One of the most comical, yet sad things every aging athlete must face is that we no longer are what we once were. Our minds are there, willing us to keep fighting, but our bodies don’t cooperate. This is a post about perseverance.
At the beginning of the year, I highlighted several personal goals in a post. One of those goals was to win just one USTA 5.0 rated tennis match. I had just gotten bumped to 5.0 after being a 4.5 for the past four years. It was a big surprise since I never believed that I belonged.
To give you an idea of the caliber of players in the 5.0+ USTA league, here are some bios:
* Cal team captain in 1998 who played No. 5 singles and owned a 25-6 match record that year.
* No. 6 singles player for USF in 2013. That’s right, he’s only 24 years old.
* Four year starter for UC Santa Cruz, and 2009 Division III National Champions.
* Four time All-American in singles and doubles at Stanford.
* Four year starter at William & Mary with a 70-40 singles record.
In other words, these guys are legit. Winning a singles match against some of these young bucks is impossible. I’d lose 1-6, 1-6 if I’m lucky. Winning a doubles match is almost impossible without a good partner.
COMING BACK TO CENTER
Although I was recruited to play at a Division III school, I never played college-level tennis because I chose to go to a better school for academics. By junior year in high school, I knew I had no chance of ever making pro, partly because I didn’t have the drive to compete in tournaments around the Mid-Atlantic. My strokes were consistent, but lacked any sort of punishing pace that could easily vanquish my opponents.
Besides, I’m a 38 year old personal finance blogger who spends most of his time writing. Challenge me to a finger wrestling contest and I’ll crush you! But put me in battle against guys who bomb 125+ mph serves, and I’m not so sure. Waistlines don’t stay trim, nor do muscles stay lean with sedentary professions.
In college I remember watching these players compete while I just played intramural tennis. They were the studs who won local and national tournaments. They were the ones who were coveted by coaches and got multi-year academic scholarships. Never did I imagine we’d all play in the same league 20 years later.
SOME THINGS MONEY CAN’T BUY
For those of you who don’t play tennis, or who don’t play competitive sports, being proud of making 5.0 probably sounds stupid. But I grew up in an environment where we had to excel as students and as athletes. It wasn’t good enough to be a nerd. It wasn’t good enough to be an athlete with piss-poor grades either. Colleges wanted both! The pressure was on.
Despite being the captain of my high school tennis team a couple years and going All-District, I burned out of tennis my senior year. Practices were long, and I couldn’t help but pass out early from exhaustion every night without doing all my homework. Staying awake in Spanish class the next day after lunch was nearly impossible. Food coma!
Until this day, my favorite words after lunch are, “Nappy time!”
Despite making the logical decision to focus on academics instead of tennis, for years after high school, I always wondered “what if?” What if I had practiced more, tried harder, lifted more weights, and played in more tournaments? There are plenty of 150 – 160lbs, 5’10” players like me who are doing well in college and on the pro-circuit. Kei Nishikori, the world’s #7 ranked player is one such example.
Was I just making excuses when I was younger for not wanting to try harder? Was I too afraid of losing?
Ah, good ‘ol REGRET started creeping back in. Then I discovered a path to redemption through USTA league tennis as a 32 year old back in 2009.
It’s funny, because 2009 was the same year that I started Financial Samurai. Clearly, I was looking for some outlets to get my mind off a very scary financial time for us all. Tennis and writing were my two salvations.
A ROUGH START
When I first began, I couldn’t even join my club’s 4.5 team because I didn’t know anybody, and nobody thought I was good enough. As a physically unimposing human being, I had no positive biases in the tennis world.
Given nobody believed in me, I started believing I wasn’t good enough either! Instead of trying to make the 4.5 team, I self-rated as a 4.0 and ended up getting computer disqualified after my 5th match for beating my opponents too badly. It was a hit to the team, because all my prior wins also got canceled in favor of the opponent. We were entering playoffs and I couldn’t even participate.
After my disappointing 4.0 season, I was finally given an opportunity to play 4.5 level tennis the next year. I went 4-2 in 2010, and 3-1 in 2011. But despite the winning records in 4.5, I still didn’t get the playing time I wanted. Instead of complaining, I decided to leave my club (mainly because I could never get parking or a court time), and just join a public team at Golden Gate Park where I didn’t know anybody. Once again, I had to prove my worth by challenging other players. That’s when I met Jabir, the poorest richest friend I know. Things got better after that.
