A Big Brave Step

My son leaves in less than two weeks to travel, alone, to Mallorca, Spain.  He will be staying there for a month – maybe longer – to live and train at Global Tennis Team (click here to read my trip report about my lesson at Global in June).  This is his first trip to Europe.  This is his first trip outside the US without his parents.  This is a big, brave step.

And, this is not – I repeat, NOT – simply about him having a chance to become a better tennis player. While that will hopefully be a perk of his trip, my husband’s and my decision to offer him this opportunity has much more to do with him having the chance to become a better human being.

If you had the chance to listen to this week’s radio show with my guest, Barbara Tipple, you heard about the changes she has seen in her son since he has been living and training at Global.  Yes, his tennis has improved, and he has become more committed to putting in the hard work in order to get better.  But, it’s more than that.  He’s matured, grown up, learned to take personal responsibility for his words and his actions, learned to honor his commitments.

Sometimes, our children develop those traits and skills on their own while doing what other kids their age are doing – living at home, going to school, playing an instrument and/or a sport, or holding down a part-time job or doing community volunteer work. But, sometimes our children need to get away from the protective cocoon of their parents and siblings and social group in order to spread their wings and break free.  My son fits into that latter category.

I know there are some of you who will read this post and think, “This woman is totally nuts!”  I’m willing to risk that because I know in my heart that this is the right thing to do for my son at this point in his young life.  My husband and I are very lucky that we have the resources to offer this amazing gift to our son.  In our family (as I suspect in most of yours) our son learning and playing tennis has become about much more than hitting fuzzy yellow balls over a net between some painted lines.  It’s about translating how he reacts to what happens on the court into how he reacts to what happens off the court.  It’s about making choices and decisions that can shape the adult he will eventually become.  It’s about learning discipline and respect and following through on commitments.  All of these are works in progress for my almost-17-year-old.  And they are all things that I hope he improves on during his time at Global.

Will I miss him while he’s there?  Of course!  Will he miss home?  I certainly hope so!  I suspect that the young man who returns at the end of August will be different from the one who gets on that plane on July 29th – maybe a bit more mature, maybe a bit more appreciative, maybe a bit more focused, maybe a bit taller (!).  Change can be a good thing.

He is my youngest, my baby, and part of me is resisting letting him go, letting him grow.  Maybe my son isn’t the only one taking a big, brave step . . .

Student of the Sport

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a USTA College Information Session for high school players and their parents held during the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia.

The panel, led by USTA’s Senior Manager of Junior and Collegiate Competition, Erica Perkins Jasper, included the following heavy-hitters from the tennis world:

  • Bobby Bayliss – Head Men’s Coach at Notre Dame University
  • Christine Bader – Head Women’s Coach at Ball State University
  • Maria Cercone – junior coach in Florida whose daughter plays #3 doubles and #5 singles for the University of Florida
  • Rick Davison – Director of Competition at USTA Georgia
  • Steve Johnson, Sr. – Father of top-ranked D1 player, Steve Johnson, of USC and top junior coach in Southern California
  • Colette Lewis – Creator of zootennis.com and renowned junior/college tennis journalist

Here’s what I learned . . .

Before your child even starts thinking about which colleges he might be interested in, have his tennis skills evaluated by – as Steve Johnson put it – “someone you’re not writing a check to” in order to get an honest opinion of which college programs might be a good fit.  The panelists repeatedly told us that there is a program for everyone; sometimes you have to do a little more digging to find the right one(s), but it IS out there.  You and your child need to be honest about his level of play, though, and make sure you are looking at schools that have open spots in their lineups that match your child’s skill set.

During the college recruiting process – which, by the way, your player should begin thinking about as early as the summer following his freshman year of high school – it is crucial for both the player and the parents to ask a lot of questions.  Ask the coaches.  Ask the current team members.  Ask people familiar with the program.  Just ask . . . a lot!  What questions should you ask?  Well, that depends on what type of college tennis experience your child seeks.  But, all of the panelists agreed that coaches would rather you ask the tough questions up front so your player can cross off the schools that don’t have what he’s looking for and so the coaches don’t waste precious time and resources recruiting if your kid is dead set against their program.  It is important that each player find his fit, and be assured that there is a right fit for everyone out there, whether it be D1, D2, D3, or a Junior College program.

To the players, it is important to start visiting the various colleges as early as you can.  Yes, you can email the coaches, but it’s just not as personal as a face-to-face visit.  You’re allowed as many unofficial visits (i.e. visits that you arrange and pay for yourself) as you would like to take.  On those visits, meet the coaches, meet the players, ask if you can attend the team practice and workout, and get a feel for the team environment.  If possible, go look at the dorms and see where the players live and eat.  Take advantage of your junior tournament travel and visit colleges in the cities and towns where you’re playing.  Figure out if you have a preference in terms of school size (big or small) and location (urban campus or college town) – that will help you narrow down your list of target colleges once you’re ready to start the official recruiting and application process at the end of your junior year.

Familiarize yourself with the NCAA Division 1 recruiting rules as early as possible so your child doesn’t risk his eligibility.  The D1 rules are the strictest, so, even if your child is looking at D2, D3, or Junior Colleges, following the D1 rules is your safest bet.  Then, before the end of your child’s junior year, make sure he registers with the NCAA Eligibility Center so all his ducks are in a row before the official recruiting begins.

After coming up with a list of potential colleges, have your child write down the 5 most important reasons he wants to attend each school.  Some examples might be playing tennis, a high level of academics, a particular academic major, the tennis coach, or scholarship availability.  He should ask himself, “What happens if one of those things disappears?”  For instance, what if he gets injured and can no longer play tennis or what if the coach retires or goes to another school or what if he fails to earn the necessary grades to keep his scholarship – will he still be happy at that school?  If the answer is NO, then cross it off the list.

