Tennis Lessons: the benefits of failure

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

~ Samuel Beckett

I wrote in my last post about my latest knitting project.  A week on and it looks like this:

I am pleased with the handling of the yarn and the interesting but easy to knit pattern.  There is a problem, however.  It is coming up too small, and the ribbing is too tight for the main part of the knit.  Hmmmm.

Despite working the obligatory and essential tension square before starting, I seem to have miscalculated.  I spent most of yesterday in a bit of a grump, searching endlessly through pattern websites for something different to knit with this yarn.  I was reluctant to rip out all the work I had completed.  Starting over seemed such a nuisance.

Then it struck me.  I am a huge advocate for the process of knitting being as important as the creation of a finished project.  Part of the pleasure of this hobby, as with many others, is the taking part.  It is common in other fields to make multiple starts before arriving on the final outcome.  In the case of this particular knitting project, instead of viewing my efforts so far as a ‘failure’, I can see that it has given me an opportunity to practice the pattern.  I can make some adjustments with the cast on to improve the edge.  I might even go so far as to say that it is helpful to have had a false start.

To continue the knitting and tennis link which I established in my last post, I am pleased to be writing about all of this on the first day of the 2017 Wimbledon tournament.  We can learn a vast amount from sportsmen and women about coping when things go wrong. Tennis is but one illustration of the way in which failure can ultimately help you reach your goals.

Stan Wawrinka has the Becket quote at the start of this post tattooed on his left arm.

©Scott Barbour/Getty Images

But what does it really mean?

I think it gives us permission not to be perfect. It reminds us that in anything at any time can fail to be the success we had been hoping for. Life is unpredictable and cannot be controlled.  However, what we can do is learn from our experiences, have another go and see what happens.

I am always amazed at the strength of will exhibited by tennis players.  They have the mental discipline and toughness to cope with variations in their own performance; the level of their opponent’s peformance; and the ebb and flow of the crowd’s affections. They seem to shrug off the potential shame and embarrassment of a poor shot. They accept pragmatically the fact that in most cases they lose their matches.  Only a handful of elite players win more than they lose.

Yet still they strive for better.  They learn from their mistakes.  More than this, they embrace the opportunities which mistakes present in order to move forward. So how can those of us who are not sporting professionals use this wisdom?  Here are a few ideas.


1. Life is just a tennis match

“Greatest thing in life: Winning a tennis match. Second greatest thing in life: Losing a tennis match”

~ Jimmy Connors

Boris Becker famously said, after losing a second round match at Wimbledon to someone he should, in theory, have beaten, ‘I haven’t lost a war. No one got killed. I just lost a tennis match’.  Does this mean he did not care?  That he would not continue to play?  That he would not strive to improve?  No, of course not.  He was highlighting the importance of keeping things in perspective.  Yesterday, I let the small set-back of some errant knitting affect my entire well-being. It feels so much better instead to think ‘it’s just knitting’.

Which tennis match or knitting equivalent could you helpfully take a new perspective on?


2. Accept that ‘winning ugly’ is still winning

“What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion? I would have to say desire, staying in there and winning matches when you are not playing that well.”
~ John McEnroe

Sometimes we can box ourselves in by creating a fixed idea of how something is supposed to turn out. We forget that most things in life are not black and white, to be done only this way or that. Be flexible. Be open to unexpected twists and turns. Embrace the unexpected. Forget what other people think; you can be your best self, as defined by you. Day by day, you can deal with and adapt to whatever comes along.

Think about something which is not ‘perfect’ in your life.  How can you change your approach so that it is ‘good enough’?


3. It’s about the process, not the end result

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”
~ Arthur Ashe

Successful sportspeople focus on their routines.  They break down shots into individual actions that can be worked on again and again.  They practise focusing on only the single most important thing at any given time.  In this way, they can move their mind away from the enormity of a particular event.  They can approach their work objectively, feeling satisfied with the way in which they have prepared, and without getting distracted by emotion.  Feeling passion for one’s endeavours is important for generating motivation.  But once you have identified what you want to do, it’s time to knuckle down and enjoy the process, every tiny step.

Think about something you view as a ‘success’.  Now take a moment to reflect on all the things you did to achieve that success.  It is those small steps, so instantly forgettable, that underpin the end result.  How can you use this approach in your life right now?


4. Breathe and keep going

“For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure, it’s research.”

~ Billie Jean King

It can be easy to get overwhelmed when things don’t work out.  The thought of ‘making lemonade with life’s lemons’ seems like such a cliché.  None of us want to go through life wearing Pollyanna spectacles.  Instead, it is about taking a moment.  Stepping back.  Realising that fundamentally you are ok, and that you can carry on, no matter what has happened.  To quote Becket once again: ‘I can’t go on.  I’ll go on’.

Have you got something you really want to do but can’t seem to make any progress?  Take a deep breath and think about the very smallest step you could take towards your ultimate goal.  Make it highly manageable and, when you have done it, think about the next step and repeat.  You climb a staircase one step at a time.  Before you know it, you’ll be at the top.


Ultimately, in this sporting arena we call life, we have complete choice over the way in which we think about and respond to events and challenges.  With this in mind, I’m off now to start my knitting project afresh.  If it ends up being wearable, that’s a bonus! 🙂




15 thoughts on “Tennis Lessons: the benefits of failure

  1. I love your attitude and the comparison to tennis, Fantastic thinking!. See, your knitting is research and you are learning from it. It does look great, I have to say!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a lovely post! Your attitude reminds me of when I paint (oil painting). I am not very good at it, but I enjoy the process very much. And knowing that I’m not very good somehow gives me a great amount of freedom because if it doesn’t work out then “oh well!” and if it does work out then it’s a wonderful surprise haha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol – love the thought of you painting – would love to see images some time. Thanks so much for the retweet, by the way – I always really appreciate your support. And I look forward to meeting up in the one book bookshop some time 😃💕

      Liked by 1 person

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