Meeting Your Heroes (When You’re Socially Anxious)

When I visited Birmingham for the Nature Valley Classic tennis tournament last month, I had a photo taken with double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. My friend and I had only just entered the tournament grounds – so you can imagine our excitement when we spotted her approaching us! However, our meeting with her didn’t go all too great and it made me start asking a few questions about myself.

You see, every year I’ve tried to get a photo with a tennis star as a fun tradition. It started in 2011 when I had a snap with Ana Ivanovic during my first ever tournament experience. Since then I’ve had photos with players I really admire like Laura Robson, Lucie Safarova and Timea Babos.

Kvitova is another one of those players. I’ve been a fan of the Czech throughout her career. She’s always been a big-hitting player with a nice personality – and that’s drawn me to her matches.

I was present during her first round triumph that kick-started her run to a second Wimbledon title, as well as her opening match at SW19 when she’d just returned to the sport following a hand injury suffered during a home break-in. Even though I’d been up since 3am queueing for a ticket, and my eyes could barely stay open, it was amazing to see her back on Centre Court just a few months after the attack. Her victory in that match only added further weight to her legendary status in my eyes.

All of that admiration came to the fore as she walked towards us in Birmingham. I didn’t know what to say. I figured since she’d just been on the practice courts so I didn’t want to keep her. I simply asked for a picture. But from the moment I asked, my excitement quickly turned to anxiety.

She was not in a good mood. I could tell she didn’t enjoy being stopped and didn’t want to pose for a photo either. My friend – who normally gets a snap too – didn’t ask for one afterwards. The bad vibes were apparent.

It left me in a weird mood for the rest of the day. I began questioning whether I’d instigated her reaction by being rude. Perhaps I should have talked to her instead, let her know that I really admire what she’s achieved and wished her well for the tournament. Something like that might have been better than a photo.

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I really don’t enjoy seeing that picture with her now. I find it kind of embarrassing. I know everyone is human and I have no right expecting her to be a certain way when I happen to be around. But it has ruined my perception of Kvitova as a super-friendly person. And – going deeper still – I now don’t enjoy looking back at some of my photos with other players. Maybe I disgruntled them too?

I’m probably thinking about the whole thing way too much. None of these tennis stars will surely remember who I am. And yet I’m still not satisfied with the way I conducted myself, or how I should act in the future. Should I kill my photo tradition? I mean, who does it benefit? Is it just an ego boost? To be honest, I think the answer hinges on whether I’ve been myself and if I can continue being myself going forward.

I’m someone who wans to be remembered as a nice person. Whenever I’ve tried to socially interact with anyone – famous or not – I’ve over-analysed large details of the conversation for a long time afterwards to make sure I wasn’t rude. If I feel like I might have been, then I try to learn from it.

I don’t feel like I was rude to Kvitova, or the other players that I’ve asked for a photo with. I’ve always made sure I said hello, called them by their first name and approached them with a smile. I do feel like I should start more of a conversation. But then I think, why would they care what I have to say?

It’s a question that, again, extends to any social interaction I have. A lot of the time, I don’t feel like people want to talk or be around me. I have a very small number of friends and I attribute that lack of companionship to me as a person. So speaking to anyone new for more than a few seconds is a challenge.

I used to get through by thinking: if something bad happens, at least it’s a story to tell. I can recall posting a few statuses on Facebook about irregular things I’d said during conversations with strangers. Making a mockery of my anxiety helped encourage me to be more outgoing.

And that’s, ironically, how I began getting photos with tennis players. My initial reluctance to approach them for fears of being a bumbling wreck were abated by the very prospect of using that awkwardness for comedy value. I found humour in the contrast between myself and an elite athlete.

It’s why I approached Hayley Ladd for a photo at Birmingham City Ladies. I thought it would be funny to get a picture with a Welsh international having only just seen my first women’s game. And even though I over-analysed my meeting with her afterwards, I don’t regret my decision to speak with her. She really was super-friendly and she sparked my interest in seeing her Wales team in action a few weeks later.

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By even writing this much about a few seconds with a tennis player who happened to be grumpy when she left a practice session, I’ve realised how much my social anxiety has increased over recent years. It’s translated into the online world too, where I’ve censored opinions or convinced myself not to post things.

Getting my confidence back when it comes to interacting with new people – in life and online – is something I will have to work on. But I think it’s achievable. It’s all about getting into my previous mindset. Who knows what stories are around the corner?

As to whether I’ll continue getting photos with tennis players… I don’t see why not. I’ve met some really nice people who I’ve admired in the past, while the ones who were a little off were still kind enough to take a photo.

So as long as I stick to my values, staying polite and friendly, then I can hopefully come across as a decent person and learn to relax afterwards.

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