A business theory called the Peter Principle holds that workers rise in a hierarchy until they reach their level of incompetence. Beyond that, they no longer rise, thus, a mature organization is filled with employees who are incompetent. I fear this principle applies to my current tennis team.
Over the last several years, I played on teams at the USTA 4.0 level and enjoyed significant success. I have been part of two state championship winners and five league championship winners. My teams have only narrowly missed an additional state championship and a regional championship. Yes, to win is not supposed to be the most important thing but, I cannot deny I find it significantly preferable than to lose. All of this success created a problem — along with half of my teammates from last season’s 4.0 state championship team, I was moved up to the USTA 4.5 level. Only one step removed from the classification of club professionals and current or recent D-1 players, the dudes on the other side of the net are now pretty uniformly awesome. Oy vey.
Last week, in our team’s fourth consecutive loss, I found myself assigned to the premier court to play “First Singles.” While such an assignment should have been deemed an honor to my well-past-fifty self, I found it hard to enthuse about playing the anticipated twenty-five to thirty-year-old stud. I figured he would be so recently out of college he would arrive with his still-intact university-issued equipment. I assumed he would hit serves I could not return consistently and that he could run with ease to retrieve my assortment of chips and slices.
I was overly optimistic. My opponent, all six-foot-six of him, was STILL in college. He doesn’t graduate for another month and plays for the Club team at UNC. My failure to return his serves can only be called “inconsistent” in my happiest dreams; I could barely see the ball before it bounded repeatedly, barely touched, over my backhand side. It was also unnerving to have the young assassin constantly calling me “sir.”
Adjusting to losing requires mental gymnastics. One has to revive all the cliches about defeat one once told one’s children without necessarily always (ever?) believing them: “lessons in humility are valuable;” “setbacks are opportunities for growth;” “so long as you try hard, that’s what really matters.” Unfortunately, such palaver falls flat for me. I’m inclined towards Martina Navratilova’s cynical but concise conclusion: “Whoever said ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts,’ probably lost.”
There are still six weeks left in the season and I will have opportunities to “right the sinking ship.” I hope I can, because, as much as I hate losing, I have no desire to return to the 4.0 level. My reach may have exceeded my grasp and deposited me in rarified atmosphere. But, now that I am there, I want to stay there. Is this what they call cognitive dissonance?