I had a bad day at the tennis office yesterday morning — and it felt great.

I’ve been working on playing more freely when I compete. You may recognize yourself in this: I tend to get tight and play conservatively in matches. When I do go for it, because I’m tight, I muscle up and often miss for that reason.

I usually play ten-pointers with my practice partner Jim. Before we started yesterday, I announced, “I don’t care if I lose love, love, love, love and love today. I’ve got to learn to hit out, and today I’ll be working on that.”

The first two ten-pointers weren’t close. He wasn’t missing and I was. Then I scraped one out, but mostly because he started missing. I was still at ‘4’ on a scale of one to ten.

Before we started our fourth round, I called him up to the net and said, “You remember what I said about not caring if I lose to you badly? I was only kidding. You know why? Because losing badly brings out my deepest fear. It comes from my childhood when I was two years younger than my classmates and always concerned that I wasn’t welcome. I’m afraid you won’t want to play with me.”

“I have the same issue, too,” Jim said. “And I will want to play with you.”

Being able to say that to him, combined with his receiving it so graciously, turned a corner for me. Although I was still executing badly, now it felt like I had my sights set on a target that, if I hit it, could help me meet the challenge I’d set for myself. It was suddenly clear to me that if I could overcome this ancient insecurity, I’d be much better able to hit freely under pressure.
“If I miss, you won’t want to play with me.”

That was my demon, my inner little devil. It’s bigger than my fear of losing. Paper wins out over rock — ostracism wins out over mere defeat.

It felt like I was aiming, at last, at the heart of darkness.

You may be familiar with the metaphor. It’s the title of one of Joseph Conrad’s most famous books and the theme of Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary movie, Apocalypse Now. It’s also the central theme of every story about the harrowing of hell, whether it’s told by Dante or the folks who wrote the Bible.

The basic principle is this: You’ve got to go down before you can go up. You’ve got to die to be reborn. You have to plunge into the heart of darkness before you can be fully present to the light.

I finished the practice session feeling much more squared away and confident about my ability to make the breakthrough I’ve been striving for. Although I felt off my game till the very end, it felt like I’d emerged with a really big win — I’d found the courage to confront my Demon King head-on.

Our demons don’t die easily. But they will if we keep confronting them — if we stay focused and persist.

What is your biggest demon on the tennis court? How about off it? Have you mustered the courage to confront it?

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