Detours, Roadblocks, and Discoveries on the “Road to 4.5 Tennis”
“The most fulfilling adventures happen when you start your journey without knowing where you’re going, because only then are you free to experience the unexpected detours you’re meant to take.”
― A.J. Darkholme, Rise of the Morningstar
“In the moment, you most likely won’t know how valuable such detours will prove to be, but life has a way of revealing the hidden magic in these moments down the road at the appropriate time.”
― Shannon Ables
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
By P.J. Simmons
A fellow tennis fanatic emailed me last week: “Hey man, haven’t seen any new posts for a while – how’s your Road to 4.5 going? You there yet?”
“Not quite,” I wrote.
Turns out the “Road” has had a few more twists and turns than expected.
When I started this blog in July 2012, I had a fairly clear vision of what my life would look like in 2016. I was sure I’d be a rock solid 4.0 USTA league competitor by now, rapidly closing in on a 4.5 rating. I expected to be in the best shape of my life, training 6 days a week on court and off. I was confident I’d be updating this blog with new posts every few weeks, sharing the ups and downs of my training with fellow tennisaholics around the globe. And all signs were pointing towards leading an effortlessly balanced life, where I was also enjoying ample quality time with family and friends and making a tangible difference in the world through my professional work with the Corporate Eco Forum to advance sustainability.
As Woody Allen famously said: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
2016 looks radically different than I imagined: My on-court progress has been stalled for months. My fitness is good, but nowhere near the elite level I had expected. I managed to pen only four new posts in 2014 and three in 2015. I’m constantly struggling to keep up with the workload of essentially two full-time jobs.
And yet, life has never felt richer or more fulfilling.
Ironically, the main reason I’m only inching towards 4.5 these days is because of tennis, which opened up a new road into uncharted territory I couldn’t resist exploring.
The big detour started in late 2012, when I set out to turn my dream of creating a “Tennis Congress” for fellow serious adult amateurs like myself.
It’s comical in retrospect how relatively easy I thought it would be to realize that dream while still holding down my full-time sustainability work, keeping up with my own training, and leading a balanced life.
“I don’t have kids,” I reasoned to others (and myself), “which frees me up to raise a different kind of baby for the next few years.”
Thank goodness for that naive optimism, for if I had any clue the trials and tribulations that were in store I almost certainly wouldn’t have had the courage to embark on the journey.
The smooth path I expected quickly turned into a roller coaster ride. Despite the idea quickly gaining traction with coaches and serious adult amateurs alike, it soon became clear that achieving my vision for a truly “world-class” experience would require a far greater investment of money and time than I originally imagined. Which presented me with another big fork-in-the-road moment: either significantly scale back my vision and play it safe; or stay true to the vision, with the faith that somehow it would all work out in the long run.
Being a stubborn Taurus, I chose the latter. But the implications were significant. We had to move in with family for two years to make ends meet financially. My routine work week stretched to 70+ hours and free weekends disappeared. My sleep was interrupted by frequent 3am panic attacks, my overcrowded mind filled with anxiety.
Another casualty was my own on-court training, which I needed to scale back significantly both because of time and financial constraints. I went from playing 4-5 times a week to a single 90-minute weekly practice session with my coach Brian. That once-a-week appointment on court became sacred: it brought me a measure of comfort, escape, and joy that only other fellow players could fully understand. And because my practice was always deliberate and focused, even this relatively small investment of practice time produced dividends: I kept improving steadily, albeit a bit more slowly than before.
Then last December, a major roadblock appeared that would put a complete halt to my on-court training.
After months of increasingly disconcerting wrist pain, an MRI revealed a cartilage tear in my dominant wrist (a “TFCC” tear, which is similar to a meniscus knee tear). Turns out it was due to a fall backwards months prior that never properly healed, but my relentless drive to have a big modern forehand had made things worse.
The prognosis: I’d be sidelined for at least 6 months to recover properly.
The news hit hard at first. I viewed that singular weekly practice time as a lynchpin for preserving my mental health in the face of unrelenting pressure off court. And while I’m usually the eternal optimist about these things — and found some consolation in my general outlook on injuries — the prospect of losing tennis completely at this particularly stressful moment really stung.
But then funny thing happened only a couple weeks later: I actually began feeling a sense of relief.
I had been running at such a furious pace for three years straight, and realized something needed to give. But I had been unwilling to prioritize – so I just kept trying to do everything. My body had made the decision for me.
In the weeks that followed, my forced time off also prompted me to reflect in new ways on the meaning of tennis in my life, on what’s most important in life, and on my priorities.
