The Art of the Developmental Model – and of Tennis

The Art of the Developmental Model – and of Tennis

Note from Ellyn: A member of our Advanced training group recently shared some observations with me about two of my very favorite topics: the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy and Tennis! I asked her to write them up and I am pleased to post them for you here. And how could I resist Sally’s poem? Such a clever way to capture the puzzle of these ideas, while solving puzzles of rhyme and rhythm at the same time. Whatever your hobby or avocation might be, I bet you can find similar wisdom in your experience. 

On an advanced call someone asked Ellyn about how she decides to stay with a particular intervention like the Initiator-Inquirer, or come out of it and do something else.  In her calm and thoughtful way, she replied, “That’s the art of couples therapy.”  That struck a chord about how I get stuck – both in therapy sessions and on the tennis court.

If I focus too much on a skill or intervention without the Developmental Model framework in mind and where each person and the couple is developmentally, I can get lost in “teaching the skill.” I lose sight of the big picture. Similarly, if I focus on the theory without the appropriate skills and interventions, we’ll go nowhere fast.

On the courts, if I focus too much on using a particular shot, I lose sight of what the best play might be at any given time. Great shot, bad idea.

If I just focus on the big picture or strategy for winning, I get caught in over-thinking, get much too tense and hard on myself and my shots go to hell in a handbasket.  Good idea, bad execution!

What I think would be preferable both in sessions and on the tennis court is holding both: keeping the big picture of the Developmental Model or tennis, learning and practicing skills, having a session/game plan. And then once I get on the court or go into a session with a couple, I need to trust myself to adjust accordingly. When I can trust the muscle memory of what I’ve been learning and practicing, it’s easier for me to relax into whatever is needed at that moment..

When I mess up, if I can see it as part of the process, I can learn, reset and move forward.

The mental/emotional aspects of tennis have taught me a lot more than I like to admit about myself. I used to think I was easy going and level headed. Ha-ha, wrong! I am, until the pressure is on, I make a bad shot, someone makes a bad call and then, not so much.

The saying “would you rather be right or happy” seems apt here. When I get caught in the trance of being right, my impersonation of a jerk is very convincing! I may win my point or be right but it’s a hollow victory as I don’t feel very good about myself. I’ve had to learn alot about keeping my focus, calming my own reactivity and being the kind of player I aspire to be.

The same is true for me as I learn and practice the Developmental Model. I’m calm and confident as long as the couple stays out of their negative pattern. But when they head in that direction, my anxiety, impatience, and irritation with them goes up, and off I go into fixing, teaching, lecturing. Ooops.

I’ve been thinking about how I could bring the sports /activities that clients do into my work, as an analogy for the process involved in couples work; both the motivation and inspiration to envision how they want to be, and to go through the growing pains of learning to be with themselves and each other differently. Maybe you have some suggestions, too. I know Ellyn enjoys seeing comments from readers and we both hope you’ll share your ideas in the commenting section below.

The Art of Therapy – and of Tennis

How do I dare
To compare
The two of these?
Read on if you please.

On a call Ellyn mentioned the art of couples work.
That helps to keep her out of the muck and murk.
Of where couples are stuck and often drowning.
By developmental challenges that keep them frowning.
The art of the DM helps couples move forward differently
And learn to navigate stormy developmental weather.
It’s taking me time to get the DM ‘in my bones’ as an art,
I often feel lost and frustrated as I dodge and dart,
I wonder if I’m being helpful at all,
And dream of serving coffee at a shopping mall.
So I try to handle my doubt and frustration,
And ask, where are they in their differentiation?
And where am I as well,
In growing edge hell?
Can’t think clearly when I’m feeling lost,
Feels like messing up brings a big cost.
Need to take a pause and get myself back,
In order to shift them to another track.

Is it time for a developmental assist?
Ah! Is that what I may have missed?
What stage of development are they in?
Is there any level of differentiation?
How far along on the self/other continuum?
Are they just not ready for the I-I,
Far too reactive to even try?
Oh my, what’s my next move?
When nothing is going smoothly.
Slow it down, for what are they longing?
Maybe some space, or that feeling of belonging?
Alot of complex, moving parts,
And thus, the skill plus the art.

