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How to Help Your Children Ace Stepping Outside Their Comfort Zone

How to Help Your Children Ace Stepping Outside Their Comfort Zone

I’m pretty certain that embarrassing ourselves is not on top of most of our “To Do” lists. And while it’s probably safe to say that we are all more comfortable sticking with things we know, I’m sure we all see the value of stepping outside our comfort zones. Even if it means pushing ourselves to do so and failing in the process, it builds strength and character. 

A few weeks ago, I voluntarily (but reluctantly) agreed to step outside my comfort zone. But as I was doing it, I unexpectedly got pushed further and further outside of it. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that it happened this way. I’ll tell you the story and let you decide.

Before jumping in, I need to set the scene so you can feel my distress. Playing sports brings with it a whole host of feelings of insecurity that I’ve carried since childhood. Each year, I try my best to overcome my fears. And a few years back, I registered for the group tennis lessons through Continuing Education. Unlike those people who claim to be beginners, but played growing up and just haven’t played in a while, I exemplify the definition of a beginner.  Other than in gym class and maybe camp, I’ve never picked up a racket. Since then, I’ve taken probably just over 50 lessons. You might be thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot. She must be pretty good by now.” You would be wrong. At least a dozen people were in these group lessons; and the pros have been mediocre at best. So I haven’t learned much, nor have I had much time to work on skill development. On a rare occasion I’ve gone to the court to hit the ball around. But that’s the extent of my time playing tennis. 

This summer, a friend of mine started playing tennis. When she asked me to hit some balls, I reluctantly agreed.  Later, I overheard our husbands, who are both rockstar players, talking about joining us. The next thing I knew, we had scheduled a double date.

As I walked hesitantly onto the court with my husband, our friends stopped hitting and came over to give us a welcome hug. Almost immediately, I started feeling my insecurities rise – all the way up to mouth. “I forgot my hat.” “I have cramps.” “I’m wearing my bifocal glasses, which can make seeing the ball a little wonky depending on where it comes from.” One after another, I had managed to blurt out three excuses. For a split second, it seemed like a good way to potentially help save face. But my friend, being who she is (and why I love her) totally called me out on it. “Did you just come in here and make excuses?” And that’s how the day began. 

Despite my trepidation, we started warming up. Rather than being overly concerned with form or aim, I mainly concentrating on hitting the ball. Still, I was feeling slightly inadequate as I watched everyone else position themselves perfectly in order to gracefully hit the ball. Needless to say, it quickly became pretty obvious that I’m not exactly a strong player. 

And then the most unthinkable thing happened. My friend said, “Do you want to warm up a little more? Or are you ready for the match?” Match? What match? Was I somehow going to be involved in a match?  As I said, I’m a beginner with little experience. The translation of that is, I’ve never participated in an actual game of tennis. Until that point, the mere thought of playing in a match, with rules and points and competition, was totally beyond my comfort zone. I can assure you that I never would have shown up had I known this was even a possibility.  At this point though, I had two choices – play, or walk off the court (which was an option that I was strongly considering). But before I could even process what move I was going to make, the game began. 

There I stood, like a deer in headlights. I was clueless. I didn’t know where to stand, where to hit, or where to look. You’d think I would feel a little more at ease knowing that the teams were somewhat even. But nope, it was clear that my friend, despite having a few weeks under her belt (compared to my few years) was a natural born athlete.

Playing with my husband made me look like a baby-deer trying to walk for the first time. (I may as well have been playing with Federer.) To his credit though, he was patient and kind as he gave me direction. But even with his guidance, it was all still so confusing. When I was serving (which, by the way, I really never learned how to do), I had to alternate sides. If my husband was serving, not only did I have to alternate sides, I also had to stand closer to the net. But if the other team was serving I had to stand in the box or in front of the baseline…even though I had always heard that these two places are “no man’s land.” My head was spinning. I was so concerned with figuring out the correct positioning, I had to remind myself that I also had to hit the ball! Form was the least of my concerns at that point. 

