Editor's Note:

Dr. George Ball, 82, an adjunct professor of religion and Stuart Religious Counselor at Whitman College, wrote the letter that follows to members of the varsity tennis teams at the college. We suspect, however, that the fundamental suggestions in the letter are applicable to all athletes, regardless of their stage or station in life.

An Open Letter
to the Whitman College Tennis Teams

From Dr. George Ball
January 1998

Teachers often get so used to talking that they often do not know how to stop. That's all too true of me. Aware of this, I cannot resist the temptation to offer a few ideas to you, the members of Whitman men's and women's tennis teams whom I have come to know and enjoy.

For 37 years I have maintained a close relationship with Whitman's tennis players, and it pleases my soul to say that I have rarely seen bad or even poor sportsmanship. Thus the following remarks are general, totally lacking of any personal reference.

To me, the tennis court is not simply a place for an athletic event. It is a stage on which a large part of what is to be the theme of one's life is acted out. It is almost certain that what you are on the tennis court is what you will be as a friend, as a husband or wife, and in your professional life.

It is on the tennis court that one creates or exhibits a response to danger and defeat, to tiredness, to surprise or bad luck, and also to bad behavior as one confronts it in a cantankerous opponent. All of these experiences have their precise parallels in ordinary life. One is similarly tested as to his or her capacity to care for the welfare of the team instead of being absorbed in one's private progress. The care and self-discipline that one employs in preparation for the tennis match is likely to be the same that will be used in getting ready to face life's larger roles.

To be specific, it is my hope that anyone whom you play against would finish the match having enjoyed playing with you (regardless of the outcome), because of the way you treated him or her. There are some people whom you will not like to play against, but that feeling never relates to the score but to the manner in which the opponent is or is not sensitive to your feelings. The relational component of the match can often get a good start at the time you are introduced to your opponent, when you could take a few moments to learn about him or her (hometown, year in college, major, perhaps a little about the family). It also helps to build a relationship to be able to compliment the opponent on an exceptionally good shot with a racket clap or a quiet "Good shot." All human encounters are opportunites for relationship. One is never good with the big ones unless he or she is good with the little ones.

Obviously, there is an assumption here: that you create and are created by and for relationships. Some will disagree, but I think it is true. Your life will largely be defined by the nature and quality of the relationships you are part of and to which you contribute.

When you are on the court it is always your character that is being created and tested. If the opponent is nasty, it is wise not to get angry in return. Rather, feel sorry for that person for that person is bound to have an unhappy time with the other relationships which will constitute his or her life. If you let yourself get angry, you hand the opponent a kind of psychological victory. The victory you can win over yourself in this respect is far more important than any victory represented in the score.

I do indeed look forward to your season this year with almost unmanagable expectations which relate to considerably more than the score. But I am also capable of elation, of singing and dancing (at least internally) when the score itself comes out in your favor.