Recognizing Your Value
When I was in college, I spent one year on the tennis team. Freshman year, I didn’t make the cut. In my dismissal from tryouts, the coach encouraged me to try out again in the spring, as there were a few graduating seniors on the team, and he would need to fill slots for the following year.
I loved playing in high school, so I decided it was worth a shot. My first move was to find a hitting partner to practice with to stay in shape and improve my skills. Thanks to Facebook, I found another freshman who was looking to do the same—try out again for the men’s tennis team in the spring.
We hit together several times per week until winter struck. Upstate New York is not conducive to outdoor tennis in winter, so we moved our sessions indoors, utilizing the racquetball courts for conditioning and volleying. I also continued practicing while at home on breaks, taking private lessons with my coach.
Finally, winter turned to spring, the icy courts thawed, and tryouts were held once again. I walked slowly but deliberately down the path to the tennis courts, watching other girls arrive, oversize racquet bags slung over their shoulders—the same oversize bags that psyched me out as a kid. Whenever a player walked onto the court with one of those giant professional-looking bags, I automatically assumed she must be better than me. But as I quickly learned, bags are not indicators of skill. Still, I was nervous, afraid of not making the team yet again.
At the end of tryouts, I emerged victorious. I was invited to join the team for preseason, meaning I was to arrive at school two weeks early for intense training. I was elated. All my hard work had paid off.
Months later, when I showed up for preseason, once again I was nervous. On the first day, I glanced around the court, already comparing myself to the other eleven girls on the team. They were all thinner and in better shape. In every training exercise we did—from push-ups to planks, suicides, and timed two-mile runs, I always finished last (with push-ups, sometimes I didn’t finish at all). Running on the track was the most mortifying, as members of the men’s soccer team lapped me.
That entire season I was outplayed, never making it onto the starting lineup. Even on the rare occasion when I was playing well, I choked once we began keeping score. I started to think I didn’t belong—that making the team was a fluke. Still, I showed up to every practice, traveled with the team to matches, and participated in all of the grueling training sessions without complaint.
And at the end of the year, I turned in my resignation. I wasn’t improving enough to make the starting lineup, and the coach had already recruited a handful of incoming freshmen for the team who were more experienced in tournament play, meaning my chances of starting junior year were slim.
I composed a polite email to the coach explaining that, after careful consideration, I would not return to the team junior year. He wrote back five simple words that baffled me. I’m disappointed by your decision.
I reread the email several times, my initial sense of confusion not subsiding. Why was he disappointed by my decision? What value did I bring to the team? I wasn’t good enough to be a starter, and I was in the worst physical shape of every player. I figured he wouldn’t have cared that I chose to quit—or better yet, that he’d be grateful to have another slot he could fill with a better, fitter player.
I’ve never fully understood his response until now.
Along my journey of personal growth, I’ve learned how many things I was doing (some I still catch myself doing) that weren’t (and aren’t) serving me. Spoiler alert, there were many—enough for an entire blog! The most egregious habits were with my mindset. In college (and high school, and essentially all of my 20s), I was my own harshest critic, constantly focused on my “deficiencies”—my wide hips, my inability to fully understand math once letters became entangled with numbers, the way I dressed—never as stylishly as my friends, how petrified I was to speak up in class even when I knew the answer. And the list goes on. And on. And on.
And I brought that same energy to the tennis team. I was so focused on all of the areas where I was lacking that I didn’t recognize my own attributes.
I regrouped after not making the team the first time, found a hitting partner, practiced diligently, and finally made the team. That’s resilience.
I wasn’t good enough to be a starter but I still showed up to every practice on time, ready to give it my all. That’s commitment.
I participated in every physical training session the coach put us through, no matter how grueling. And despite always finishing last, I never complained. That’s dedication.
I paid attention at practice, my cell phone always in my bag, silent mode switched on, even when the coach was discussing the lineup for an upcoming match, a conversation that never concerned me. That’s focus.
And even though I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play, I was at every home match cheering on my teammates. That’s showing up.
Back then, my mindset was so limited I didn’t realize I brought any value to the team. I thought that by not being as fit, or as skilled with my racquet, the team didn’t need me—that I was expendable, easily replaced. Or worse, that I was holding them back by taking up a slot that should go to a more talented tennis player.
But now I understand why the coach was disappointed. Athletic skills are not the only measure of value. He was losing someone who demonstrated resilience, commitment, dedication, and focus, and who showed up even when she knew she wasn’t playing, all qualities a coach wants in an athlete, and in a team player.
I did add value to the team. It only took me thirteen years after graduating to realize it.
Viscerally, as a coach, I suppose, Your sharing of such an extraordinary journey invokes, in me, a level of empathy verging on compassion for the coach. His admiration for Your contribution would dwarf his, then, disappointment.