel ashamed for failing at something that I could do better at.
Therefore, I grew up with constant anxiety, feeling like I was always walking on eggshells. When our worthiness is attached to a result from such a young age, our mind becomes ailing. If we are raised under such coercion, constantly hounded that we need to be the best, that what we do is not enough, and so on, it is understandable that we end up mentally ill. Expectations can crumble us, because sooner or later, we embed a story in our heads that tells us that no matter what we do, it will never be sufficient.
Shortly after my high school years, I moved to Canada to go to university when the opportunity to study abroad opened up. Getting to a new city felt great, largely because nobody knew me and therefore no one expected anything from me.
Upon arrival, I signed up for a tennis tournament, and when the draw came out, I realized that in the first round, I would be playing the number two seed. To the surprise of everyone, not only did I play one of my best games and beat him, but I kept that level all through the competition, and would end up winning it. The fact that no one knew me liberated me, it empowered me to play my best game. After that tournament, I could have joined the team and played more tournaments, but I chose not to. I would play for fun, every now and then, but when it came to competitive play, I had already quit.
Because of fear. The fear that no matter what I did, or how hard I worked, my worthiness as a person was at stake every time I set foot on court. The pain from my youth career was still fresh, and I felt the pressure, the intense expectations on my shoulders that caused me to lose matches that should have been easy. I felt terrified of losing something that I thought I had acquired by winning—respect, recognition—and it felt easier not to care, or to do something else.
The pressure that competitive athletes face is well-documented. Mental illness has taken a toll on so many careers, including young promises and superstars: Lucas Pouille, Robin Soderling, Naomi Osaka. There is the case of Nick Kyrgios, who was admitted into a psych ward in London after losing a match at Wimbledon.
From Diego Schwartzman, a professional tennis player: The only thing that you and I have a difference in is that I hit a tennis ball better than you do, just as you do other things better than me. But beyond that, we are all human. We all have problems and issues, things that make us angry and things that make us happy. We have the same problems, the same anxieties, except maybe that is not obvious when you are watching us on TV.
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Learning about other people’s journeys, for me, was one turning point. Knowing that mental health, now, is part of the conversation, and seeing the shared humanity with other people who faced the same issue at a much higher level was something that helped me feel less alone.
Then there is digging deep—being willing to forgive and mend the relationship with my caregivers and those who exerted the biggest influence on me. And it has been beautiful as it has been painful, but well worth it. Here is where love and forgiveness can give us a different answer to the questions we’ve consistently been asking ourselves:
What will happen if we lose?
Will we still be loved, accepted, worthy?
Will we still…matter?
Fortunately for us, there is always time for redemption. Roger Federer has talked about how watching his behavior after a match against Marat Safin—which included smashed racquets—motivated him to change and become the icon of sportsmanship that he is now.
For me, the moment to change came eight years after college, when I started playing tournaments when traveling around the United States. I had already been through so much by then—including overcoming suicidal ideation—and I had worked on my personal development with the help of my therapist for a few years. I had also been playing a lot recreationally, and I felt the urge to compete. This led me to sign up for tournaments in Birmingham, Seattle, and Houston. I would end up winning all of them, but the real test would come when I visited my hometown a few months later. I signed up to play a tournament at a club that was very familiar to me.
In preparation, I played a match against somebody that frequently gets on my nerves—a rival I had a difficult time playing against when I was a teenager.
Therefore, the beginning was very difficult. I started losing 3-0, then 4-1.
But something was different this time. I had done enough work on myself that, during that game, I was aware enough to step back after every point.
Those who know me or have played against me have noticed that I take more time between serves than the average player. What I am usually doing during that time is grounding myself—getting back to center. I do my best, in that short span of time, to forget the previous point and focus on the point at hand.
In this game, after a particularly difficult rally, I felt a part of myself getting scared, asking a question. And this changed the trajectory of my game. I said to that voice, answering softly: Yes, I would still be worthy no matter what. No matter how badly I lost. And I began to remind myself of that every single point.
Eventually, my nervousness faded away, and my game caught up. I told myself that regardless of the result, I had already won. For not throwing the towel. For not falling prey to fear. For not smashing another racquet. For staying focused, one stroke at a time. In doing this, I surrendered my attachment to the final result.
I came back and I won the match.
A few days later, I played the tournament’s final. And since it was a team event, I also needed to play the doubles final with a very good friend of mine. I honestly didn’t want to play. I felt tired, and there was a considerable amount of people watching. All the ingredients were there to transport me back to the moments where I struggled the most.
But there is one way through which we can beat trauma. Dr. Peter Levine says that if we avoid responding to the traumatic impulse, we can allow ourselves to close the circle. So, from somewhere, I got the energy to pause, and breathe, and to let the circle of trauma close itself. I bounced the ball four times before each serve, as I do now, to repeat my Ho’oponopono mantra: I’m sorry, Please forgive me, Thank you, I love you. All put together, it seemed to be helping.
That evening, I served for the match. And for once, I was not carrying anything. I wasn’t imagining everyone watching saying how I wasn’t a good enough player. It was different.
I felt grateful. All these years later, tennis had waited for me. And even if I had ended up losing, we would still have won.