quit yer complainin’: Maria and Serena in the finals

Last night I sat down to watch Monday Night Football as usual and one of my friends turned to me and said, “How are you?” “Oh man,” I said, “I’m exhausted! This morning I had to drop my sisters off at the airport then I had to drive to Tarzana to sign some loan papers. I had a lunch meeting in Hollywood and then I had to go to sign papers to make an offer on a house and then I came right here.” What is going on? Am I complaining or what?

We watched Vinny Testaverde line up under the wrong lineman to get the snap, Lance Frazier start off running without the ball and Eddie George make a great catch only to get stripped of the ball on the same play and decided we’d seen enough. We switched channels to the WTA Tour Championship final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

These two players are interesting to compare. Both of them have fathers whose lives are defined by their daughter’s tennis career. Serena, on the one hand, is pretty confident and has a life outside of tennis. I was very impressed with her mental strength last night because she strained an abdominal muscle at the beginning of the third set and despite the fact that she served, no lie, slower than I do, won the first four games in the set before she just couldn’t go any more and lost six straight games to lose the set and match.

Maria Sharapova is, admittedly, only seventeen years old, but she has a habit of turning to her entourage in the players’ box and complaining when things aren’t going well. This might be a tough argument to make considering that Sharapova just won the tour finals championship, but complaning is detrimental to your game.

Let’s say you are in the middle of a tennis match and your backhand isn’t working. The ball goes into the net, over the fence or somewhere else it’s not supposed to go and you start complaining. You probably don’t have an entourage so you complain to yourself. The first problem with this is that you’re thinking about the wrong thing. Your backhand is probably not as good as Roger Federer’s, which is absolutely a thing of beauty, but it’s good enough to get the ball into your opponent’s court and here you are thinking about your backhand that doesn’t work instead of the one that does.

Another problem is that you should consider whether you need to change your strategy. If your opponent is hitting deep topspin shots that are bouncing high and making it harder to hit your backhand, maybe you should be thinking about moving farther back or moving in and hitting the ball early or even hitting a few short balls to see if you can mess them up instead of spending your time complaining.

Robert Parent talks about complaining in his book Zen Golf. He does something quite brilliant, he gives a practical example of using Zen Buddhism in our day to day life. Buddhism views the mind as a wild horse, the more you try to control it, the more uncontrollable it becomes. Try telling yourself not to complain, you can’t do it, the only thing you’ll think about is complaining. A better way to deal with your thoughts is to observe them without judgement. Parent suggests that you carry a piece of paper with you the next time you have a match. Every time you catch yourself complaining, make a mark on the paper. Don’t chide yourself for it because that’s another mark on the paper. Criticism is just another form of complaint after all. What you might find after a few matches is that you are complaining less and less.

I’m on the injured list at the moment so I’ve been trying this out in my non-sports life. I carry a piece of paper around with me and I make a mark every time I complain during the day. It turns out that most of the time I complain about things that happen because of decisions I’ve made. I enjoy my sisters’ visits, I invited them for heaven’s sake, and I’m the one who has been searching out real estate deals. If I’m exhausted, I could certainly do less because no one is forcing me to do anything. I am perfectly able to change my decisions and get more control of my life.

That’s what I love about sports, I learn much more about life than I ever did by going to church or sitting at the feet of spiritual teachers.