With every volley, another series of questions went whizzing through my head, like the balls these men were hitting. Should I look back at my husband when he is serving? Should I be covering the whole front court, or the front and back of the left side? Should I call to my hubby to get the ball when it’s in the middle since the odds of me hitting it are pretty slim? Considering I’ve watched plenty of professional matches on TV and at the open, you’d think I might know at least a few of these answers. But, now that I think about it, I’m not really sure what goes through my head as I watch the ball go from side to side. So, figuring I had to learn at some point, I somehow summoned the courage to ask all of these questions. He answered all of my questions without even the slightest hint of annoyance. And miraculously, without being stupefied by my complete lack of knowledge (and if you know my husband’s ability to quickly respond with some sharp-witted funny line, then you know it’s truly miraculous).

I decided to do what I would tell any of my GAALsters to do – avoid the negative self talk and concentrate on the game. As we all know, it’s much easier said than done. Staying positive and focused was really hard when the ball was continuously zipping past me. Plus, I felt bad that my husband had to work twice as hard to pick up the slack. And while I appreciated the fact that my opponents would occasionally hit a soft lob directly to me to keep me involved, it made me feel even more incompetent. To make matters worse, every time I missed the ball my friend would blurt out, “oh, the sun’s in her eyes.” Or she’d ask, “glasses?”  As uncomfortable as I was playing, I was equally as uncomfortable with being pitied and placated. So I eventually just owned the fact that missing was simply due to my inability. I mean…who was I trying to kid? 

Unfortunately, though, the pity didn’t stop. It just took another form. Our friends started saying “nice shot” when I actually hit the ball AND it stayed in. The reality was that most of my hits were not nice shots, even if they did stay in. I couldn’t be angry at them though. They were simply trying to build me up. 

Their kindness continued in between the lost sets. As we chugged water there was no mention that I was clearly out of my league. In fact, there was no mention of tennis whatsoever.

Finally, after two hours of play and losing three full sets, we parted ways with our opponent-friends; but not before first making plans to hang later that day. I was relieved when the men said they needed some time to rest their bodies before meeting back up. I also needed time, because I was exhausted – but in a different way. I was mentally tapped out and needed to give myself some down time to process all of my emotions.

As my husband and I headed toward our car, I began hoping he would embrace the same philosophy and approach that we use with our daughters after sporting events: be quiet and don’t put any of our own thoughts on them. But, he clearly left his dad hat home. Before we were even buckled in, he said, “That was fun. Wasn’t it?” I laughed. Was he serious? Apparently, after 20 years of marriage he still doesn’t get what it’s like to feel insecure and athletically inadequate. 

Insecurity and inadequacy. Those are hard feelings to grapple with. For a minute, I want you to put yourself in your children’s shoes. Think about how an experience like this one would be for them. What would they be thinking? What would they be feeling? And what would they do with all of that after the game ended? 

As you can probably tell, I’ve been grappling with this challenging and painful experience well beyond the match itself.  And aside from the skills and coping strategies that I’ve gained over the decades, I’ve had a year of therapy, and I work with children on developing strength and character (which requires reading lots of self-help and growth books).

So the question remains. How can we help our children step outside of their comfort zone and/or cope with the thoughts and feelings that come along with it? Lead by example. 

Step outside your comfort zone and then speak with your children about your experience. In great detail. Just like I have done here. Those feelings are especially hard to admit out loud. (Now try writing them and blasting them to over 10k people like I have). I’ve shared with you because I strongly believe that as parents, it’s imperative to discuss and teach our children to face their fears – head on. The valuable skills that result from these experiences will serve them well. Problem solving, as well as overcoming failure and resilience are just a few. When our children not only have our support, but they also see us modeling what we ask/tell them, it’s much easier for them to believe and in turn, follow. 

Speaking of following, I have decided to work on allowing myself to be more vulnerable. My hope is that through the process, others will follow, and together, we will help lift up and support our peers and our children. If you’re on board, email me at Dawn@PAALSusa.com. I’d love to hear from you!

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