The following story was first published in Today’s Christian Living Magazine – May 2016
By Drew Coons
Competitive tennis was a big part of my life for 20 years. Since I was playing a lot, my wife, Kit, took up the game as well. As she started to improve, she had an idea, “We could have fun playing doubles against other couples.” Now, that can be a test of anybody’s marriage. You know how they have engaged couples go through pre-marital counseling? I think they should make them play tennis together to learn how their future spouse might respond under pressure.
The problem was that I wanted to win at tennis more than anything. People play tennis for fun, right? Well, losing was no fun for me. Therefore when we started playing together, I began telling Kit the mistakes she was making on the court. I pointed out lots of ways she ought to improve her game.
To my surprise, she started playing badly in our matches. As I continued telling her everything she needed to do differently, she played even more poorly. It seemed like every time she could touch the ball with her racket, the other side got a point. Finally in one match I told her, “Serve the ball and step off the court. I’ll play them by myself.”
But I couldn’t win tennis doubles that way. Kit didn’t literally leave the court, but she really was out of that match. Our opponents were passing me down the sideline. I had to ask her to cover the line so that I could win. She did, and we came from behind to win.
That day I started to discover the power of godly encouragement. The way Kit played tennis was directly related to the way I treated her on the court. Whenever I started to criticize her, she was awful. But when she was having fun, when she thought she was doing well, she was a great player. It was a living example to me of the power of 1 Thessalonians 5:11: “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as you also are doing.” (NIV)
This experience was the beginning of God developing in me the ability to encourage others. Encouragement isn’t telling a person what you think they should do, a “You can do it!” pep talk, or false praise. Real encouragement begins with discovering and praising what a person does well. Building someone up involves maximizing those strengths. In tennis, Kit’s crosscourt forehand was her best shot and more consistent than mine. So we positioned her on the tennis court to take advantage of that shot.
Acknowledgement of strength in one area can even give a person confidence to improve in other areas. Soon Kit’s other shots became strong enough that we could switch our positions on the court in the middle of a point. This really confused our opponents. Minimizing inherent weaknesses can also be part of building up another. For example, Kit’s upper body was not strong enough for her to smash a tennis ball over her head. Whenever possible, I would hit those shots.
After I learned these principles, Kit played better and better tennis. She became so good that we played in a tennis league one summer where she was the only woman in the league. All the others were men who, like me, wanted to win. We played for a position on our team and won a starting spot. Together we won over half of our matches and had lots of fun together. I never had so much fun playing tennis as that summer with Kit. I found that losing with Kit was more fun than winning with anybody else. And the fun was made possible because I had learned how to encourage and build her up.
More importantly I soon realized that the encouragement principle applied to every aspect of our relationship. The way a person feels really affects the way they perform. Kit and I have since taught many marriage seminars and conferences. I frequently ask husbands, “Do you want a better wife? You’ll have one, if you learn to encourage and build up the one you already have.” Husbands, likewise, can improve through sincere and godly encouragement from their wives.
Although my lesson began toward Kit in tennis, God used it to make me into an encouraging person for others as well. Kit and I later served as missionaries for 19 years. We spoke and trained leaders in 34 countries outside of America. God developed in me the ability to encourage leaders, which ultimately led to ongoing ministries around the world. Even in our current retirement, Kit and I continue as volunteers traveling to equip and encourage missionary leaders. I’m grateful that God used tennis to build into me a biblical principle that has enriched every part of our lives and touched many thousands for Christ.