I ended up going undefeated, 12-0 in 2012, with a couple satisfying wins against my old teammates who didn’t believe in me. We went on to win the City Championship as well!
In sports, there’s probably nothing more gratifying than proving your detractors wrong by winning. Without detractors, there’s no way I would have practiced as much and stayed in fighting shape. Rejection is motivating!
PERSEVERING THROUGH PAIN
There’s something nobody in the tennis community knows. Back in 2007, I got an MRI on my left knee due to constant sharp pains that would cause my knee to buckle when walking up or down steps. My knee also felt loose every time I’d take a right turn.
It turns out that I had a torn horizontal meniscus tear in the posterior horn. I went to see an orthopedic surgeon to find out whether I should have arthroscopic knee surgery. He told me, “Only if the pain is too much to bear.”
The left knee was in pain, but through physical therapy, I worked through the pain and it didn’t bother me as much anymore. I wore a knee sleeve to keep things tight, and battled on!
I promised never to complain about the pain and never tell anybody about my injury. You either win on the court or you lose. And if you lose, it’s because your opponent was too good that day, not because you had some type of injury, or you went out drinking too late, or any other sort of bullshit excuse we tend to make. The same thing goes with our finances!
In sports, you man up, learn from your losses, work on your weaknesses and try to get better. Eventually, our bodies will refuse to cooperate. That’s when we’ve got to come to the realization that it’s time to play down a level or retire. But while our bodies are still healthy, we compete as hard as we can in order to discover our potential!
FINDING MAX POTENTIAL
None of my teammates from my old 4.5 team in 2009-2010 have made it to 5.0 today. They’ve either quit, gotten out of shape, or remained at 4.5. I’ll admit that I’m probably one of the worst 5.0 players in America. But for at least one year, the computer will say I’m a 5.0, which is something that can’t ever be taken away.
All the practicing and mind-bending competitive situations paid off. Getting to 5.0 is something money can’t buy. But how about winning at 5.0?
Instead of just winning one match, I ended up going 3-3. One win was against two self-rated 5.0 players who honestly weren’t 5.0s, and another win was against a new 5.0 promote like myself and his 4.5 partner. My final win was against a three year starter at UC Davis (D1) and his partner who played at Wesleyan (D3). My partner was just like me, a former high school player who just got bumped to 5.0.
As for my losses, I got crushed playing with a 4.5 against two teams who were both 5.0s (2-6, 2-6 and 4-6, 3-6). When I finally got a legit 5.0 partner, we went the distance winning the first set 6-3, losing the second set 3-6, and then losing a 10 point tie-breaker 6-10 against an ex-Cal player (D1) and his ex-Emory (D3) player partner. It was the most satisfying loss of my life because it showed that I could hang.
Non-monetary goals are some of the most precious because you can’t buy your way to glory. Not even talent can make you succeed without a tremendous amount of practice. We all need to stick around for as long as possible to give ourselves a chance. You just never know what might happen!
1) Not feeling like you belong is a common feeling. Most of us would rather err on the side of caution and do OK, rather than try extremely hard and fail at the chance of doing something great. Failure is embarrassing. It’s why many players don’t even bother to sign up for their club tournament. I highly recommend going for big wins, because what’s worse than failure is the regret of never trying at all.
2) Decide whether your mind is an enabler or a disabler. As soon as you feel like you belong, you will get better at whatever you do. I can easily hit a top spin one-handed backhand now, whereas before I could not for years. If you do not believe in yourself, nobody will.
3) When it comes to building wealth, belief that you deserve to be rich and free is equally important. There are so many doubters about saving 50%+ of your income, creating a product that produces passive income, or starting your own business, from people who’ve never bothered to try! But I assure you that once you develop a plan, good things will happen.
4) Instead of letting detractors get you down, use detractors as motivation to succeed. Your detractors are the most afraid to try! My favorite internal monologue growing up was, “Work twice as hard to get half as much.” There’s no better gratifying feeling than success. The worst is if something is just handed to you. Then you can’t possibly fully appreciate the significance.
5) If you persevere long enough, good things will happen. Never fail due to a lack of effort!
If you’re a tennis player, I highly recommend reading Brad Gilbert’s book Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare In Tennis–Lessons Learned From A Master.
Update 10/18/2017: It’s been three years since I was bumped up to 5.0 and the novelty has worn off. But, the good feeling of accomplishment has not. It’s more fun to be a 4.5 player because there are more teams you can join. All I really want to do is play and have fun.