The Sadness of Greatness

John_McEnroe_(1979)I’m in transit for the month of October.  I am on my way to a school reunion (eek) and the boy’s playing a bit of tennis.  I will check in  when I can but in the meantime, if I don’t get online, here’s a fabulous article about one of my all time favourite tennis players, the super mad and super talented John McEnroe

The Sadness of Greatness

There is so much in this article to think about; from the fact there was an actual moment time where people say that John McEnroe reached the pinnacle of his tennis playing career (the Greatness) that he could never replicate again (the Sadness) to the discussion about every tennis player’s need and desire for perfection; the perfect serve, the perfect forehand, the perfect score, that perfect backhand down the line.  

Recently, after a devastating loss in an important tournament, my son asked me what the point of all of this was.  He had a moment’s clarity where he realised and acknowledged to himself that at certain losses caused him so much pain that he didn’t see that that would ever change.  That no matter what level of tennis he reaches he will always, at times, suffer that severe pain of a devastating loss, when expected to win.  And so he asked the question, “What’s the point if I know for sure that I will feel like this again?”

I couldn’t answer his question of course.  It’s not my place to.  Only he will work out the answer, eventually.  He doesn’t have to know all the answers, but knowing the question is a good start to finding the solution.

On reflection, I think the question he asked himself was actually quite remarkable for one so young.  It is often said that people do more to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. It’s something the modern human psyche is well set up for.  How many of us will avoid trying something out of our comfort zone, even when the prize, the reward, is one of great pleasure?  The pain of giving up smoking is far greater than the pleasure of succeeding.  So people avoid that pain and don’t try to quit.  The pain of exercise is far greater than the pleasure of the firm muscles after a 12 week fitness program.  So people don’t bother.

The question for my son is, will the pain of losing be the greater than the pleasure of winning?  Will he eventually avoid playing altogether to avoid that pain and never again feel the euphoria of winning a match or tournament?  How many of us give up or don’t bother trying to even start due to the avoidance strategy?

His beautiful and wise aunt helped us out a bit by suggesting to him that when a person has a particular goal or standard they are striving for, anything short of that goal will not be good enough and the loss or failure to reach that goal will be devastating, even if they have tried their best. If the standard they are striving for is not that high, then if they exceed their expectations they will feel the euphoria of doing better than expected.  It was a great way of putting it and he was able to put his own feelings into context with that advice and see that it’s not about avoiding the pain or seeking the pleasure, it’s about the expectation that comes with where you are at in the moment.

It will take him a while to figure out I think, but the main thing is that he’s asked the question, and hopefully the answer will present itself to him in due course.  I wonder if John McEnroe, in that moment described in the article, wondered what the point was.