Thursday, July 9, 2015

Unexpected: Story 1: Prepare

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be focusing the blog on some fun different things leading up to the season. Yesterday, I posted a preview of our tournament opponents as part of a series looking at the players our opponents have coming back for the season. Today, I will begin posting in a series I'm calling "Unexpected." In this series, I'll post about matches from Bethany Christian tennis history that had unexpected results. I'll recap the match and then make some observations about what led to the unexpected result. Hopefully we'll learn some things that can take us forward into the upcoming season! And yes, I'll make the learning easy - the things you should remember are in capital letters :-)

Unexpected, Story One: The 2007 Sectional

Over the course of my Bible study and personal experience, I've found that unexpected events have a lot of factors in common. Today's story is going to address one of those factors. Unexpected events often spring from situations and people who are PREPARED.

And I'm not just using any old definition of prepared. From a follower of Jesus's perspective, preparation isn't necessarily about all the things you do to get ready. Instead, preparation is about forming habits of TURNING. In other words, in difficult or impossible circumstances, WHO OR WHAT DO YOU TURN TO?

I'll flesh that out more in our devotional series this season, as we look to the life of John the Baptist as one who prepared the way for an unexpected event. But that question of preparation - "Who or what do you have a habit of turning to?" - is central to today's unexpected story.

Coming into the 2007 season, we had a team that is actually very similar to our 2015 team. The entire varsity lineup was made up of underclassmen in 2007. Four of the eight players who played varsity had already played varsity as sophomores and were now juniors. They were led by #1S player Luke Hostetter, who was very solid #1, eventually earning 45 wins in his career at the position.

This was my first team to prepare their skills during the offseason. Many of them took lessons, and they started to play together in a serious way during the summer. Everyone was pretty confident, coming off winning seasons at their individual positions, whether varsity or JV. But no one had really been in a leadership role. And we hadn't been forced to face that question of true preparation.

In trying to get us ready for that, we had a team cheer. The cheer was: "We are focused. We are smaggressive. We are Bethany. We are One."

There was the answer, right in front of us. Who should we turn to when things got difficult? To the One and to each other. To God and to our brothers. But we hadn't internalized that message yet. It hadn't become a habit. It was something that came out of our mouths but didn't capture our hearts and minds yet. Instead we had other habits that we turned to.

In our first match of the season, doubt was where we turned. And we lost to Northridge, 3-2. In the second match of the season, we turned to frustration. And we lost to Jimtown, 3-2. In our fourth match, we turned to apathy. And we lost to Concord, 4-1. Close matches, good matches... but we were always turning inward to deal with difficulty. Always turning to ourselves.

This tendency to turn inward was brushed over for a while as we entered a stage of the season where we cruised to 6 straight easy victories. But it came roaring back when we played Fairfield, ten days before the Sectional began. Here again, we were faced with difficulty. Fairfield was an experienced team, 6 seniors. They were skilled, athletic, and motivated. Our Bruin team came out trying to play our best tennis, but when we fell short in close first sets, we folded inward. We became angry, frustrated, apathetic, and got quickly defeated.

As I pulled the van back into the Bethany parking lot after a 5-0 defeat, I looked into the back. Guys were joking and laughing. I had the sense that we were turning away from the difficulty, turning away from opportunities of growth. I turned off the van and told everyone to stay in their seats and listen. And I yelled at the team, like actually raised my voice, for one of the very first times ever.

"You are a better team!"

My meaning in yelling this was a myriad of things. I wanted the players to be convinced that they had the skills to beat Fairfield, or any other similarly skilled team we would play, so I used a bit of hyperbole and told them they were better. I also meant that they were better than what they had just showed out on the courts that evening. But the crux of what I really wanted to communicate was in the word "team." Together, we are better.

God has made humans in such a way so that when we pursue a goal in relationship a couple of things happen. First, we tend to reach the goal in a more fulfilling way. Secondly, we deepen our relationships. Third, we experience growth in our own character. Together, we are better. TOGETHER.

That 2007 team needed to get into the habit of turning to each other, honestly, in times of difficulty. Turning to each other to be challenged. Turning to each other to be encouraged. Turning to each other for motivation, energy - a quick word, a fence high-five, or a fist pump. During our failure to be a team at Fairfield, it had been quiet. Everyone was turning to themselves. There was little encouragement being spoken and even less being heard.

In the next week, we began to prepare, trying to make it a habit of turning to each other. Being a real team. Practices were more intense. Vocal encouragements at matches became louder. We sat down and had some real talks about how to deal with frustration and fear - the best way being to turn to a smiling teammate. At matches, we rallied around the difficult positions. We sat through 3rd sets even when the team match was done, just to show that we were there for our teammates. We began to actually practice being "one."

And so we entered the first round against Fairfield in the Sectional, the team that had beat us as we moped around the courts alone just ten days earlier. And you know what happened? It started off badly for us. We lost 4 of 5 first sets. The pattern was the exact same as earlier in the season. We came close, but couldn't pull it off.

And so, back to the preparation question, what or who did we turn to? Well, I turned to God, and just started praying. Praying, honestly, that the guys would finish the match out with their newly practiced attitude of togetherness. Not necessarily praying for a win. And the guys on the court and the team in stands, they did just that. They turned to each other. Suddenly, after a well-played point on Luke Hostetter's court, Johnny Kauffman looked over from #1 doubles and said, "Let's go, Luke!"

And Luke played better. And Johnny played better.

At #2 doubles, a team that had lost all their close matches that year, Mikey Kelly and Daniel Buschert began smiling at each other. Instead of turning to frustration after misses, they uttered encouragements to one another. On great points, they turned to each other to call out "C'mon!"

And Mikey played better. And Daniel played better.

Parents got in on the action. Jonny Shenk, who played #3, saw his dad pace up and down the singles courts, cheering for Jared Swartzendruber at #2 and Luke at #1. As Jared's match ended in a loss, his parents scooted over to watch the remaining matches. When #1 doubles lost, they moved outside the fence to lend their vocal support to the remaining singles matches.

It was awesome to watch us moving as a group together, full of positive energy and full of hope. #2 doubles won and came out immediately to our group of excited fans. If you were at the Sectional last year, you know how this group feels. We sat on hillsides, bleachers and lawn chairs and watched the final matches play out - together.

Then, when it was all over, we went to El Camino. The whole team.

And since the point of this story is who we turn to, I won't even tell you what the result of the match was. It wasn't the most important thing. The most important thing was that we answered the question and learned how to prepare.

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