I go through similar struggles on a tennis court,
When I lose focus, it leaves me short.
I need a big picture that guides the play,
To handle whatever shot comes my way.
Get curious about what will work best,
When my emotions are put to the test.
It’s so easy to react like a big jerk,
And get into negative murk,
Like taking an opponent’s good shot personally,
How’s that for a great losing strategy?
Need to stay calm and play my best game,
Be the player I want to be, call no names.

Or when they get out of sorts and start to yelp,
Understanding their upset just might help.
Rather than engaging in a fight,
Or insisting that my call was right,
Let it go, reset and back to play,
Or sort it out in a better way.

My role as a therapist is different, for sure,
Yet my reactivity calls for a similar cure.
Calm myself down, know its okay to stumble and fall,
Go for learning with both couples and the ball.

Am pondering how I can bring the analogy to couples I see,
As the struggles of differences create anxiety
And the glow of the honeymoon starts to fade,
Different aspects of self come out of the shade,
Protective ways of reacting start to emerge.
From an emotional type of surge.
On the court or in relationships.
What’s similar to where one trips?
Give up, withdraw, wall-off or pout?
Throw a racquet, scream and shout,
Get hostile, passive aggressive, start to cheat,
Shut down, sulk and shuffle feet.
Fear rejection and just stay quiet,
Or get into the ‘being right’ riot?
What happens to playing well as a team?
When the threat of differences beams.

There’s growing edge lessons in DM and tennis too!!
For me, getting into art is tough, that is true.
When I remember process not perfection in both,
It does help with my developmental growth.
Getting to the art in both is the goal for me,
May it one day, become reality.

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This brings to mind my more general approach to life – both having a general vision of where I’m heading, and being as aware as possible of just what is going on and responding to that. It’s something ongoing. So from the general vision, when something unexpected happens, I may do something that makes no sense if one looks at just the day-to-day but very much makes sense if one looks at the general vision. (I’m thinking of something very specific that happened over the past few weeks – big shift – really important – and amazingly good outcome.) Anyway, I like that 2-sided tension – the general vision, the ongoing specific steps.

Reply to  Elsa

Ahhh, was you’ve piqued my interest about the shift and you play with the tension. THanks for your comment!

Jack brennick
Jack brennick

Nice blend Sally, the tennis and therapy (and you lean towards poetry also !)
I am new to the developmental model , for just over a month , and as i read your inspired blog, you captured so many thoughts , emotions and conundrums of couples counselling that have already happened in my own office .
I also am holding on, waiting for the muscle memory to start kicking in using the DM as a (cherished ) foundation base to work from. Yes , I’m trying to build that emotional muscle , that I know takes time and practice . ( I was always the one who wants the destination, and not the journey… such is the folly of an an impatient novice ) .
Thank you for the effort in putting your words together .

Reply to  Jack brennick

Thanks Jack, totally relate to skipping the growing pains of the journey and being at the destination.. However, as they say (whoever they are) ,’ no pain , no gain’ , hate that, but seems to be true . Here’s to practice, and process.

Katherine Waddell
Katherine Waddell

Omg! This is beyond brilliant! Can’t tell you how much I enjoy this. What an artwork about the art of learning. Thank you! I am sharing this with all our staff at my Center. You’ve done us a great service by writing this.


Wow, thanks for your kind words Katherine , so glad it resonates. Will be interested in their thoughts on it.

Jo Neill
Jo Neill

Thank you for this post Sally. I so relate to it. In particular, the line about dreaming of serving coffee at the shopping mall made me feel so seen. I’m new to working as a therapist and learning the DM and in a former life I worked as a barista. Those were much simpler days, and therapy with couples is a lot more complex than getting the perfect tamp on the coffee grounds and foaming milk correctly. It really is such an art and its so good to know I am not alone in the struggle of leading couples to a different way of being with each other and pushing their developmental edges, while simultaneously pushing my own. I enjoyed my days as a barista but this work is deeper, more meaningful and more fulfilling, despite the challenges. I will recall this post in the week to come when I am feeling the tension of the work and dreaming of making coffee instead.

