So I had this experience the other day where I got out on the tennis court for the first time in a long time and was playing and I actually heard, consciously, my inner critic. I’ll call her Chloe. Chloe has a lot of opinions and is unabashed about sharing them, constantly.
For example, she thinks I am way too fat to play tennis, and also that my feet are too wide. She thinks I look preposterous in a tennis skirt, but even more ridiculous in leggings. If my sports bra is tight, she’s pretty sure it’s damaging my shoulders. If it’s more relaxed, she reminds me that I’m probably bouncing myself into hideous stretch marks, if not actual indecent exposure.
If I hit the ball solid, Chloe tells me it was a fluke. If I hit it long, short, wide, too soft, into the net, or any which way but perfect, Chloe tells me, “Bad, bad, bad.” Sometimes it will feel like, “Ugh, I’m so disappointed in you,” or “Why can’t you be better than you are?” or “Why are you torturing your tennis partner making them withstand your repulsively bad playing?” Or simply, “Give it up.” Sometimes she’s not that nice.
But the other day there was another voice on the court too, the voice of Coach Tommy. Coach Tommy is one of these tennis guys who’s thin as a rail, tan as a nut, and probably somewhere between forty and one hundred years old. He wears a huge hat and sometimes zinc oxide on his nose and he feeds balls like Barry White sings. Smooth. He has a couple of facial expressions as far as I can tell – smiling a little and smiling a lot. I met him through my five-year-old, because he’s the guy who teaches the peewees at our local tennis club.
So last Wednesday Coach Tommy invited me to hit a few balls during Ax’s lesson. I got out there and began hitting. That old familiar Chloe voice came up instantly, diligently inventorying errors, observing imperfections, screeching corrections as I hit, “bad one, terrible one, ok but could have been better, fluke, too late, too flat, too lazy,” she sang as I hit. And I felt heavy as I thwacked back that thousand pound yellow ball over and over again.
Then, from across the court, I heard this other noise rise above the internal symphony of self-flagellation. I heard, “Nice shot!” Then I heard, “Way to get there!” Then I heard, “Great swing!” At first I was annoyed. How am I supposed to dispel these compliments and keep up my normal self-criticism all while trying to keep the ball in play?
It was too much for Chloe to handle, rebutting Coach Tommy’s encouragement as well as doling out critique simultaneously. I decided to let go of all of it and felt the ball hit my racket, bounce off, and go. I stopped thinking and hit. I felt myself find the sweet spot, unmistakable, effortless, easy, right there. I ran around in the sun and enjoyed it. “Looking good,” called the Coach.
And then I became aware of another voice, from the sidelines, calling out, with each swing I took, “Bam!” and then another, “Bam!” It was Ax, providing commentary from his shady perch, dancing around. “Bam!” he yelled, jumping up and down swinging mighty air forehands and air backhands, mimicking me.
“Isn’t your mom great?” Coach Tommy asked.
“She’s awesome!” Ax said, and in that moment I felt the same way.