The life of a high school tennis coach is interesting, always looking at the weather reports, constantly shifting lineups depending on the next opponent, and dealing with teenage personalities that can explode and shift at a moment’s notice. And while I coached both girls and boys, I didn’t see a huge difference in the explosion of personalities based on gender. It is equal opportunity, and it creates major issues for a coach who is looking at the numbers. It’s what I like to call the human element. In the previous installment of Competitor, I talked about my first singles player on my girls’ team, and she was definitely dynamic, probably the biggest competitor I have ever met. There is more to say about her as a fighter, and as a leader. She is a true competitor, and I was proud to coach her for three seasons.
That first year was difficult for both of us. I remember how difficult it was choosing a first singles player, just because I had a senior and a sophomore who were both strong enough for it, but I ended up choosing the sophomore. The previous season, she had played on the junior varsity squad, and she had gone undefeated there, but varsity was a huge step up when it came to competition, and her varsity career began with a bang. In our very first match of the season she had to play against the best singles player in our league. In fact, this girl was legendary. She hadn’t lost a match that counted for the past two seasons, and all of my returning players (including the senior who had lost out for the first singles position) had a healthy fear of her. It wasn’t just her playing skills either, but the fact that she knew how to slow down or speed up a match at will. So, it was a trial by fire for my player, Holly*. I harbored no misconceptions that she could win, but I didn’t want her to feel so defeated after the fact, so we sat down and talked first.
Holly had heard all about this girl, and knew her tactics and strengths. She also knew that the only weakness she would be able to exploit was her temper when she got down. The key was to get her down, and it would throw her off her game. It wasn’t going to be easy, but she wasn’t going to give up either. That’s the true soul of a competitor. Well, game day came, and Holly stood strong and was confident. She competed as well as I think anyone competed against that girl that season, but it wasn’t nearly enough. When the final score was tallied, it was 6-1, 6-1, a solid thumping. My job then, though, was to make sure Holly understood she had played the best she could and not to get discouraged. My second singles player, Maria, also was solidly beaten by their second singles player, who was the best second singles player in the league, and Maria held no ill will, or was even defeatist after the loss. It was one game, and the season was a war of attrition. I think Holly understood that later, but at that moment all she knew was that she had lost. And she was determined not to lose to that girl again.
By the time the second match came around, it was a renewed Holly that came to play. There was that soul of a competitor on stage. Everyone had heard how she was solidly beaten in her first match, everyone knew she was just a sophomore (most other first singles players were at least juniors), so they thought it would be an easy road. They were mistaken, because they underestimated Holly. I never underestimated her. Indeed, she made a statement, not so much in that she won her second match easily, but in that she rebounded wonderfully from her mood after the first loss. And I reminded her about this after her win, that she had the potential to be the best, and to beat the best, because she had the heart of a lion, and the resilience to adjust her game to suit her in any situation. By the end of that season she made Sectionals, the pinnacle of success for an individual in our league, and no one was prouder.