I have to be good at so many things. Can’t I be bad at tennis?

By Daisy Alpert Florin

I’m not what you would call athletic. I’m not fast or strong. I don’t have quick reflexes or a competitive streak. I’m always worried about hurting myself. So when I started playing tennis last summer, I didn’t have high expectations. We had some credit at a local club for lessons my son missed during the pandemic. Now he was off to college, so did I want to use the credit to buy some lessons for myself? 

The first few lessons were rough. I didn’t know how to hold a racket. I was clumsy at the net. My serve was a joke. But maybe because I’d never been good to begin with and had nothing to compare myself to, it was fun. Really fun. When my series of lessons ran out, I signed up for a ten-week fundamentals clinic.

Let me stop here to say this isn’t a story about how I’ve gotten better at tennis. I mean, I have, a little, but only because I was so bad to begin with it would have been impossible not to improve with some instruction. No, this is a story about how being bad at something, really bad, is the most fun I’ve had in years.

My first coach—let’s call him Fergus—was encouraging, for the most part. It can’t be easy to teach beginners, especially middle-aged women who shout “Sorry!” every time we miss the ball and who might, at best, cobble together a doubles game every now and then. There was a limit to how far we could go is what I’m saying.

I could tell it was hard for Fergus to hide his frustration that we weren’t getting better, that after several weeks of instruction, our shots were inconsistent and we needed constant reminders to adjust our grips. Still, at the end of each lesson, he would tell us how much we had improved and what we still had to work on, and I nodded as if I were taking notes. Was my forehand getting better? Were my volleys improving? I didn’t think so, and I was okay with it. After a while, Fergus’s pep talks started to grate. I didn’t need to be told I was doing a good job. What I needed was permission to be bad for as long as I wanted, maybe even forever.

As I drove home after each lesson with Fergus, sore and sweaty and happy, I felt a strong urge to apologize to my kids. My poor kids who, when they were little, I dragged to all the things–chess, ballet, lacrosse, violin. And, more often than not, I would watch them crumble when they weren’t immediately “good” at something. After a few weeks, they’d declare themselves “bad” and not want to continue. Driving home, I realized I never gave them time to be bad at any of it, that, like Fergus, I focused more on their progress and ascent. I thought I was being encouraging but now it occurred to me that maybe that’s not how it felt to them. 

In my life off the court, I have to be good at so many things: good wife, good mother, good daughter. Good friend, neighbor, citizen. And think about all the things our kids have to be good at on a daily basis—French, algebra, lunch. I don’t like tennis because I’m good at it. I like it because it’s fun. I like pushing my body, seeing what it can do. The more I play, the more I discover how much I still have to learn. The more I play, the more infinite the game feels, like a well I’ll never see to the bottom of.

I wondered if this was how my kids felt, that instead of being able to luxuriate in the pleasure of being bad, they felt pressure to improve at a steady rate and on a timetable set by me or their teachers. My son, for example, whose missed pandemic lessons led to my own fledgling tennis career, spent years happily going to his weekly clinic, hitting balls for ninety minutes then heading home for pizza. Whenever I asked if he wanted to move up a level or try his hand at tournament play, he said no thank you. He felt no need to do more than he was doing and now I felt, long after the fact, I understood why. Perhaps I had done something right in that instance by not pushing him, but far more often I had done it wrong. I had pushed, had been more like Fergus than I cared to admit.

It’s a radical notion not to want to improve, to advance, to get better—especially in a culture that values the accumulation of skills and talent as inherently good. None of us wants to be bad at things, and sometimes being bad interferes with our enjoyment of an activity. But we need to push through a period of discomfort to gain mastery, and it can’t be rushed. By not allowing ourselves to be bad, we lose out on the chance to ever be good. 

And sometimes you don’t want to be good, don’t need to be good. Sometimes you just want to play.

Daisy Alpert Florin is the author of My Last Innocent Year. She lives and writes in Connecticut, land of the perfect serve.

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