Joey Phoenix Media
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Salem, MA Portrait and Event Photographer

How 20 Years of Tennis Shaped My Creative Life

Anyone who knows me realizes I don't spend too much time talking about life before I moved to New England, or frankly life before I finished grad school at Boston College (go Eagles?). That's simply the result of the fact that it's a sore spot for me. Many days I'd rather forget I lived it. Yet, over the last few weeks I've been thinking a lot about that life – and I've begun to understand the effect that it had on me. A lot of it needs to be shoved in the back of a closet and ignored for a few more years, but some of it demands to be processed right now.

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Every so often I dream about it, I'll be back on the court down 5-3 in the third set facing two match points. Everything will spin and I'll see my coach shaking his head on the sideline. He wants me to win, to come back and win the match despite the odds against me. I don't know if I want to put in that much effort. Yet, the thought of facing his disappointment is enough motivation to make me throw everything I've got at it. I won a lot of matches I shouldn't have won, and it garnered me a lot of popularity in that world.

I've always been a people pleaser.

If I had been given a choice, I never would have chosen tennis. After 20 of years of doing something though, whether you wanted it or not, it leaves impressions on you.

Important disclaimer: This is not a how-to guide, or a"tips for success" post,  this is just some personal reflection. Sometimes you don't know why you do things until you take a moment to consider how much your past has shaped you. Because it has, but it doesn't have to define you.

It's Not Over Until You Shake Hands

Unlike many other sports where critical moments are determined by a set time, a tennis match can go on for hours, sometimes even days. Things can happen quickly, be over fast, or drag on for seemingly forever. Countless times, after 4.5 hours of grueling nonsense, I'd end up in the ER with an IV in my arm. I have chronic fatigue and exercise-induced asthma so my body couldn't really handle these marathons. Yet, giving up wasn't really my thing. Again, not because I'm competitive by nature. I just didn't want to disappoint anybody.

So now, when I work on projects or meet new clients, I tend to be a bit relentless. Rejection has no real effect on me, I'll just keep trying until something clicks. I mean yes, rejection hurts, don't get me wrong. I just don't comprehend that it's permanent. If someone doesn't like something, I'll return in a matter of moments with something slightly better. They don't like that? I'll try again. It's a bit incessant. I just figure that until they say "I don't think we should work together anymore," that there's still hope. I'm glad to admit that no one's ever said this to me.

How You Spend Your Spare Time Impacts Your Performance 

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The human brain is a curious thing, and it tends to collect things even when you're not aware of it. As an athlete, especially one at a collegiate level, your entire life is contracted. I wasn't allowed to go ice skating or play basketball or eat too much sugar (weight fluctuation was an absolute evil), because it would "jeopardize my ability to play." In addition to activity restriction, I didn't have much time to do much of anything anyways. When I wasn't on court I was studying or working out (5:30 AM is not a fun time to be running stadium stairs). What little spare time I did have, I spent in a garden or in the mountains, trying to shake off the malaise that comes with routine, it also gave me time to process what I had seen and learned. My entire existence was programmed to perform a certain function, I was treated like a machine that required a certain kind of oil to run. It was a bit dehumanizing, but the logic was clear enough.

As a creative person, everything you do can become a source of inspiration. The things you read, the people you meet, even the food you eat can have a direct impact on what you create. So many people say that they get their best ideas in the weirdest places (Woody Allen credits the shower as his biggest idea booster), but sometimes that just happens because you've stopped long enough for your subconscious to start communicating with you. Varying your inputs can go a long way towards helping the creative process, because your mind will scramble what you've experienced into a whole new thing. However, if you spend all your time marathoning The Walking Dead, don't be surprised if you want to start making zombie art. Maybe that's a weird example, but what you do when you're not creating will affect what you do create. How you spend your spare time shapes your artistry, whether you intend for it to or not.

No One Cares About Your Excuses 

Over the course of my career I've caught life-threatening bronchial pneumonia (due to black mold growing in my parents' apartment), tore my rotator cuff, broke several bones in my hands and feet, caught mono twice (the first time it lasted 8 months), and developed acute scoliosis in the lower 6 inches of my back. I've grown to hate hospitals and physical trainers and doctors, many of whom had the audacity to tell me that my conditions were "made up," before doing real tests weeks later to find out what the real problem was. When I caught mono the second time, my coach didn't even tell me until we was already on the bus headed towards a match. He had known before we even left, but hadn't told me before then because the team "needed their captain to be there."

Hours spent wheezing in between points, my lungs three-quarters filled up with fluid, feeling guilty for being weak.

Evenings wishing the next day wouldn't come, because sleep was the only thing I wanted.

Mornings praying that it would rain that afternoon, because that meant watching training videos instead of practicing, and maybe my hand would have a chance to heal.

Nights spent on 6 hour bus rides back from North Carolina, where the hotel wi-fi hadn't worked the entire weekend, knowing a 15 page paper was still due in the morning.

The list continues.

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When I first went into business for myself in 2012, I knew that it was going to be difficult – but I was more prepared than I ever could've known. My early clients were always surprised when I sent work in early or had quick turnaround. Having the ability to make my own schedule without outside interference freed me from pulling all-nighters, but the need to finish things fast – just in case catastrophe struck – stained all of my methods. If someone wants something done, and they're paying you, you do it. It doesn't matter if you have a fever of 102 or spent the night in the ER with a kidney infection.

And like I said before, I don't like disappointing anybody.

© 2015 Joey Phoenix Photography