Here are the big takeaways (I’m writing this down for myself perhaps more than anyone else):
(1) As deeply rewarding as it’s been to achieve hard-earned progress in my own game, those rewards pale in comparison to those I’ve received in the process of trying to help others. Service has been a powerful motivator for me since high school, and my career decision to focus on sustainability was rooted in trying to help safeguard a healthy planet for future generations. The unexpected detour to start The Tennis Congress has opened up new means for me to make a tangible difference in other people’s lives today. It’s been nothing short of magical to watch the positive ripple effects of bringing together athletes, coaches, and industry leaders united by passion for tennis and a belief in the power of our sport to transform lives. And nothing makes my heart race faster than thinking about the possibilities of having even greater impact in the years ahead. Renewed focus on my purpose in life has put my own goals to become a 4.5+ player in perspective: Yes, I will keep striving and I’m confident I’ll eventually get to 4.5– but I’m much more relaxed about the pace. Focusing more on helping others achieve their goals enables me to ease up and enjoy the process of my own training even more.
(2) Good relationships are the most important thing in life – but protecting them requires constant attention and investment. We’ve all heard wise elders tell us to avoid repeating their mistake of failing to invest sufficiently in relationships with family and friends who are dear to us. Yet it’s so easy to lose perspective when work-related demands and other commitments spiral out of control. Weeks or even months have gone by being so “busy” that I’ve failed to realize I’ve begun to take precious relationships for granted and put them at risk. Thanks to the combination of detours and roadblocks over the past couple years, my “Road” now includes a permanent “warning” sign ready to flash yellow when priorities start getting skewed.
(3) My ability to help others will be significantly reduced if I don’t take good care of my self. Last fall my wise friend and colleague Feisal Hassan told me quite plainly: “P.J., you have to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” It wasn’t the first time someone offered advice along these lines, but Feisal’s characteristically direct communication style made an indelible impact. Since then, I’ve created some new habits that have become life-changing:
- I started meditating every morning before starting my day – just 10 minutes (using guided meditations from an app called “Calm“) but it’s been transformative in helping me keep my eye on the big picture.
- I made an afternoon ritual of taking my dog Mila to the park for an hour every day (as opposed to the previous practice of working through lunch, relying on dog walkers I couldn’t afford, and confining play time with Mila to short bursts of fun before going back to work); the result is greater happiness for both her and her dad.
- I’ve made nutrition a top priority, applying advice I’m trained to give to others but for years have been “too busy” to abide by myself (I’ll post with details this summer).
- I schedule three serious workouts on my calendar each week and schedule work around them; without fail, almost every time I have to drag myself away from my desk to do them and fear that urgent work won’t get done — then without fail, every time I’m done I realize my work will be far better as a result.
- Finally, and most importantly, I keep working on my “story” as my friend (and former World #1 in the 55s) Bob Litwin urges me to do (see his recently published book Live the Best Story of Your Life: A World Champion’s Guide to Lasting Change“). My new story begins with “I am in control of my life…” which helps me remember no matter what external pressures I’m experiencing or how out of control I’m feeling, I can choose to re-focus and re-prioritize based on my life purpose and most important relationships. Here’s my current story:
“I am in control of my life. I live each day gratefully and effortlessly. I believe in myself – my ability to rise to any challenge, overcome any obstacle, be who I want to be. I embrace obstacles of all kinds as opportunities to learn and love problem solving. I begin each day with 10 minutes of meditation to improve my ability to be mindful and present in all circumstances. Each day I walk slowly and breathe deeply. I am a master of time management and embrace the 80/20 principle in work and life, which focuses me on what really matters and enables me to get an extraordinary amount of things done while enjoying life extraordinarily. I treat my body as the temple that it is, making a priority to care for it with great care. I treat others the way I would like to be treated. Most importantly, I am a great partner, relative, colleague, and friend to those closest to me, recognizing that meaningful relationships are absolutely the most important foundation of a life well lived.”
So this is all basically a long way of saying… I’m feeling pretty Zen about my own progress happening more slowly than I expected. Do I miss my time on court practicing with coaches and friends? Absolutely. Do I sometimes get down about not being able to play much right now? You bet.
But I’ve been comforted knowing that tennis will always be there waiting for me, like an old friend, when I’m ready to step back on the court. Which, hopefully, will be very soon…
And thanks to the diversions on my tennis journey, my life destination has never been more clear. In short, my “Road to 4.5” itself has proven to be a detour itself along a longer, more significant road:
The “Road to a life well lived.”
Feel Free to reach out to me directly at email@example.com and be sure to follow me on social media!
I’m greatly inspired by your story and quest, and everything you’ve accomplished such as this website and Tennis Congress. I’m amazed and applaud your USTA team concepts in a competitive environment. It must be rewarding to help others with a similar passion. I hope the friendships you’ve developed and experiences to date give more meaning that will last a life-time, and continue to fuel your passion. Since it’s hard to help others if you can’t help yourself, you might consider to think yourself as part of this group your helping. Life is full of cycles, and finding balance is hard… Read more »
Bob, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful note. I deeply appreciate it and all the great advice! Sincerely, P.J.
