Throughout the course of my coaching career, I have been lucky to coach both girls and boys tennis, and while my previous two tales have come from the girls’ side, this one is from the boys. I remember when I first started coaching the boys and I had three players left from the previous season who were definitely going to be on the team. For some reason, a lot of boys were going out for lacrosse that year, and I think because it was my first season as the coach, they didn’t really know what to expect. A lot of people, when they are facing the unknown, will shy away from it, so I didn’t blame them, but I still needed a solid team of at least twelve players. So I went recruiting. Basically every boy I saw in the hallways, in class, or in study hall was fair game, but they all wanted to know who ELSE was on the team or trying out. And here I thought only girls were interested in the company they kept, but boys were just as curious, so I couldn’t get any solid definites.
There, was, however, this one boy in my study hall who said right away that he would try out for the team the second I asked him, without even asking who else was on the team. Of course I was skeptical because it seemed too easy with him, but he was apparently telling the truth. When there were sign-ups for the team, he was one of the first ones in the room. I’ll call him Jon. And I guess I needn’t have worried after all because when all was said and done I ended up with fourteen guys for the tennis team. Now, out of those fourteen, six of them had never played tennis before, so I had my work cut out for me, but at least we had a squad. And Jon was right there in the mix, even though he was one of the boys who had never played before. I had four weeks to teach them the rules, to get them in shape, and to make them a cohesive unit before the season began.
From the start, I could tell some boys had more of an aptitude for tennis than others. Jon was not one of them. Strike one. A handful came over from other sports like basketball, baseball, and soccer. Jon was a hockey referee, not even a player. Strike two. And some were delusional about where they stood skills-wise, but luckily Jon wasn’t one of them either. He knew he was a real beginner. He knew that he had a hard, uphill road, but he also knew that he was willing to give it his best, which is all I asked of him. So, he began training, and I paired him up with my number one singles player who showed him how to grip the racket, how to serve the ball, and how to put solid contact on it. They even got together outside of official practice time and stayed late after practices to work on technique. Jon is a tall guy, so he would have an advantage in serving when he ever found out how to hit it correctly, so I spent a lot of time working with him on his serving, endless drills meant to utilize his height.
I knew Jon was exhausted from all that work, but slowly and surely it began to pay off. About two weeks before the season started, he had matured from a total beginner to a solid middle-of-the-pack guy on the team, which was phenomenal. Even my number one singles player (who had been playing since he was a kid) made a note of Jon’s massive improvement. When it came time for me to announce my ladder (the order of players skill-wise) Jon had made it all the way to number five on the list out of fourteen. What an incredible achievement, and he was really proud of himself. For that entire season, and the next one too (before he graduated) Jon was an extremely valuable member of our team, even making it to individual sectionals the following season. He truly became the team’s most valuable player, not for his skills (there were still several players better at playing the game), but for his tenacity. Indeed, he would often win games against better opponents just because he took nothing for granted. He was a true competitor.
During his senior year on the team Jon even took it upon himself to mentor some of the younger, newer players, who were in the same position he had been in when he first started. It was wonderful to see him teaching them how to grip their rackets and how to serve. He was always the first one to practice and the last one out. Seeing him make it to sectionals was amazing, a mere year after he picked up a racket for the first time. That’s a real competitor, and I am proud to say he was one of my players. He was on my team.