My partner and I have been playing tennis after work at the local Pacific Beach courts two blocks from our home here in San Diego. It’s a hobby we picked up when visiting friends in Milwaukee a few months ago, and have stuck with it ever since. We’re actually getting quite decent.

If you know anything about tennis or have spent any amount of time playing, you know how dang frustrating it gets. You under-hit and get the net – you overhit and find yourself down a ball (either interrupting the players next to you or chasing the ball somewhere on the other side of the fence). Both scenarios suck, but at least with under-hitting, you’re guaranteed the luxury of not having to run far nor interfere with another’s game.

The first time we went to the courts, they were full. Instead of going home, we got back on the bikes to go check a few other local parks. We biked around PB, then over to Bird Rock, then eventually made our way to La Jolla. Everything was full, so we decided to head back to the original courts and wait it out until a spot opened up. In the first court, there was an older man with stark white hair teaching lessons to a few little kids. The other courts were full of middle-aged adults rallying with their friends or family members. I was locked in on the precious old man giving these kids little life lessons as he lobbied the ball back and forth to them.

We’ve gone back to the courts daily since that night, and without fail, he’s always there. Teaching lessons while also stopping to talk to every passerby headed to play tennis. It’s become a staple every time we arrive – Joe stops his lessons when he sees us approaching, waves, and asks us how the workday was. He’s one of those grandpa-type figures you know would bake you a pie with six cups of added white sugar on your birthday if he knew it was coming up.

One time I showed up to the courts wearing a Mount Holyoke oversized shirt that I got at a thrift shop because it was dirt cheap. When he saw me, he lit up – rambling on and on (mid-lesson) about the family he has in Massachusetts, the classes his family took at Mount Holyoke, and similarities between us. Little did he know that hearing him talk about it was the most I’d known about my t-shirt up until that point – but when he asked me, I couldn’t disappoint his excitement, so my simple response was, “It really is just the best, I don’t have enough good to say about it.” Which was true – I really didn’t have anything to say about it.

One of the things I’ve grown to adore most about Joe is his ability to stop what he’s doing (like giving a lesson to a paying client) and show up fully each time a new person enters the courts. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he owned the damn place. Joe is one of those people that makes a meeting place feel like a home by the way he treats you. He makes you take pride in attending these courts – the pride of being apart of a community of other like-minded players, showing up day after day to get better at the skills they’re developing.

Just last night, Joe said something that stopped me in my tracks. The little girl Joe was coaching had hit the ball repeatedly into the net. She was playing with two other little boys who were hit with all their might. When I was collecting a few balls to serve in the middle of our 7-game series, I heard Joe on the court next to me. “Wait, wait, wait,” I knew something good was coming since he stopped the lesson, waving his hands and walking into the middle of the court in front of the little kids.

“My girl,” he said “What makes you so wary of hitting the ball with strength? With strength, you might hit it out, but you just might also hit it in, and over the net. Without strength, your ball continues to end up below the net. Do you see? I’d rather you hit it 20 feet out than not hit it like you mean it. Have some faith in yourself. Hit the ball like you mean it, with strength.”

I can’t tell you whether or not she improved, I had my own game to play. But I couldn’t stop hearing his words in my head, and I couldn’t stop hitting the ball with all my might after that. What Joe was getting at was this:

“Who told you to play small? Who told you that your strength is something to fear? Who taught you your strength was meant to inhibit your potential? Who told you it’s not okay to fail if you try your very hardest?”

His words struck me, and they’re sticking with me. I haven’t quite dissected the weight of them, or what it would mean if more men and more women told more little girls that their strength is not something to shy away from (especially IN the company of boys watching). I think it’s something I will swirl in my head for a while.

Whether it be a career, relationships, hobbies, personal goals – whatever the case – here’s what Joe taught me: I don’t get to play small. Playing small teaches other people to play small, too. Playing small teaches other people to treat you like you’re only capable of playing small.

As the year rounds out this month, it’s a good time to reflect. The weirdness of this year makes reflections a lot more challenging and difficult to hash back out – especially the parts of this year that were filled with pain and uncertainty. But there’s something really beautiful about that as well, something that’s worth not shying away from or passing over. There’s something about 2020 and something about Joe said that ring true: there’s too much at stake to play small.