Reply to  Jo Neill

You are not alone at all Jo!! You’re right, it’s very complex , and quite the challenge, still fuels my barista fantasies!! Pehaps there’s a new idea brewing; perfect tamp on coffee grounds and foaming milk and for an added price, quick fix advice. Come one, come all, to the shopping mall. We’ll put the DM out of biz. 🙂

Shauna Sottery
Shauna Sottery

Wonderfully said Ellyn! As a tennis player of long ago, this resonates whole heartedly when I was on the court. Getting out of my head and learning how to rely on implicit thinking versus explicit, allowed me to be more present in the game and be able to reflect upon my own performance and process. I have a similar saying sofa which I focus on process over perfection, from yours truly, reformed perfectionist in training!🥰

Reply to  Shauna Sottery

Thanks Shauna, glad it resonates with you.

Amy Guido
Amy Guido

I loved this so much, especially that you shared how their return to the negative pattern can hit your developmental edge where you find yourself impatiently lecturing. Knowing this model and remaining calm/big picture enough to use it consistently are two separate things for me too. We’re human, so perfection is off the table, really like that you mentioned that holding yourself and others who regress, forget or misstep kindly matters. Really good stuff.

Reply to  Amy Guido

Thanks so much Amy. I remember in a course I took on IFS, one of the instructors mentioned that when she’s tempted to jump in and fix, teach , lecture etc. she stops herself with this acronymn: WAIT — ‘why am I talking’? Oh my goodness, that totally cracked me up and it actually really helps,… when I remember it. LoL.

Karina Suero
Karina Suero

This is great. And with a laught!! thank you!

Reply to  Karina Suero

Glad it brougth a smile.

Andrea Silver
Andrea Silver

This blog post was so helpful to me. Pickleball is my game and continually reaching for kindness to myself allows my artist self to stay married to my strategizer both on the court and in my office with clients.

Reply to  Andrea Silver

Thanks Andrea, just tried pickleball today actually .. yikes, a whole new learning curve…so embarassing when I went to hit the ball and realized two thirds of my racket was not there. No art there from me today, though had lots of fun.

Andrea Tang
Andrea Tang

Sally, my friend…. you are already where you “developmentally” want to be in so many ways! You’ve shared your truth with humor and authenticity. You are right! The DM is such an art form, so comprehensive, that we must slow down, practice over and over, until “it’s in our bones.”
When you write: “My role as a therapist is different, for sure, Yet my reactivity calls for a similar cure. Calm myself down, know its okay to stumble and fall, Go for learning with both couples and the ball.”
Just perfect.
Thank you, Sally for giving us this gift. Ellyn… thank you for allowing us to share in your most beautiful art of couple’s therapy!

Reply to  Andrea Tang

Thanks for your support in encouraging me to get it written by sharing your own struggles with the learning process and being so kind with mine Andrea!

Cat Sewell
Cat Sewell

I have noticed lately that because almost everything exists in a relationship of some sort to everything else, it helps to realize this and be as conscious of this connectedness as possible. Trying to do this resonates with application of developmental model principles in varied and novel ways that all carry inherent rewards and genuine impact. I think of this in terms of pARTnering and I now try to view my life in general as an opportunity for artisan level effort each day and in each present moment. This perspective encourages consideration of my life and how I live it as a form of art. LifeAsArt. Since I have been striving to relate with my horses from this vantage point, my awareness has increased as to the value of ‘bringing myself to’ that place where our energies and willingness can meet in the highest fashion available. That qualifies, in my mind, as an artisan or craftsperson or artist point of view and commitment. When I recently read the document ‘How to get the most out of therapy’, my reaction was that all points in this article are directly related to viewing Life as Art and how to bring about the most useful/highest outcome possible, day to day.

Reply to  Cat Sewell

Thanks Cat, how lovely to view life as art.


El juego de tenis como metáfora del Modelo de Desarrollo me pareció excelente. creo que ademas de lo mencionado. Esta el vaivén de la pelota y como el terapista dentro de ese juego entra. La pareja puede avanzar y luego retroceder mientras nos concentramos en el juego podemos ver y saber como interactuar considerando las etapas del desarrollo, su evolucion natural y los distintos tipos de vaiven como formas de juego. Consideto necesario para no perderme ver al juego como unico e irrepetible, Las estrategias de intervecion estan dadas segun el juego que se presente en el que yo tambien estoy jugando responsable y eticamente.

