GAALS: Girls Athletics And Life Skills℠

I’m pretty certain that embarrassing ourselves is not on top of most of our “To Do” lists. And while it’s probably also safe to say that we are all more comfortable sticking with things we know, I’m sure we see the value of stepping outside our comfort zones – even if it means pushing ourselves to do so and failing in the process. We recognize it builds strength and character. 

A few weeks ago, I voluntarily (but reluctantly) agreed to step outside my comfort zone. But as I was doing it, I unexpectedly got pushed further and further outside of it. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that it happened this way. I’ll tell you the story and let you decide.

Before jumping in, I need to set the scene. For me, playing sports brings with it a whole host of feelings of insecurity that I’ve carried since childhood. I continually try my best to overcome my fears, trying my hand at various athletic endeavors. 

A few years back, I registered for group tennis lessons through Continuing Education. I was absolutely without a doubt a beginner (unlike those people who claim to be beginners, but played growing up and just haven’t played in a while). Other than in gym class and maybe camp, I never picked up a racket. There was little instruction but I worked hard over the course of three years, taking about 50 lessons. You might be thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot. She must be pretty good by now.”  You would be wrong.  At least a dozen people were in these group lessons; and the pros were mediocre at best. I didn’t learn proper form, nor did I have much time to work on skill development. On a rare occasion I’ve gone to the court to hit the ball around. But that’s the extent of my time playing tennis. 

This summer, a friend of mine started playing tennis. When she asked me to hit some balls, I reluctantly agreed. Later, I overheard our husbands, who are both rock star players, talking about joining us. The next thing I knew, they had scheduled a double date.

As I hesitantly walked onto the court alongside my husband, our friends stopped hitting and came over to give us a welcome hug. Almost immediately, I started feeling my insecurities rise – all the way up to my mouth. 

     “I forgot my hat.” 

     “I have cramps.” 

     “I’m wearing my bifocal glasses, which can make seeing the ball a little wonky depending on where it comes from.” 

One after another, I blurted out excuses. For a split second, it seemed like a good way to potentially help save face. But my friend, being who she is (and why I love her) totally called me out on it. “Did you just come in here and make excuses, before we even started playing?” And that’s how the day began. 

Despite my trepidation, we started warming up. Rather than being overly concerned with form or aim, I mainly concentrated on hitting the ball. Still, I was feeling inadequate as I watched everyone else position themselves perfectly in order to gracefully hit the ball. Needless to say, it quickly became obvious that I’m not exactly a strong player (and that’s putting it gently).  

Then the most unthinkable thing happened. My friend said, “Do you want to warm up a little more? Or are you ready for the match?” Match? What match? Was I somehow going to be involved in a match?  As I said, I’m a beginner with little experience, which also translates as…I’ve never participated in an actual game of tennis. I can assure you that I never would have shown up had I known this was even a possibility. The mere thought of playing in a match, with rules and points and competition, was totally beyond my comfort zone. At this point though, I had two choices – play, or walk off the court (which I was strongly considering). But before I could even process what move I was going to make, the game began. 

There I stood, like a deer in headlights. I was clueless. I didn’t know where to stand, where to hit, or where to look. You’d think I would feel a little more at ease knowing that the teams were somewhat even. But nope, it was clear that my friend, despite having a few weeks under her belt (compared to my few years) was a natural born athlete.

Playing with my husband made me look like an elephant trying to walk for the first time. (I may as well have been playing with Federer.) To his credit though, he was patient and gave me direction. But even with his guidance, it was still so confusing. When I was serving (which, by the way, I never learned how to do), I had to alternate sides. If my husband was serving, not only did I have to alternate sides, I also had to stand closer to the net. But if the other team was serving I had to stand in the box or in front of the baseline…even though I had always heard that these two places are “no man’s land.” My head was spinning. I was so concerned with figuring out the correct positioning, I had to remind myself that I also had to hit the ball! Form was the least of my concerns. 

With every volley, another series of questions went whizzing through my head, like the balls these men were hitting. Should I look back at my husband when he is serving? Should I be covering the whole front court, or the front and back of the left side? Should I call to my hubby to get the ball when it’s in the middle since the odds of me hitting it are pretty slim? Considering I’ve watched professional matches on TV and at the open, you’d think I might know at least a few of these answers. But, now that I think about it, I don’t think I do more than just watch the ball go from side to side. 

Somehow, I summoned the courage to ask these questions. My husband answered all of my questions without even the slightest hint of annoyance. And miraculously, without being stupefied by my complete lack of knowledge (and if you know my husband, then you know it’s truly miraculous because he likes to take advantage of any opportunity to respond with sharp-witted lines.)

