I was unprepared for all Pickleball would reveal about the world around me and in me. I thought I was just going to engage in an activity for the more mature season of life I had recently entered. I did not know that I would discover that maturity is not a number. Not by a third shot drop! (That’s a Pickleball term.) When our California transplant, Drew, started our Pickleball 101 lesson, I quickly discovered this was not tennis. I had loved watching tennis since I was young, and knew how to score. I figured this would be like that. It was not. Keeping score in Pickleball takes a PhD. So, in Drew’s animated way and with his surfer dude voice, he educated us on keeping score. You only score on your serve. On how to dink. Swing your arm like a pendulum, hold the paddle loosely, always keep the ball in front of you, and push it over. On how to serve. You must keep the ball below your waist. And that pretty much covered lesson one. He let us play a few points, and thank God I had Philly, who picks up numbers quickly, or I would have never known what the score was.
As we headed back to the car I was smitten. Philly was limping. Somewhere between dinking and serving he had hurt his Achilles. I would attend 102 on my own. 102 was for the people who now knew how to keep score and remotely keep the ball in play. Without Philly there to keep score for me, I was concerned I might be sent back to 101. But by the time the class had finished I was finally able to keep score, as well as know where to stand at the net, whether serving or receiving. Then for the last hour we actually played games, and my enjoyment of this game rose even more.
However, what I discovered was the only way to play more after 102 was to then go to “open play.” “Open play” is where anyone of any skill level can show up and play with each other. The mere thought of showing up for open play gave me a panic attack. Had Philly been able to go with me it might not have been so bad. So, I just decided I’d take 102 all over again. It was then I talked him into taking one for the team and going back with me. So, he did. In one of our practice rounds we were paired with another husband and wife. This was where the reality of what Pickleball reveals about the heart was put on full display. The husband began to fire shot after hard shot right at me. He had discerned quickly that I was the easy point. That was when I saw Philly’s face. We’ve been married for almost thirteen years, and in thirteen years he’s maybe once had his protective husband mojo come out. But, oh my, he handled a few balls back that guy’s way, and by the time we left there, Mr. Jones was not happy.
“That guy made me so mad,” he said as he favored his Achilles on the walk back to the car. “He knew you couldn’t hit those shots and he kept slamming them at you. It was a practice class for Pete’s sake.” (I still don’t know who Pete is.) “What if I had hit balls at his wife like that!”
I laughed. “Babe, it’s okay. I’m just fascinated at how much winning mattered to him.” I would quickly learn it mattered to a whole lot of people! But I was a little too hooked to care. At least I thought I was. I went on Amazon and bought some “make do” paddles, and I finally worked my nerve up to head to women’s open play. I stood on the other side of the fence, studying the other women and battling my inner accuser. “You are never going to be able to play against these ladies.” My feet were lead. The memories of my California golf experience, where I could hardly hold the club in my hand, came crashing into the Georgia humidity. But I found a familiar face from one of my classes and willed myself to the court. Thankfully there were quite a few women who were newer, and I found myself delighting in the exercise and the enjoyment.
Women’s open play is only one morning a week, and the newer women play on a few courts, and the better women take a few courts. But, I knew to get better, I’d have to venture to other days, which meant men and women of all skill levels. I arrived that first day with exceptional anxiety. This was the day I chronicled in my recent Monday Musing video “Reclaiming My Heart on the Pickleball Court.” I introduced myself to the two ladies who were next in line to play, informing them courteously that I was new. “Thanks for letting us know,.”the nice lady responded. “We will know to take it easier on you.” The mean lady next to her snarled. If she had been a dog, you would have heard her growl.
In a few moments they left me to warm up by themselves. Never offering once for me to join them. In a minute another pair would take to the court with them, and I was left there on the cheap metal outdoor chair with a war waging on the inside of me. Everything in me wanted to run. And I knew if I did I would never, and I mean never, come back. The burn in my nose and eyes was coming fast, and I didn’t want to start crying in front of the AARP crowd.
The Holy Spirit raised His voice inside me. “Do not leave here. Do not let this be stolen from you.” I wrestled with the voices of flesh and demons and Jesus. Until two older men walked up, rescuing me from my own mayhem.
