Tennis Lessons, Life Lessons

What the U.S. Open has taught me about my faith

USopen-4With summer winding down, it can only mean one thing for the tennis fan. It’s U.S. Open time!

The tournament makes me think about the important role that tennis has played in my own life, including my spiritual journey.

My daily life is guided by sacred principles that are often reinforced by seemingly mundane experiences, particularly sports. Tennis, in particular, has taught me several important lessons about faith and spirituality.

  1. Connecting the physical and spiritual

    There is nothing better than having a place to express my joys and gifts. For me that place is the tennis court. An innocent excitement comes over me each time I walk out on the court. It’s that feeling of anticipation so familiar to a child on his or her way to an amusement park. This is the place where I can express myself in a real and physical way. It unlocks my potential and illustrates my uniqueness. It’s as if I couldn’t know what I was capable of without being there. But playing tennis is about more than just the place and the game; it’s about the experience.

    This resonates so well with my experience growing up Catholic. From the nature of our human creation rooted in God’s image, to the experience of liturgy and Eucharist, the theology of the Church is one hallmarked by the physical. The Eucharist is just one example of the physical presence of Christ — even just walking into a sacred space or journeying to a holy shrine can transform and enliven the spirit. Each element of physical experience can reveal a newer and deeper truth about one’s relationship to God, which can inspire a spiritual journey.

  2. Staying focused and aware

    For me, tennis is a kind of meditation. While I am playing tennis, it is as if nothing else exists. My focus is entirely on playing the ball. This fast-paced sport requires full concentration and participation. Once you hit the ball with your best timing, angle and precision, it comes right back, and you do it all over again. The repetition sends me into a meditative awareness, and I can be fully absorbed in the moment.

    My own experiences of spiritual clarity and inspiration have come in times of focus and concentration. My meditative practice in tennis has actually enhanced my experience of retreats, worship and prayer. Sport and prayer are both improved when I can open myself up by remaining focused on the task at hand and clear my mind of distractions. To be fully enveloped in one experience inspires, recharges and prepares for the next.

  3. Building character

    One of my favorite things about tennis is its unique, and often persnickety, set of rules and regulations. From the perpetually nonsensical scoring method to the diverse playing surfaces, there is a lot to keep track of in tennis. Yet, it is in this precise context that I have discovered a side of my giftedness and a place for my joy.

    Many people may be similarly critical about the Catholic Church! But the rules of the Church are not there to oppress. Rather, the traditions, history and practices of the Church serve as paths toward God. They foster a sense of identity and belonging and encourage participation. This may be best expressed in a small anecdote. In high school English class, I was given a very precise writing assignment to write my own Canterbury Tale, following the design and style of Chaucer’s original work. There were syllabic and page limitations, with directives that diction should align, too! This was quite the task for a 17-year-old. But with these precise rules and directives, I wrote a great Tale. All these years later, it is my favorite piece I have ever written, and it never would have happened outside of that context. The rules and directives of the assignment did not limit or oppress; rather, they helped me discover a side of myself I never knew I had. I think Church and tennis rules function similarly. They guide and direct us toward excellence, discovery and grace.

  4. Persevering

    If there is one area that is most challenging for me in tennis, it is the constant need to persevere. Even in an easy win, I will lose quite a few points. I will miss simple shots and make mistakes. But the game goes on. No matter the setback, each point provides a new opportunity to try again, to learn from the past and to improve. The life of a Christian is one of concentration and intention, and one that remains positive not only in light of, but because of, the challenges in each day. St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Hebrews, “Let us rid ourselves of every burden” and “persevere in running the race that lies before us.”

This year at the U.S. Open, I look forward to being inspired by the many athletes who persevere, stay focused and display their character as they play this grueling, and rather physical, game. Maybe it will be another example that will further strengthen my own spiritual life and inspire me to do the same.

Craig Smith

A California native, Craig has been a lifelong recipient and practitioner of Catholic education and is a lover of all sports, especially tennis. He holds bachelor's degrees in theology and religious studies and Spanish from the University of San Diego. Craig also has a master’s degree in theology from Boston College and a master’s degree in Catholic school administration from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is currently working toward a Ph.D. in religious education at Fordham University.