A Lesson in Empathy From a Tennis Legend

When was the last time you really put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

This was the question that was on my mind after a recent weekend of golf. A few months ago, I was invited to spend two days at an exclusive country club. I heartily accepted. After all, how many opportunities do you get to putt on a completely weed-free course?

Several groups came from all over the country to play together, and I was fortunate enough to have in my group Stan Smith. Stan is a famous tennis player who, despite winning Wimbledon in 1972, is perhaps best known for the Adidas tennis shoes that bear his name.

Playing a pristine course with an athlete who actually has shoes named after him? The weekend promised to be a great one.

Over the years, I have met a number of well-known athletes. Most of them have spent many years being told how great they are (or were), and their accolades have more often than not gone to their heads. Not so with Stan Smith. He is a very kind, gentle, soft-spoken man who reminded me of Paul from the 60’s folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. And not surprisingly, he was a good golfer.

On the first hole, he made a putt. As I pulled the ball out of the hole to hand it back to him, I glanced at the ball and noticed that it had the number “72” printed on it. Stan noted my puzzlement.

“Have you even seen that on a ball before?,” he asked me. Usually, the number on a golf ball is 1, 2, 3, or 4, but never 72.

I told him that I hadn’t, and then I asked him if that was his age.

“No,” he said. “It was the year I won Wimbledon.”

Of course it was. Silly me. He just laughed and we played on.

Later that evening, Stan told me the story of the first time he played Wimbledon. The year was 1971, and he was a 19-year-old rising American star playing tennis at the international level for the first time.

Unlike some elite athletes who are handed a racquet or a golf club or a baseball when they are still in diapers, Stan did not start playing tennis until he was 14. All through his childhood, he played every sport he could, focusing on not one in particular. In fact, he had only heard of Wimbledon only a few years before he actually played there.

He was rightfully nervous.

Only minutes before Stan was scheduled to play on one of the back courts at Wimbledon, there was a change of plans: he would be playing on the center court. His opponent would be another 19-year-old, the ranking tennis champion of Great Britain.

That day, the center court was packed with more than 10,000 people. Stan’s opponent had an entire country pulling for him, and he was on his home court. Surely Stan had no chance of winning, right?

Still, he bucked up his courage and played his best that day.

What he didn’t realize was that his opponent had dreamed of playing Wimbledon’s center court since he could walk. He felt the weight of his entire country on his back, and as a result, he wilted. The very thing that Stan viewed as his opponent’s advantage was what held him back from coming out the victor that day.

Needless to say, Stan won the match early. He would go on to win the entire Wimbledon tournament the next year.

As Stan told me this story, I was struck with how we often feel the pressure we place on ourselves without realizing what others around us are feeling. Our self-focus makes us oblivious to others’ struggles, and we need to be reminded that the world does not revolve around us. Perhaps we must reevaluate the role empathy – our capacity to truly understand the thoughts and emotions of others – plays in our lives. We tend to put on empathy only when we see a friend or family member experiencing loss or misfortune. How many times have you signed a card bearing the words “With Sympathy” on your way to a funeral or wake?

However, empathy should be the lens through which we see the world every day, not just during times of loss.

God has made us for relationships. He wants us to experience the goodness and fullness of life by entering into communion with one another. When we close ourselves off either physically or mentally from others, we’re denying that empathy, and that can’t possibly be good for our health.

We need help. We need others to encourage us when we despair, pick us up when we fall, and walk alongside us when we tire. And we need to be there for others when they need that support.

That day on center court at Wimbledon nearly 45 years ago, Stan Smith learned that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and he’s carried that lesson with him ever since. I think that’s pretty profound for a 72-year-old – that is, 67-year-old – tennis player.

Whether we have tennis shoes named after us or not, we can all benefit from caring just as much about others as we do about ourselves.

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