The dictionary defines stress as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. In other words,
(1) Something in our external environment happens. (2) The state of our internal environment changes.
When you ask a mental health professional to define stress, they may define it as how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. Note the difference between the two definitions. The second adds a key element – our response to the external environment.
This week’s idea is about addressing stress from the inside out. Instead of trying to change your external environment, spend more time nurturing your inner environment. If we can stabilize ourselves from the inside, we can withstand almost any external forces. We can become the rock in a rushing river. As Krishna said to Arjuna in the beautifully timeless Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita,
“We never really encounter the world; all we experience is our own nervous system.”
As a college tennis coach, every student-athlete on my team is constantly navigating stressful on-court situations. Each player carries their unique mindset, self-confidence, and fears with them in a mental backpack onto the match court. Some elements lighten the load; confidence, presence, and gratitude lift us up like a helium balloon. Others weigh us down; over-thinking, self-doubt, and fear of other people's opinions prevent us from lifting off. The pack is heavier for some players than others, but every tennis player carries the full spectrum of their humanity onto the match court. A mentally strong tennis player isn't someone who ditches the pack - we don't want to lose our lightness - a mentally strong player is skilled at navigating the light and heavy within themselves. *
Let's move forward with another tennis analogy. In 2020, college tennis moved to a no-ad scoring system. Instead of having to win two points in a row to secure a game, now every 40-40, or deuce game, was decided by one point. Stakes immediately increased. Deuce points became the highest-pressure point in college tennis. Across the country, players cried out in opposition. Everyone hated the new rule. “That’s so much pressure!” Followed by, “Now matches will come down to luck!”
Once the initial resistance passed, players split into two camps. The first group hated deuce points. When the high-pressure moment arrived, this player shuffled their feet to the line, their breathing shallow and hands tense. On the opposite spectrum, players strode up to the line with an air of confidence and a clear gameplan. Which player do you think won more deuce points?
Stress is less a consequence of the deuce point as much as it is a consequence of how a player experiences the deuce point. The boiling water that softens the potato, hardens the egg. It is not about the deuce point; it is about you. As all-time great coach John Wooden famously said, “sports don’t build character; they reveal it.”
So, what is someone who struggles with deuce points to do?
First, remind yourself that stress is a product of our internal environment. This is great news! It means that we can do something about it. We can learn skills that help navigate the light and heavy within ourselves.
You can learn to embrace, and maybe even love, deuce points.
In order to grow and overcome what is holding us back, we must first face the parts that we try and hide from ourselves and the world. This may require you to unpack your mental backpack, bringing everything inside of yourself out into the light. In my experience as a coach, this is the greatest barrier to transformational mental breakthroughs; the fear of facing our shadow. This is not something that can be forced upon a player, either. It is a personal journey that each individual must take willingly.
But here's the thing: a tennis player can either dive into the depth of their shadow on purpose, or their shadow will force itself upon them on match day. Shadows don't need invitations. In the end, there is no avoiding ourselves.
* Shout-out to friend and fellow writer, Garrett Kincaid, for this week's inspiration. To read more about the harmony of light and heavy, check out Garrett's illuminating blog post here: https://garrettkincaid.substack.com/p/backpack-your-burdens?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=1290868&post_id=101939185&isFreemail=true&utm_medium=email
**Watch this 3-minute video of Novak Djokovic, possibly the greatest tennis mind of all time, sharing how he navigates his inner world: Djokovic - Inner Game - YouTube.