HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Traversing the trivialities of life through tennis


On a recent trip to Jo’burg I found a book resting on my sister’s bookshelf just begging to be read. The title: The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. The subtitle: The ultimate guide to the mental side of peak performance.

As an avid hobbiest in tennis and a long-time dreamer of going pro (I am talking about 30 years here), I have never once read a book on the mindfulness of tennis, so to speak. Sure, I know all about playing the long game, forcing the error, kicking the gear up and playing ‘clutch’ as they call it and not letting your emotions get the better of you.

I’ve spent years and years listening to my dad give me advice on all of the above, and how to stay humble, get behind the ball, take my time and the strategy of staying ready, staying focused and emptying your mind on the court because you leave it all out there.

I’ve read several articles and books on the perfect serve, the perfect forehand, the perfect single-handed backhand, changing grips for each shot and how to improve your net play, but I have never ever read a book on mental peak performance, so when I saw the book I thought, ‘why not?’

I’m competitive, mostly with myself. I have high expectations to constantly improve, but I never smack talk because I believe smack talk smacks you back twice as hard. Although, sometimes admittedly when playing with my wife, I will trash talk ironically mostly by using funny puns. Just for jokes.

In his biography, Andre Agassi has one of my all-time favourite quotes on tennis, and that is:

“It’s no accident I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets, become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can be the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes, become hours, and any hour can be our finest or darkest. It’s our choice.”

My other favourite tennis quote of all time is, of course, by the legend and one and only Billy Jean King who says:

“Pressure is a privilege. Again, suitable to the ins and outs and frivolous factions of life that we often take so seriously when we don’t take others seriously enough.”

The book by Gallwey is like the holy grail for tennis players. It is quoted as being a “phenomenon for players of all abilities since it was first published in 1972”. It is also cited as Billy Jean King’s tennis bible. I wanted to read her bible and I wanted to take big gulps of the holy grail of tennis and so I did and what I learnt was not only a revolution in my understanding of the game, but also a revolution in my technique to traversing the troubles and trivialities of life.

Like the Agassi’s quote, which so specifically and appositely compares the game to the game of life, the ups, the downs and when it hits you out of nowhere sideways like an inside out forehand, this book does the same.

It describes tennis as both an inner and an outer game. When I read that, me, a person with absolutely no interest in motivational quotes and mantras to get through my days, suddenly had some sort of awakening.

The outer game of life is facing people in our lives. Our friends, our loved ones, our pets even, as well as our opponents of course, and we all have them. There is competition in life whether we play a sport or not. And then of course, the inner game is the one we play with ourselves. This, to me, is the bigger battle.

The inner self is the one we pay little attention to because we’re so consumed by everything and everyone around us. All of these things are the catalysts for anxiety, self-doubt, even depression. And in the words of the book, depending on the work we do on our inner selves, we have either won or lost the game before the ball has even been hit.

Just like in tennis, we have to approach ourselves the same way we approach the game. Before we make any choices, any decisions of where and how to hit the ball, so to speak, we have to develop our concentration, break bad habits and learn how to trust ourselves in life just like on the court. We have to maintain clarity of mind throughout our lives before we can even begin to have a psychological advantage over life itself and the challenges it serves us.

Game. Set. Match.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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