If you want career, financial, and social success, don’t beat up your opponents too badly while smiling if you know what’s good for you. This advice might sound odd, but not adhering to it can have tremendous negative consequences.

Anyone who has ever jet-skied knows it’s impossible not to smile while riding the waves. Well, I can’t help but smile when I’m playing any sport because sports bring me immense joy—sometimes to the detriment of my opponents.

However, since none of us are turning pro, there’s no need to take sports so seriously when playing as adults. We’re there to have fun and avoid injury!

At 47, all I want to do is play a sport and walk away injury-free. It’s a scintillating feeling of getting away with something–in this case, pain and suffering.

Beating Up Your Opponent Badly Can Show Low Emotional Intelligence

When I worked in finance from 1999 to 2012, I would regularly play tennis with clients. Tennis was a way of getting to know someone while doing something fun.

Tennis is tricky because for both sides to have fun, they need to be at a similar skill level, within about 25% of each other. If you’re the better player, you can get bored if your opponent can’t keep the ball in play. But if your less-skilled opponent is a client, you need to have fun and keep the points close.

Instead of beating up your client badly, play “business development tennis” and keep the points close. Your goal is not to pummel your opponent and make them feel like failures. Instead, your goal is for both sides to have an enjoyable experience.

However, if you’re the better player, you can’t make it obvious that you’re purposefully keeping the points close. Otherwise, your opponent may feel patronized, potentially damaging your relationship.

Being a good “business development player” takes practice and skill. Only the least emotionally intelligent person will regularly beat their clients in any activity.

A Saturday Recreational Match

Although I coached high school tennis for three years, I play tennis mainly for fun. If we’re playing doubles on a weekend, it’s just to have a good time with friends.

One Saturday morning, I played doubles with three regular club members: Henry (age 59), his long-time hitting partner Jim (age 60), and a younger member, Bob (age 34). Bob, the best player, warmed up with me (age 47). None of these names are real for privacy purposes.

Before starting the match, I suggested mixing up the teams for fairness, but Henry and Jim were happy to take us on. I set a betting line at 3, meaning if Henry and Jim lost 3-6 or better, they would win the set. It’s my way of keeping things interesting and motivating as the favored team.

Although we guys like to do some light smack talking, setting this Vegas line was my first mistake.

Why We Smoked Them

We beat Henry and Jim 6-2 in the first set. Afterward, I sincerely asked if we should switch teams, but they wanted to try again. All good as giving your opponent a chance to try again is the right thing to do.

I set the betting line at 6-3 again and we beat them 6-2. Jim was visibly frustrated the entire second set, constantly complaining about our lucky breaks and his team’s missed shots. Yet, after two sets, they wanted to play us AGAIN!

At this point, there were a couple of other fellows who had been waiting for us to finish for the past 20 minutes. We started warming up at 8:30 am, and it was already 10:20 am. We were only supposed to have the court for 1.5 hours per the club’s rules.

Feeling the pressure of the other members waiting, I suggested playing a 7-point tie breaker instead of another set. I also told my partner Bob that it was probably best not to win again given how upset Jim was. Bob agreed.

The Berating Begins

As soon as I stepped up to serve in the tiebreaker, Jim screamed, “Hold on! I’m not ready yet!”

No problem. I stopped, bounced the ball, and began my serving motion again.

Then Jim shouted, “I told you I’m not ready yet! Wait until I’m ready before serving!”

At this point, I was miffed. I shouted back, “The receiver is supposed to play at the pace of the server.”

We then started playing the tiebreaker and lost 4-7 after about 10 minutes.

We shook hands at the net, and while packing up our things, Jim got in my face and said, “Don’t ever do that again!”

Confused, I asked Jim what I had done.

He said, “You quick-served me twice! Stop with the gamesmanship! Just stop.”

I was taken aback because I never intentionally tried to quick-serve him to gain an advantage. After he told me to hold up the first time, I presumed he was ready for my serve since he had time to say hold up and see me prepare my setup.