I decided to listen to the words I would tell the girls in my GAALS programs in situations like this. Avoid the negative self talk and concentrate on the game. 

But as we all know, it’s much easier said than done. Staying positive and focused was really hard when the ball was continuously zipping past me. Plus, I felt bad that my husband had to work twice as hard to pick up the slack. And while I appreciated the fact that my opponents would occasionally hit a soft lob directly to me to keep me involved, it made me feel even more incompetant. To make matters worse, every time I missed the ball my friend would blurt out, “oh, the sun’s in her eyes.” Or she’d ask, “glasses?”  As uncomfortable as I was playing, I was equally as uncomfortable with being pitied and placated. So I eventually just owned the fact that missing was simply due to my inability. I mean…who was I trying to kid? 

Unfortunately, though, the pity didn’t stop. It just took another form. Our friends started saying “nice shot” when I actually hit the ball AND it stayed in. The reality was that most of my hits were not nice shots, even if they did stay in. I couldn’t be angry at them though. They were simply trying to build me up. 

Their kindness continued in between the lost sets. As we chugged water there was no mention that I was clearly out of my league. In fact, there was no mention of tennis whatsoever.

Finally, after two hours of play and losing three full sets, we parted ways with our opponent-friends; but not before first making plans to hang later that day. I was relieved when the men said they needed some time to rest their bodies before meeting back up. I also needed time, because I was exhausted – mentally tapped out. I needed to give myself some down time to process all of my emotions.

As my husband and I walked to the car, I began hoping he would embrace the same philosophy and approach that we use with our daughters after sporting events: be quiet and don’t put any of our own thoughts on them. But, he clearly left his dad hat home. Before we were even buckled in, he said, “That was fun. Wasn’t it?” I laughed. Was he serious? Apparently, after 20 years of marriage he still doesn’t get what it’s like to feel insecure and athletically inadequate. 

Insecurity and inadequacy. Those are common feelings when stepping outside our comfort zones, yet hard feelings to grapple with – even as adults. 

Now put yourself in your daughter’s shoes. Think about how an experience like this would be for her. What would she be thinking? What would she be feeling? And how would she manage these emotions afterward? 

If you’re a typical mama bear, your instinct might be to try to ease her pain (or maybe you would have protected her and not let her step out of her comfort zone in the first place). To get to the other side, she’ll need strength and coping strategies, along with support and guidance. That’s where you come in. 

Try these three things to help your daughter have the confidence and resilience she needs to ace stepping outside of her comfort zone. 

  1. Lead by example and show your daughter how you take on challenges and face her fears – head on. Watching you in action is not as important as talking to her about your experience and feelings. Yes, it  may be hard to share feelings like this out loud, (now try writing them and blasting them to over 10k people), but it shows your daughter that it’s normal and okay to worry. She will know that with strength and courage you were able to get through it. This will free your daughter from thinking the worst, and likely give her the confidence to go for it. Also consider sharing stories about things you tried once but never did again, and how you felt about your choice. Most of the time, people don’t regret stepping outside of their comfort zone, even if they never want to do that particular thing again. Promise your daughter that if she tries something once and doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to do it again. This might just be the mindset shift she needs to move forward.
  2. Try to uncover why your daughter finds something challenging or scary. Maybe she’s not good at the activity (or unsure if she’s capable) and is worried she’ll look stupid (this is a big one for many girls)! Or maybe this new thing is not something many kids do, so she’s worried that others will not like her or think she’s strange. Perhaps a variety of reasons. Once you understand the source of resistance it’s easier to make an action plan.
  3. If possible, work with your daughter to take baby steps. Just like you might encourage her to find the right book or the right shoes, work together to find just the right steps to make her feel comfortable taking the big leap outside of her comfort zone. For example, if she’s afraid of speaking in front of the class, encourage her to ask the teacher if she can find a time to practice when the room is empty. Or have her practice with you at home (I’ve even seen kids set up their stuffed animals and speak to them!). Here’s another example. Your daughter is going to camp for the first time and doesn’t know anyone. Maybe you contact the camp to get the name and number of someone else who has been going to the camp so she can tell your daughter what to expect. Or perhaps for your daughter it would be better to pair her with someone else who will also be new to camp. Whatever the situation, there is often an ability to make small, but meaningful steps that will make the experience a little easier. Even if it doesn’t remove the stress entirely, it will  increase the chances of a positive experience.

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