Reply to  Rosario

Gracias Roario!! Here’s the translation for others to gain from your insights. ‘ The game of tennis as a metaphor for the Development Model seemed excellent to me. I think in addition to what was mentioned. There is the swing of the ball and how the therapist enters that game. The couple can advance and then retreat while we concentrate on the game we can see and know how to interact considering the stages of development, their natural evolution and the different types of back and forth as forms of play. I consider it necessary to not miss out on seeing the game as unique and unrepeatable. The intervention strategies are given according to the game that is presented in which I am also playing responsibly and ethically.’


Oh my Sally, I am gob-smacked by your talent. What an amazing poem you have written – and I love how you are using the tennis analogy – so well done. I am impressed and feel so glad to know you.

Reply to  Sue

Thanks so much Sue !! Love that expression gob-smacked, hope you’re still in-tact. 🙂 !

Lauren Ostrowski
Lauren Ostrowski

Sally, This is fantastic! I love the metaphor of being aware of the both small parts and the larger picture. The tennis makes it so applicable to a metaphor that most people will follow, whether or not they play tennis. Thank you for giving us a window into your thoughts. I’ll certainly be referencing back to this for a long time. You are quite the poet also!


Aaah, thanks so much Lauren, so glad you found it useful. A poet I’m not, but I like to rhyme alot !!)

Linda Seals
Linda Seals

Awesome analogy. I identify with the idea: I’m comfortable with the DM until the couple gets into their pattern and then I lose my cool. Wow, I’m totally thinking of the feeling of messing up. I didn’t realize how hard I was/am being on myself. Hearing another therapist share about the same pain is helping me in this moment to release my judgement on myself. I do love couples work and I do love the Developmental Model. Rubbing my heart, I’m giving myself a little love and permission to learn from correcting my mistakes. I’m in process too.

Reply to  Linda Seals

Thanks Linda, so glad you don’t feel so alone with it. A tennis type person once said to me, ‘Sally there’s no win or lose, just win or learn’. I like that and when I remember it, both on the court and in a session, does help me relax and do my best .


The whole coaching movement (life, business, health, relationship coaching etc) started from this same analogy between helping people and and the game of tennis. The name of the book that spurred the movement: The Inner Game of Tennis by W Timothy Gallway (1997). And it is all about achieving peak performace by laser sharp focus and and inner calm (confidence) – as the secret to peak performance in any area of life.

Sally Shamai
Sally Shamai

Thanks so much to all your comments and feedback, so far . Special thanks to Ellyn for encouraging me to write this and for posting it. Nerve wracking to be sure. Since I submitted it , I’ve been thinking that a DM equivalent to doing repetative practice and drills in tennis, vs only playing games, is watching or listening to the different lessons and sessions that are posted on the sight over an over and over. Every time I do that, I learn something either in a deeper way, or a new way that I hadn’t heard the first time. We’re lucky to have all those resources posted on the cite for our use. Amazing resources.
Learning can be inspiring, practicing can be tiring, drills don’t always bring thrills, but seeing it come together like art, really does warm the heart!! So glad we have the masters to aspire to, may it one day be me, maybe already you!!


Very interesting article. I have been sent it by a colleague who is studying to be a psychologist. It reminds me of the inner game of tennis which is probably the best know book on getting the mind get out of the way. Fine for practice but not during a game. There is some more in Zen Tennis. I play tennis all the time and still have little control over my mind. I get identified with myself.
Excellent keep it up.

Reply to  Jacky

Thanks, so much easier said than done both on the courts and in sessions.

Yolerma Rojas de Zubiandi
Yolerma Rojas de Zubiandi

Wow!!! It is so true that we as people called to help couples geta way from sinking in the oceans of divorce can be so reactive sometimes. We need the cure too.


We sure do need to practice what we preach. Well , I do anyways!


Brilliant! I resonate with all you say. You are not alone! It feels so good!

Reply to  Angelica

Thanks so much Angelica!!

Lori Keegan
Lori Keegan

Wonderful Sally! Metaphors are powerful and sometimes communicate in a more effective way than a direct statement can. We can all take that to the bank as well! And what do we do when the couple thinks that keeping “score” is more important than staying connected? Well, serve them something that they can’t give a numerical response to! —(but short of serving an Ace, to which the couple just stands there and can’t comprehend what just happened!). haha. Thank you for creating such a fun analogy as a lesson learned! and a process to be enjoyed! (and not devolving as a winner and a loser!)
~Lori Keegan MSW, MFT, MS. Pres/CEO Transition By Design, Inc.

Sally Shamai

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