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0006: Patience and the champion's mind

“Patience is the science of peace.”

Once again, the words of my yoga teacher here in Uruguay caught me off guard. The tree pose I had been holding so gracefully was met by a sudden and powerful wind.

“That’s right,” she continued. “Just as we listen to and internalize the words of those around us, we also listen to and internalize these postures with patience and mindfulness.”

Once I regained my balance and composure, I started to muse. Patience is the science of peace. Not only was it a clever play on words in Spanish, it was true. What does it mean to be patient when listening to someone else? Having neutral ears, being radically present for them and listening deeply - not just to their words, but also to their body language. And sometimes, listening deeply can mean delaying your response. Depending on what it is, this can take a few minutes, weeks or even years. As Marta taught me that day, the same is true for holding yoga poses: listen to your inner struggle with neutral ears, be radically present for yourself and demonstrate compassion toward your twitching muscles instead of contempt.

There was a time in my life when my vision of myself did not include yoga or lap swimming (which I miss terribly and can’t wait to get back to as soon as the pandemic is under control). I couldn’t see past the inhibiting clumsiness and shyness of my early adolescence to envision participating in any physical activity in a school or group setting. My 13-year-old self thought it was impossible. Many years later, I stumbled upon the writing of a sports psychology specialist, who aptly said, “Attitude is a decision.” These are the words of Jim Afremow, author of The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive.

Afremow adds that an attitude is also a learned behavior, requiring discipline and energy to sustain. After reading his excellent book, I realized that I had made this very decision in my early teens. One outcome was working up the courage to join my high school tennis team in the mid-1980s. The next 36 odd years of my life were changed for the better because I decided to play tennis that year. What I learned as a result has almost nothing to do with teamwork yet somehow is completely related to it; although I had completely immersed myself in the sport, I played only one game the entire season.

Almost every weekend up until that year, an aunt of mine and I would drive around Santa Clara, California looking for an empty tennis court to play on. Once we found one, we would spend an hour or so swatting our garage-sale Wilson racquets at each other. Most days, we would spend more time looking for the balls we sent flying over the court’s tall, wire fence than we would spend playing. My aunt’s involvement in my life and fun approach to sports helped steer me toward that attitude decision. That she didn’t care about keeping score or the rules of the game was a gift and a blessing.

At that point in my life, rules themselves were a source of mystery to me. I didn’t have a stable family life and the lack of involved parenting led to me doing things such as forging signatures and intercepting report cards. My father died when I was a girl, and soon after, the economic bottom dropped out of our household. When I was 13, my mother was diagnosed with kidney disease and began undergoing dialysis several times a week. The sense of impermanence I felt at home resulted in a deficit of self-care. But once I made the attitude decision, I followed television aerobics programs, lost 30 pounds, and began to have more self confidence.

With my health under control, I felt I was finally both physically and emotionally ready to play on a team. I am pretty much blind in one eye, so my hand-eye coordination was abysmal. No matter how hard I tried to play at the start of the season, after-school practice left me feeling embarrassed and my teammates feeling angry. Soon, the same girls I got along with so well in class were protesting loudly to our coach that I was screwing up their game. Debilitating tendencies notwithstanding, I have never, ever been one to quit, so I simply kept showing up to practice while I waited for Mr Alves to kick me off the team.

Acutely aware of both the conflict and my determination, he pulled me aside three practices later. Mr. Alves said he was sorry that I wasn’t qualified to play, but he made me a deal. He would meet with me for half an hour after each team practice to teach me how to follow the ball. Meanwhile, I would keep attending practice, but instead of playing with my teammates, I would work on hitting using the wall affixed to the wire fence outside the court. With this, Mr. Alves had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse - one that allowed my fellow teammates to enjoy playing with each other while preserving my dignity and giving me the chance to learn.

After each practice and one-on-one coaching session, I would go home and practice in our suburban driveway. Follow the ball with your good eye, Mr. Alves said. Turn your head as it leaves the racquet, watch it as it flows towards the garage, hits it and bounces back. Then sync your swing with the ball’s position in the air. As I did this over and over again, time slowed down. As my reaction time improved, my stroke became more powerful. Whether it was forehand or backhand, it was just plain fun. Between about 4 p.m. and sunset, I allowed my personal worries to retreat into the background. Every day during that time, I slammed the ball against our garage door until the yellow paint started to peel off of it.

During one of the last games of the season, Mr. Alves allowed me to play a set of doubles. Although I still didn’t do as well as my teammates that day, I did play better than in the months’ prior and it was nice to participate for a few minutes. At the school sports assembly before summer break, I was awarded most improved tennis player. The same girls who protested so loudly about my participation on our tennis team now respected me. Somewhere deep inside, I still carry the round of applause I received from them when I walked up the stage stairs to accept the certificate. If attitude is a decision, then validation is its welcome and beloved companion.

Looking back at the experience from this vantage point, this is how I have come to see that conflict: I wish we all had equal skills. I’m not here to ruin your fun, but I’m not going away, either. It looks like we have a conflict. How shall we handle this? My aunt helped me prepare for it. Mr. Alves helped me resolve it.

Go figure, now. None of the above occurred to me until about four years after meeting and becoming friends with Fabiana Rezak. Fabiana is a tennis champion, certified fitness professional and the creator of Tennixise, which is tennis inspired fitness through mindful movement. We first met in 2017 by telephone through her wonderful parents, who live in Uruguay about a 15 minute drive away from us. Over the years, we kept in touch as often as possible and in late 2020, she was able to travel here. Every time we met, there was always so much to talk about, be it enjoying the present moment or learning more about each other.

When it came to our childhoods and teen years, there was lots to catch up on. We are about the same age, but grew up on different continents. Although we are both bilingual in English and Spanish, we have different cultural and life experiences. Fabiana was born and raised in Argentina; I was born and raised in Northern California. Somewhere along our respective journeys, we both embraced yoga, T’ai Chi and mindfulness practice. In addition to going swimming in the ocean, I really enjoyed the times we met and, before doing anything else, spent a few minutes together closing our eyes and breathing in silence.

Fabiana told me all about her excellent work in developing Tennixise. I told her about my plans and progress with Hemispheric Fit. It meant the world to me when she agreed to be interviewed on the topic of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict in sports. We also discussed the role of mindfulness in training and competition and how that inspired her to create Tennixise. It is because she so graciously consented (and consistently checked in to make sure I followed through) that I recalled my personal experiences with tennis, which inspired me to write this companion blog. Thank you, Fabiana, for being my champion on this project!

So, where do patience and the champion’s mind meet? “Patience is the science of peace,” my yoga teacher said that day. Water rushing over sharp rocks will eventually make them smooth. The key word here is eventually, but how smooth the rocks become will depend on the steadfastness and determination of the water they meet. Trees that yield to a strong wind like a dancer arcs her body to a movement of music are much prettier to witness than those that snap. Given a choice, I think most rocks would rather be smooth than jagged. And given a choice, I think most trees would rather bend in the wind than break.

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