Be a Goldfish

I scuttled into the chilly room just in time to begin. Dropping my bulky coat and purse on the wooden bench, I grabbed my water bottle as I approached the group of strangers. I was a substitute for the day, eager to perform well and be competitive. 

“Thanks for coming!” one woman chimed as she saw me approach. ”We need another person for the next session. Maybe you can join us?”

Something in my heart swelled as I felt invited, yet they knew very little about me. Would they still welcome me when they saw me play? I assured myself to “get off to a good start” while a nagging critical spirit immediately tried to derail my confidence.  

“You can do this. Just play for fun!” I repeated internally.  

Though I am a novice, I already felt pressure to know the strategies and play exceptionally well. Then we began. 

“0-0 start,” my opponent called out. 

Pickleball was invented the year I was born in 1965 as a backyard contest on Bainbridge Island, Washington. It has become the fastest growing sport in the US over the last few years, boasting over 4.8 million players. It is easy to learn and become fairly proficient at rather quickly, and many ages and abilities can enjoy it together. 

I tried it a year ago, and I have been honing my skills. A recent membership at the “Pickleball Lab” has opened up hopes for new friendship and socializing while getting some exercise a few times a week. I am a huge fan of this booming sport.

Day one with this brand-new league was exciting and made me nervous. I wanted to fit in, but as time would tell, I was the least welcoming of the bunch. As each point began, my insecurities stood right outside the lines waiting to pounce on my weak ego when I didn’t know the right move or made mistakes. 

I partnered up with someone unfamiliar for every game, and I felt an unreasonable pressure to be competent. It was a familiar and ancient place for me; one I experienced many times as a child. Often if I showed up trusting without knowing, I’d be humiliated for my naïveté. My anxiety was on high alert as I wanted to avoid that disgrace.  

As the games moved along, I found my body flooded with a destructive internal apprehension, and after any missed cue, I began to say “I’m sorry.” This tirade got worse as I began to berate myself after missed points. The more I chastised myself, the more pitiful I appeared.  

My gracious partners consistently directed me to be gentler with myself. I tried to receive their charity by pushing back my ugly messengers. It was difficult to get my footing or confidence back in light of my judgmental critique. No matter how we paired up, we often lost, usually with meager points to my credit; however, the league women never stopped being kind and courteous to me.

This group was out to play for enjoyment, and my self-contempt made for a horrible partner. 

I decided to join the next league with a goal of growing my skills and  having fun. But most importantly, I wanted to support my own efforts, no matter how well I played. I needed to deal with my harshness. A couple nights prior to my next match, I watched a rerun of a favorite show, “Ted Lasso.”

Coach Lasso is a delightful character who motivates everyone he comes in contact with by displaying goodwill and generosity. During this episode, Coach Lasso tries to help Sam, one of his players, shake off a humiliating incident that happened in front of the entire team. Ted encourages Sam to “be like a goldfish,” the happiest animal on earth. The goldfish is happy because he has only a 10-second memory. He lets go of his mistakes, grudges, and pain in 10 seconds. This approach may not work well with many problems, but it seemed to be what I needed in my game. Could I eradicate the disdain I had for myself when I made a mistake, offering myself grace to move on?

I was motivated and ready! 

I began to notice the internal dialogue of the young part of me that was afraid of messing up. I started to take risks without judgment and gave myself a restart when I hit outside the lines. I became sensitive toward those insecure parts. 

I haven’t perfected this change, but I recognize Coach Lasso’s wisdom has been key to my success. You can now find me on the court having a lot of fun as I remind myself and the Monday league to “be a goldfish.”

Maryhelen Martens has been gathering and connecting with others since she was a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin. She is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. While her emotions and voice were shut down for decades, she is finding them again and using them in healing groups, story coaching, and writing. She’s always been drawn to water and sunsets and more recently to the desert and sunrises. She’s curious about that. Mother to three authentic adults, Maryhelen lives with her steadfast husband Keith on the shore of Lake Michigan.