Hi P.J. , I happened onto your blog. Probably doing a goggle search on Feisal brought me there. What wonderful words in your post and thoughts to take along my journey. I’m in Vermont and retired and basically took up tennis 6 or 7 years ago. I played sports growing up and did play a couple of summers in my mid 20’s back in the late 70’s, when there was a big tennis boom in this country. I have such a passion for tennis and have been able to play 5 days a week, which I am very thankful for.… Read more »
Dennis, thanks very much for taking the time to share this. It’s always wonderful to hear from others who share the passion and are on a similar journey. Likewise wishing you great fulfillment on yours! P.J.
As a tennis afficionado myself, I can relate to your trials and tribulations. Having to constantly battle external factors that always arise in the most inopportune of times. I too, have realized that in the end, tennis will always be there. You have inspired me in so many ways. Your post is just another inspiration for me. Fight on, PJ!! You are the awesomest.
Background: I came in contact with PJ back in 2012 leading up to the first Tennis Congress. He was very nice and we had a nice long chat about NY’s Total Tennis. I stumbled upon this blog again the other day and so surprised to see this note. I hope this message finds you and your readers well, PJ! As a 3.0 USTA player over a decade ago and picked up tennis late as a teenager. Climbing the next rung on the later was also my tennis life’s goal. My road too was paved with many hurdles, setbacks, multiple tennis… Read more »
Hi PJ- What a lovely share! I felt like I was on the road with you as your vividly described your current journey. This was a nice detour from mine and nice to see so many synergies. Thanks! Keep up the great stuff.
Gumbo looks forward to meeting Mila and getting in a walk!
I’ll look forward to reading the book! 🙂
Thanks so much, Rob! Looking forward to the Mila-Gumbo get together some day 🙂 P.J.
P.J. – As always inspiring and heart-felt, writing your own story, living it, and then sharing it with all of us. We all have our story, stumbling and triumphing along the way. Knowing how to get back up or tamp it down becomes key to a peaceful and rewarding journey. Thanks! For helping, with this latest post and for all you have inspired with the inception of Tennis Congress. Last year’s Tennis Congress took me on my path to left-handed (non-dominant hand) tennis, and helped my perspective and continued playing. While you were struggling to get to your own “zen”… Read more »
Carol, to say you made my day would be a vast understatement. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!!! Much love, P.J.
what goes around, comes around – a tired, yet true phrase.
I am just so sorry I won’t see you at Tennis Congress this year, since I can’t make it:( I will have to experience it vicariously through postings from you and others. Thanks goodness Feisel was able to get through to you! We do need oxygen. Hope to see you sometime along the way. Maybe US Open.
I am fortunate to be able to spend time working on my groundstrokes this summer, and thanks to the Tennis Congress, I have found great instructors who have have me on the right path to improving technically. I had hoped to be on the road to 4.0, and it is slower than I expected, but the joy of improving technically, and working with great instructors is more important to me. Hopefully, I am laying the groundwork to become a 4.0, and whether or not I get there, it feels good to keep improving and to compete at any level. Thanks… Read more »
Christine, thank you so much – it’s amazing people like you who continue fuel my own passion! It’s wonderful to hear you’re feeling the same about enjoying the journey regardless of where exactly it takes us. Can’t wait to see you again in October 🙂 P.J.
Thanks. Awesome to see someone have so much drive and passion. Keep it up.
Hey Kevin, really appreciate you taking the time to comment and share the encouraging words! P.J.
This is so wonderful to read, to get to know exactly what is happening with you. I think about you often and am so glad to hear this update to your journey. I look forward to seeing you at the next Tennis Congress and can’t wait to see what else you post here.
Thank you so much, Kim! So glad to see you thriving and can’t wait to see you again in person in October! P.J.
You’re an amazing human being, P.J., one who continues to inspire. While it sounds like you’ve learned to embrace this idea already, when things get tough, remember the countless people whose lives have been enriched by your selfless giving.
And while we’re at it, I should be nearing 4.5 myself! But, your post just showed me that I could be much more committed than I have been. Thanks for the kick in the pants.
Steve, the feeing is entirely mutual my friend. Thank you so much. Can’t wait to hit with you again one of these days soon (as I’m gonna kick your ass).
Great read, good luck with your recovery. Finding your website about 7 months ago inspired me to get back into the tennis after 20 years out, and its been so rewarding.
Hey Jason, you made my day! If you haven’t read my friend Gerry Marzorati’s book yet (Late to the Ball) check it out – seriously inspiring. Keep me posted on how your journey is going! P.J.
Great story. Congratulations on your “across the board” success! I’d like to learn more about your Tennis Congress. I seem to be on a similar journey and I’m a big believer in following signs along the way…
Deena, thank you so much for taking the time to write! The greatest pleasure of all on my road has been connecting with people on similar journeys 🙂 P.J.
Well-written update. We’re all on the same path – and tennis waits for us all.
Thank you so much Barbara! 🙂
Such a wonderful and inspiring post PJ. Thanks for sharing your journey as well as your energy and time. I am excited to attend my first congress – your work to help others is such a wonderful way to touch others’ lives.
Jessy, thank you so much for the kind words – deeply appreciated. Look forward very much to meeting in person very soon! P.J.