As I ran across the tennis court, I could feel the heat from the sun warming my skin and the droplets of sweat welling up on my forehead. My eyes were wide open, focused on the incoming ball; my arms and legs were moving in a fast, synchronized motion; and my heart was a pounding drum, beating in my chest. I gasped for air but couldn’t get any. I just kept running as fast as I could to the ball, breathless with anxiety and fear. Then I stopped, positioned myself, and swung my racquet, only to have it fly through the air, missing the ball entirely. Similar episodes kept happening for the next eighteen points: the ball flew everywhere but my opponent’s side of the court for the next eighteen points. For each of these points, my fear grew bigger—the fear of disappointing my coach, teammates, and parents who were watching in disbelief. This type of situation occurred often during my last year on the Celebration High School tennis team. I lost that match and many others.
It was the middle of my senior year, and I had decided to play one more time for my high school's tennis team. Since I had played such an incredible season during my junior year, I thought this season was going to be the milestone of my high school life. When the training sessions started, I would wake up at five every day to run four miles before school, and at lunch I would go to the gym to lift weights. Eventually, I felt like I was playing better than ever before. Every time someone tossed the ball to my direction, it would fly back to the other side of the court twice as fast, bounce precisely on the lines, and strike the fence, leaving my opponents with a stunned look in their faces. As I left the courts each day, I would hear my teammates talking about my performance during trainings, saying that the coach was considering moving me up from my ranking as number two to number one player of the team.
The opposite happened once the matches started, though. Whenever I stepped on the court, I would feel differently. My hands would start to tremble; my heart would pump out of my chest, and my stomach would knot up. Suddenly, it felt like I couldn’t stand still anymore. Every time a ball flew to my direction, my mind would drift away to think of the consequences of losing, turning each point into a complete nightmare. As result, I lost consecutive matches, and my coach dropped me to number three in the ranking. One day after a match, I took one of my racquets and slammed it into a bench, breaking it completely. At another, I told my coach I was sick to not go to a match. Frustration became a constant feeling for me because I didn’t know why I couldn’t control my anxiety while playing matches.
At the middle of the season, I found out why I was losing so much. I had to play a match against one of the best high school tennis teams in the state of Florida. As we heat up to play that day, my teammates talked about how we did not stand a chance, so I was not nervous. When I stepped on the court, I had a confident and fearless look in my face. I looked at my opponent, tossed the ball in the air, and swung my racquet up against it, starting the game. He immediately sent the ball back to my direction, making it glide through the air at an extraordinary high-altitude. I watched the ball making a path towards my forehand, placed myself in position, turning my shoulders to a 180-degree and bending my knees, and swung my racquet. The ball flew at such incredible speed that my opponent only watched and did not make move. As the match went on for three long hours, balls flew back and forth across the court, gaining speed each time. If there was ever a possibility for ties to happen in tennis, that match would I have been one. I left the court that day only to have all my teammates congratulating me for being the only player that had won.
On the ride back to school, my coach turned around from the front seat to lay some knowledge down like he always would. He turned to me and said, “congrats, not because you won, but because you finally played your best game without worrying about the outcome.” From the moment I heard those words, I realized what had been my biggest flaw when I played a match. Instead of playing my best and having fun, I was constantly worried about failure.
After this event, I decided to take a different approach when playing tennis games. I was going to play assuming I had already lost the match. Ironically, this new strategy worked for me. I could play my best without being affected by any fears. Thus, I won every single match after this change, and I was even able to medal for the number three ranking that year. Reflecting on this experience today makes me realize how losing all those matches summed into something more meaningful. It translated into a life lesson that I will always carry with me: do your best, work hard, and have fun but do not worry about failure—failure is just a step to become successful.