We all like to win. Be it in life, love, and the games we play. Do I hear an Amen? Yet, there is a dark side to winning. I have a tale to tell that begins two years ago when I retired.
Once I retired, I needed a plan. I’m just that kind of guy. How was I going to fill my unscheduled time? It turned out volunteering at York Hospital and tutoring for York Adult Education helped fill the bill quite nicely. A couple of part-time jobs didn’t pan out. They were just too much like work. I still dig reading to my friend Vin. Writing my weekly blog turned out to be a satisfying challenge and an additional creative outlet. Going regularly to the gym energized my day and gave me a mellow afterglow.
But it was playing ping pong that was the surprise activity of my retirement.
I grew up playing ping pong in the basement of our house on Bolton Place in Fair Lawn, NJ. There was no more than 18 inches at either end of the table so I developed quite the backhand to accommodate for the tight quarters.
As the older brother by two years, I felt the burden that I had to win games against my brother Richard. Let me tell you, feeling like you should win can take the joy out of playing. I developed a winning strategy that emphasized caution and playing it safe. Maybe my natural introversion came through in my playing style. On the other hand, my brother, freed from the expectation of winning and having the DNA of an extrovert, developed a flamboyant style that carried over into all aspects of his life. Ah, to be the middle child!
Playing ping pong now in my 60s, I’m still steady and have a natural topspin backhand from my youth that serves me well against most opponents. I keep the ball in play until my opponent errs and more times than not, I reach 21 points first.
And so when my occasional ping pong partner George was up for weekly games, we chose Thursdays to play, one week at his place, one week at ours. Rallying and warming up for 20-25 minutes as we caught up on each other’s lives, we’d then play ten to twelve games over the next hour or two.
For the first year, I usually won 75-90% of the time. My steadiness and the occasional big forehand served me well. During that time, I was always impressed that George, in defeat, had so much fun just playing. It seemed to me he hardly remembered who won! It seemed that he was in, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow.” The “flow” is to pursue an activity for its own sake rather than for the rewards that it brings. He’d just want to play one more game, and then another; not in a competitive sense, but in a pure joy of playing sense. I’d read about such people, but here was one in the flesh.
And then things changed, maybe a year after we began. Not our relationship. Thursday ping pong continued to be a highlight of my week. What changed was the George started winning and winning. What happened?
Clearly all the practice had made him better. In the beginning his forehand was non-existent, but now it was a powerful weapon. Certainly his “flow” helped him focus on the moment rather than the score. I had a lot more to learn from George than just improving my ping pong game. It could be we were each getting better, but he at a faster rate.
In the last few months, George has held the upper hand, though I do have my moments. Some afternoons, I do win my share, but the tide has turned in Biblical proportions. How was Danny Boy to handle this turn of events? It’s easy to be gracious and amiable when you’re winning. How was I going to be now that any win of mine was a 21-19 struggle?
Let me say it was an adjustment. My shots that he previously hit off the table now came back as ping pong sandwiches that I couldn’t return. His serve was just getting better and better; when he needed a point, he was well-served (I couldn’t resist.) My serve, always weaker than his, exposed me to his spins and angled shots and growing confidence and, indeed, skill.
But my approach to ping pong was changing, too. I started playing on my toes in a readiness stance for his electric serve. I’ve gone to the Internet to pick up some tips on how to improve my own serve. I began to hit the ball sooner so as to take the initiative in the play rather than merely be reactive. Never one to pay close attention to the ball, I increased my awareness of watching the ball hit the center of my paddle for more accurate returns. To develop my “flow,” I focus on one point at a time and less on the final score. I know that it’s the afternoon together that is the gift.
And I gave our time together a Zen twist. I sought to be as gracious and positive to be with as George is. You see it’s less about ping pong and more about friendship. George is just one of those damn nice guys. He’s both interesting and interested. With him I have a voice in our friendship. He’s the kind of friend you’d all like to have.
My competitive drive to win still lives within, but my approach is more Zen-like as I enjoy the moment, the friendship, the flow.
That said, it’s still sweet to win.