I’ve recently re-taken up tennis. I haven’t played in years (the last time may have been in high school?), but my husband has been playing a lot and in the interest of being able to keep up with him in a game, I’m trying to revive my skills. And it’s working. Over the last few weeks of consistent practice, my skills with a racket have noticeably improved. Today, as I’m on the court swinging away, I’m realizing exactly what has led to this improvement. And because I like relating concepts to different areas of my life and am always up for a good analogy, I’m realizing how lessons from the tennis court apply to the work of family and parenting.
Contact. First just hit the ball. All you’re doing is discovering how to get where you need to be to make a return. As my husband and I teach our kids how to play tennis, we celebrate any time they get a hit–regardless of where the ball actually goes.
When it comes to children, first just be present. Make ‘contact’ by being there, being aware and figuring out where you need to be. Learn just how far you need to reach.
Accuracy. Once you get the feel for making contact, then try to get the ball in the court. You have to adjust your strength to find what’s appropriate. Now you’re able to get the ball over and in.
Are you tailoring your responses and interactions to the needs of the child rather than to the outward appearance of behavior? That’s getting it in the court. That’s where your ball should go.
Aim. Then comes learning how to place the ball where you want it. Beyond just making contact and getting the ball over the net, fine-tune the details of your movements to put it where you decide is best.
This might be a difference of offering a child choices (It’s time to clean up; would you like to start with the Legos or the animals?) or simply offering a statement (It’s time to clean up; when the toys are put away we’ll have our movie night). Because of your practice first with presence and with understanding the needs that drive your child’s behavior, you’re able to respond appropriately. You know your child well enough to know how to “aim” your communication.
Stamina. Now try to keep this up for a while. At first, with so much to consider, it’s easy to wear out quickly. But as you come back to the game again and again, you’re able to sustain momentum for longer and longer periods of time.
It’s OK if you can’t keep up all your good parenting habits at first. This is hard work.
Repeat. Repetition builds muscle memory and fast, efficient brain connections–your motions get easier over time.
The more often you parent consciously, the stronger those neural connections become. Eventually you don’t have to think so consciously about every movement, and you are able to keep it up continually.
What this eventually leaves you with is an Authentic Swing–a swing that is uniquely yours. It’s a fluidity of movement that is everything it needs to be: present, aware, accurately aimed, of appropriate strength, and engrained within you. Your swing is your true self coming through, unburdened from the shoulds and supposed-tos and pressures from any one else.
We feel with absolute certainty that if we could only swing like that all the time, we would be our best selves, our true selves, our Authentic Selves. ~Steven Pressfield
And my husband taught me what it probably the most important lesson of all:
Go For It. Always, always try to get there. Sometimes you’ll see a ball come flying your way and you’ll think it’s out of your reach. You’ll be tempted just to stand there as you think, “No way. I can’t get to it.” But go for it anyway and see what happens–you might be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.