“Want to play?” One asked.
It took me a minute to realize they were talking to me. By this time, it was going to take a hot minute for me to muster up any self-confidence I owned to even walk out on the court.
“Yes, I’d love to. I’m new at this though.”
“I am too.” One chimed in.
“And it doesn’t matter. We just like to play for fun.”
Another gentleman joined us, and we headed out on the court. In order to get to our court I had to pass behind the two ladies who snubbed me. The nice lady smiled at me. “Go get ‘em” she said.
I wanted to say, “You go get your friend some Jesus. Because she is nasty.”
As I hit my first serve, and my arms didn’t shake off from my nerves, I truly can’t tell you how grateful I was. After the paralyzing fright in my Tahoe golf experience, I am just so grateful each time I step out on the court and don’t freeze in fear. I have an internal celebration of the victory over my nerves. After missing a few shots and offering a few “I’m sorry’s” to my partner, he finally said, “There are no I’m sorry’s here. We just have fun.” And we did. We had the most wonderful time. They played two matches with me and gave me pointers and just redeemed so much of what the enemy had tried to steal.
In the car I began the dialogue with Jesus that I do when there is a small action and a big reaction in my heart. “Jesus, what was that about? That was so painful.” It would be later that day when I was journaling that it all made itself clear. This all came from rejection, and I had not realized how deep the rejection ran. As the smallest kid in the class my entire life, I was always picked last for sports. Always. I had not realized that it had lodged somewhere inside of me. Then there were the words asked of me after my first and only year playing on the church softball team. “Are you planning on playing next year?” The inference was clear. I never played again. And in all the different experiences that made up my sports journey, the lie was believed that “I’m just not any good at sports.” Even though I had multiple times through the years where I had different sport experiences and had excelled at them. I still believed the lie. And here I was, half a century old, fighting this decades-old demon.
I knew I had to quit speaking this over myself. That was the first realization that I wrote into my journal. “No more saying I am not good at sports.”
Then, I felt as if the Holy Spirit said, “Those ladies missed the enjoyment of you. But those men did not miss the gift of you.” Those words from the heart of my Father healed something in me. Something deep. Something real. I have had to battle for my significance in Pickleball over and over since that day. Even while playing with my own husband and bonus kids. A ridiculously competitive lot, I informed one of my bonus daughters I’d never play with her again unless she was kind. She became kind. Even rooting for me loudly one day when she watched me play a match, which made my heart soar. I also had to tell Philly one day, “You just bring this competitive energy that I don’t want to play with.” He began asking his own heart what that was about for him.
Then there was the time I played the lady who informed me of the prestigious town she lived in, and that she played five days a week. Two of my gentleman friends, who redeemed my previous Pickleball experience, played with us that day. She and I were on opposite teams, making the teams more even since one of the other men was more of a beginner as well. After our first match she said, “Let’s switch teams.” I thought for sure I’d go over to her side so it would keep the teams more evenly matched. But she looked in my face and said, “No, I’m not playing with you.” Making it clear the only thing that mattered to her was winning. So, the more inexperienced player came over and played with me. Oh, how I wish we could have beaten them. But we would not.
There was also the time I played with the guy who I informed, yet again, I was newer at this. “No problem,” he responded. “Do you like pointers as you go?”
“Yes, I love pointers!” I responded.
However, not only would there be no pointers, he would also jump in front of me time after time to take most of my balls. Winning was all that mattered. We ended up losing. I was delighted.
Then there was the older man who I informed I thought I had broken a rule, making us lose the point. “Oh, that only matters in tournaments,” he replied. Which was wholly untrue. But hey, as long as we win right?
Over and over, I have gone back. Pushing through the days when I play miserably and making myself go back. Meeting friends who enjoy the enjoyment like me. And realizing I can choose who I play with. I do not have to play with those who simply want to win. I didn’t see this journey coming. I didn’t see the joy this sport would offer me. The athleticism I would discover. Or the confidence I would gain. I never dreamed Pickleball would reveal things about my heart and the heart of others. But, I am grateful that God never really lets us go, and loves us enough to press into some of our deepest places of pain in order to heal us. Whoever dreamed He could even use Pickleball to do it.