From an early age we all search for an identity, something that allows us to stand out, makes us unique. Often, our identity becomes defined, to ourselves and others, by our interests. Bill "the athlete," Angie, "the musician," Betty "the druggie." These labels become our unofficial name tags and we often mold our personality to adopt the characteristics that define our particular stereotype.
My identity, since I was very young, had always been Greg "the tennis player." It was a well-deserved persona and I reveled in it. I began playing tennis at the age of ten and it soon became my life. I lived and breathed the sport and thought of myself as a tennis player in every respect. I dressed like a tennis player, walked and talked like a tennis player and projected an arrogance that would have made even McEnroe wince.
It wasn't long after striking my first ball that I became identified by my passion. No longer was I Greg Moran, I was now Greg "the tennis player." "Greg who?" girls would ask when I called for a date. "Oh yeah," they'd say, "Greg the tennis player." Then they'd hang up.
Unfortunately, like many young tennis players (athletes for that matter), my sense of identity as a tennis player reached such an extent that I began to define myself by my latest win or loss on the court.
A very cut and dried sport, tennis gives us one winner and one loser. If I won, all was wonderful and I was a good person. If I lost, there must be something wrong with me. A loser on the court, a loser off the court. I took this very much to heart, you see, because underneath my arrogant armor, I was like any other immature, insecure kid, trying to find who I was and where I belonged.
Eventually, my defense mechanisms fought back, to the point where I subconsciously began to withdraw from the competitive aspect of the sport. I'd get hurt or sick before a big match or, if things weren't going well, I'd act as if I wasn't trying so that when I lost, I could say that I didn't REALLY lose since I wasn't REALLY trying.
My retreat from competition eventually led me away from the courts and on to the roads. I had always run as a supplement to my tennis training, but I soon found solace in running and began to increase my time out on the pavement.
It wasn't long before my training moved away from the physical toward the psychological. There was nothing else to do, just run and think. Back then there were no walkmans.
The road became my classroom and the subject was Greg "the tennis player."
Was this really who I was? All I was? A competitor, whose self-image was so wrapped up in the result of a match, that he became afraid to compete. At the time, I'm afraid, yes.
Running, if one chooses, can be a very selfish activity. I chose just that, the road and my thoughts. Nobody watching, no scores to report, no expectations. It is also, at my level, a relatively simple activity. You put on your shoes, you go out, and you run. No excuses. Playing tennis, there was always something, or someone, available to blame if I failed.
When I ran, there was no pressure. My ego wasn't on the line because, after all, I wasn't a runner, I was "a tennis player." As a result, I was able to enjoy running in a way that I had not enjoyed tennis since my earliest days.
Running brought simplicity to a world of complexity. It allowed me to, in a sense, jump off the treadmill of life for a while and onto the road of self-examination. I began to read books and articles, not so much about the mechanics of running, but rather the philosophy of the runner.
I developed personal relationships with people I'd never met. People such as the late Dr. George Sheehan whose wit and wisdom taught me that "play is where life lives," and that when "money, power and position become ends" and "the game becomes winning, we lose the good life and the good things that play provides."
Dr. Sheehan, an expert tennis player, also taught me that "sport is not a test but a therapy, not a trial but a reward, not a question but an answer." He taught me to not be "intimidated by the opinion of others" and finally, to "pursue my own perfection." That was a biggie!!!
I also met, through words, Joe Henderson, who told me that longevity is more important than level, and that the true winners are not the ones who come in first, but rather the ones who come in last---last to quit. Joe taught me that if you can be "the best you can with the talent you have and the training you've done, you can call yourself a winner."
I began to push aside Greg "the tennis player" and became acquainted with simply, Greg. I learned that it's okay that I'd rather go to the movies than to the "theater," that I prefer a cold beer to fine wine and Tom Jones to Tom Petty (yes, I said Tom Jones). I also learned that in these days of more never being enough, that it's okay not to be addicted to achievement and to be more concerned with my family than my portfolio.
I learned that the only competition that is truly important is the one we wage within. Tennis matches are simply an opportunity to test our developing skills, not a contest of our personal worth.
I learned to compete against myself, trying to become better than I was the last time. This is what true competition is supposed to be about. It's not about beating someone else, it's about testing yourself and trying to become the best that you can be, while at the same time allowing your opponent the same opportunity.
I never stopped playing tennis during this time, as I said, it is my true love, as well as my livelihood. However, I began to approach my time on the court from a different perspective and I recaptured the joy of playing, simply for the sake of playing. Not surprisingly, I began to play and teach the game at a much higher level than I had ever approached before.
The message that I am trying to convey here is certainly not to give up tennis for running
(running can be sooooo boring) but rather to try to avoid the (perhaps unavoidable) trap that many junior players, and actually quite a large number of adults, fall into; equating your self-worth with your latest result on the tennis court.
I fell into that trap for many years as a junior player and, aside from hindering my progress as a player, it took away much of my enjoyment for the game. And I later learned that the enjoyment of the game is what it's all about.
Once I was able to look deeply into myself, I learned that, even though I'm still known as Greg "the tennis player," the tennis player part is what I do, not who I am.