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Playing to Win: How Competing on the Court Inspires Great Leadership Off the Court

Credit: Rob Kerr Photo

I have been thinking a lot about two of my favorite subjects lately: Leadership and pickleball.

I was standing at the kitchen line on guard to block the next speeding ball sailing towards me when it hit me: Pickleball is abounding with lessons on leadership! As quickly as the thought bubbled up, it was popped by a cross-shot dink, landing just past me on the inside of the court’s sideline. I dropped into a low squat and reached with arm and paddle extended to scoop the ball back upward over the net with a slow swing of my paddle, depositing it just over the net onto the other side of my opponents’ kitchen where it bounced once and then twice before my opponent acknowledged defeat and we all defused the tension of the battle for the point with laughter.

Now, what had I been thinking about? It had something to do with leadership. My serve? Ok. What’s the score? Get your head back on the game, Katie.

The web of connections between leadership and pickleball now seems obvious to me. And given how much Brené Brown plays, I’m sure she would agree with me.

On the eve of my first tournament (tomorrow it is!), I am offering an homage to this fickle and funny sport that I have come to love by sharing the a-ha, light-bulb lessons of what I have gleaned from this game.

Competition has a bad rap.

Often it equates to a threat to your success, maybe even your survival. It can be disruptive to have unexpected competition. And like the word “disruptive,” competition signals an obstacle or disturbance on your way toward achieving what you want. Pickleball, like all sports, offers a fair playing field with rules of engagement that invite players to compete and push past their known limits to win or lose without sacrificing their enjoyment of just playing the game.

To embrace competition is to give yourself over to the challenge at hand—win at least one more point than the other team—to push past your known capabilities, to stretch and grow a new capacity and strength.

I love competition. It keeps me on my learning edge. Pushing personal limits and taking risks is part of a player’s commitment to play to win. There are no guarantees when you play, so there are no limits to what is possible when you strive to discover what else you are capable of as a player.

Competition conditions your thinking to push yourself to be better, to grow, and to risk for the reward.

Gay Hendricks calls us to recognize how we limit ourselves by limiting our thinking about what we think we can do. In The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, Hendricks notes:

“In my life, I’ve discovered that if I cling to the notion that something’s not possible, I’m arguing in favor of limitation. And if I argue for my limitations, I get to keep them.”

On the court, I am constantly choosing to believe that I can and am improving and that what I am capable of is far beyond where I am today. I find the further out I stretch myself for the ball, the point, the game win, the more exhilarated I feel just going for it.

It doesn’t matter if I win; it matters that I choose to believe I can compete and give my all to the effort.

Competition is valuable for the disruption and excitement it creates. It is a high form of recreation as old as the Ancient Greeks. It inspires energy, excitement, and drive amongst competitors, which operates like Miracle-Gro on the garden of our whole-body system.

3 Reasons to Champion Calling in More Competition Into Your Life

Competition offers to . . .

  1. Keep us alert and attuned to the present moment, the only time we are truly living according to Thich Nhat Hanh, spiritual leader and Zen Master, who shared, “Life is available only in the present moment.”

  2. Give us cause to push ourselves past our discomfort of knowing very little as a beginner, and into a new level of growth and development that carries a promise of reward for the risks taken.

  3. Restore us to our “good or normal physical condition” through the recreation of playing a sport. When we break down the etymology of the word, “re-” is a prefix meaning “again,” and “creare” is the 14th-century Latin root meaning “refresh, restore, make anew.” Exactly how I feel after a round-robin and two hours of pickleball—refreshed and renewed!

I hope this encourages you to look for ways to bring a little more playful competition into your life. I will be trying something new tomorrow playing in my first pickleball tournament with a good friend. I don’t expect us to win, but I won’t be surprised if we do. My intention is to do my best and go as far as I can toward the center court in the final round. Eeek! Am I jinxing myself?! No, just manifesting it people!

Go play more sports! I recommend pickleball, of course. If you try, let me know what you think.

More Lessons in Leadership from the Pickleball Court coming! Next up: How deepening the connection with yourself through physical play is the key to a breakthrough in your whole-system health.

May you always bet on yourself.

May you always trust in your capacity to learn and grow.

May you always foster the fire in your belly to grow bright and hot with passion and purpose.

Now go play!


PS–I’m a pickleballer! ; ) Wish me luck tomorrow!

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