“Jim, I’m just here to have fun on a lovely Saturday morning. I didn’t intentionally try to quick-serve you. Also, I’ve been trying to stop foot faulting per your criticism last time we played,” I responded. With Jim, there is always something he’s complaining about. And if you are his partner and miss a shot, he will most certainly let you know how disappointed he is in you.

Jim then retorted, “I don’t believe you,” regarding me trying to game him. Both Henry and Bob jumped in to defend me, saying they didn’t think I was trying to quick-serve him either. But Jim wasn’t having it and walked back to the locker room.

Importance Of Losing Or Keeping Things Close

What was going to be a fun Saturday morning turned out to be a disappointment. Even though Bob and I lost the tiebreaker, Jim was still upset, perhaps because he realized the tiebreaker didn’t mean much. But the thing is, the entire match didn’t mean much! It’s just recreational tennis.

In retrospect, I should have told Bob to play the match close after the first set, given I knew Jim had a history of complaining. Jim is an extremely competitive player who takes weekend tennis much more seriously than Bob or me. As someone who played tennis professionally for a brief period, losing badly to a couple of non-ex pros may have hurt more.

I probably shouldn’t have introduced the Vegas line either, as that could be construed as insulting, even after they rebuffed my suggestion to make the teams more fair. Anybody else would taking the Vegas line in stride, but not Jim.

When I noticed Jim complaining beyond normal in the second set, I should have had the emotional intelligence to know perhaps something else was bothering him in his personal life. As a personal finance writer who has read thousands of comments on Financial Samurai, I know sometimes, angry comments are projections of something else bothering the commenter.

Although I’ve played with and against Jim a dozen times before, I don’t know him well, except that he’s a father who got ATP points in doubles when he was in his 20s. So naturally, I decided to look up what he did for a living to understand the negative repercussions our altercations may have.

Potentially Blacklisted In The Future

It turns out Jim is a CFO at a private high school in San Mateo. Oh crap! There go my kids’ chances of getting in. If we apply, surely Jim will now blackball us because I supposedly quick-served him in a meaningless tiebreaker one Saturday morning.

Although my kids would never apply to that high school, this is a great example of how relationships can be ruined if you beat your opponent too badly. We’re talking career limiting move here folks!

Jim could have easily been a senior official at a high school in San Francisco, which my kids might eventually apply to. Or Jim could have been a senior executive at a large company that could have put a stop to my kids getting hired. Although it’s not fair to punish children for the sins of their father, it still happens all the time.

The world is small. It’s not worth upsetting people in real life or online. Even if you feel you did no wrong, it may be worth apologizing if you are not yet financially independent. You never know how your new enemies could limit your potential for career and financial success.

Have the Emotional Intelligence to Understand People’s Personalities

The “problem” with me is that I don’t take things too seriously, especially weekend tennis. Some people are more competitive and combative. It’s up to you to recognize these traits in your opponent before playing.

Because I don’t take my sporting activities seriously, I may inadvertently offend those who do. This is my fault, as I need to adjust my seriousness to the people I play against. At the very least, I need to not smile when winning against a serious opponent.

When I was working and less wealthy, my sensitivities towards others were heightened. I was an expert at business development tennis, often purposefully losing close matches without my opponents suspecting a thing.

Today, I’m older and wealthier with little business to conduct. As a result, my emotional intelligence on the tennis court has degraded. Since I was a kid, I can’t help but always stand up for myself and speak my truth. However, next time, I might just agree with my opponent and apologize.

It’s not worth getting into an argument and feeling bad about the situation. Take it from me, a guy who just spent an hour and a half typing up this post because I felt unsettled about the conflict.

I assume Jim will eventually get over it, and maybe even apologize. But I won’t know until the next time I kick his ass!

Reader Questions

Have you practiced “business development tennis” in your activities before? Do you feel that emotional intelligence declines once you have more money and less fear about the power others have over you? What would you have done if you were me and Jim started accusing you of trying to game him? Have you encountered angry recreational sports opponents before?

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