Once your child does start communicating with coaches via email, make sure he includes a link to his tennisrecruiting.net bio (which he should first make sure is up to date!), his high school graduation year, and his upcoming tournament schedule.  Your child should not be afraid to ask coaches if they’re even interested in him as a potential team member – no need to waste anyone’s time here!  Also, he should ask how many scholarships (if it’s a D1 or D2 program) and roster spots are available and if there’s an opportunity for an official visit during his senior year.

Also (please forgive me, High-Tech Tennis, but I’m just sharing what the panelists told us!), before you spend money having a fancy recruiting video made for your child, make sure your child asks the coaches if they would even like a video and what they want included on it.  In most cases, a 10-minute home-made video, uploaded to YouTube, of some match play will suffice.  The coaches are busy.  They don’t have time to sift through the fluff.  So, keep to the basics – forehands, backhands, serves, volleys, overheads, and footwork.  And, by all means, make sure you only show your child’s best behavior on the video!  [One panelist confessed that several of the coaches have compiled a Top 10 Worst Recruiting Videos list on YouTube!]

During his senior year of high school, your child will probably begin taking official (i.e. paid for by the university) visits to one or more colleges.  This is the time to ask the more pointed questions such as whether or not he can walk on the team if no scholarships are available and whether walk-ons ever get to play in the lineup.  He can also ask about the coach’s influence with the admissions department in case his academics are borderline.  In many cases, the tennis coach does have some pull and will be willing to use it if your child is a desirable candidate for the team.  And, your child should absolutely let the coach know if he doesn’t NEED scholarship money from the Athletics Department – either because he has other scholarship money coming from academic or other resources OR because you have stockpiled money to pay for his college education yourself – it’s a definite plus to coaches to know that they can use their limited funds elsewhere.

I know this is a bit long-winded, but USTA really did share a ton of great info with us!  If you have a chance to attend one of these sessions, I highly encourage you to do so.  Even though my son sort-of fought me about going (it required waking up pretty early on a Sunday morning to make the drive to Athens), I think he got a lot out of it and now has a clearer picture of the work he needs to do.  Besides which, a perk of the program was that we got to watch an incredible day of tennis at the NCAA Championships afterward!

Breaking the Streak

My son went into this past weekend’s tournament on a 7-match losing streak.  He had been “rounded” in singles in the past two tourneys plus had lost his final high school match of the season in the semis of the state playoffs, and his confidence was lower than I had seen it in a long time.

This tournament was a state level 3 tournament, located about a half hour from our house, meaning that it really wasn’t going to draw the top top players, but it was a good opportunity for my kid to play up in the 18s, build some confidence, and get more of a jump-start on his 18s ranking.  The draw was only 16 players, so, at most, he was going to play 4 matches (or 5 if he moved into the back draw) over the two days.

When the draws were posted on Friday, it turned out that my son was playing a boy he had played on 3 prior occasions – my son was 1 and 2 against him, his one win coming in their last meeting in the Fall.  Given my son’s lagging confidence – plus another mom’s helpful (NOT!) statement that this other boy had recently switched academies and was playing really well – I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling too good about my son’s chances.  I chose to sit well away from the match court – close enough to see clearly but not close enough to hear any negative mutterings that might come out of my kid’s mouth.  My son ended up playing a really strong match, beating the other boy 6-1, 6-1, putting a solid end to the losing streak.  Whew!

Next up was the top seed in the tourney, an 18-year-old who is heading to play tennis at LSU (a big D1 program) in the Fall.  My son was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to play this kid just to see how his game would stack up.  He didn’t necessarily have high hopes of winning the match though he did go into it feeling strong and ready to do battle.  Turns out my son held his own out there, forcing the other player into several errors at the net as well as on his serve.  My son lost the match 6-4, 6-2, but the other boy came off the court and proceeded to tell my husband and me how impressed he was with our son’s game – just what every tennis parent loves to hear!

And, even though he lost that second match, it turned out to be a real confidence booster for him.  He had pushed a college-bound guy – one who probably had at least 50 pounds and 4 inches on him – to play outside his comfort zone.  He had broken the guy’s massive serve twice.  He had kept the guy guessing and forced him to go for better shots than he would normally have done.

Really, that was the goal of the weekend . . . to overcome the bad juju, to play some quality tennis, and to prove to himself that he belonged out there with the Big Boys.  Mission accomplished.

Today’s the Big Day!

My son’s high school team is playing in the Georgia State Semifinals today.  If they win, they will take a short break then play the Finals.  It’s a Big Day for these boys, one they’ve been working toward since mid-January . . . but really since the time they each picked up a racquet and hit that first fuzzy yellow ball.

As I’ve talked about in previous posts (see “We” Won), the idea of TEAM is kind of a strange one in a sport that truly focuses on individual effort, individual training, individual competition.   But, I feel very strongly that the lessons my son is learning through team participation will help him become not only a better tennis player but also a better human being.  As Janis Meredith so beautifully put it in her JBMThinks blog, there are 5 characteristics of a strong team player:

1.  Recognizing and accepting differences

2.  Knowing how to play to his strengths

3.  Fighting for a common cause

4.  Laughing with his teammates

5.  Having his teammates’ backs

These are the characteristics that I love seeing in my son.  These are the characteristics that I hope he continues to develop and take into adulthood.  These are the characteristics that I hope he passes along to his own children some day.

Good luck, Raiders, and good luck to all the other team players out there!

Help Yourself!

Have you noticed all the medical time-outs and trainer visits the pros seem to be having during their matches in recent years?  Sometimes they’re necessary,  but sometimes they’re a strategic move on the part of the player to shift the momentum of the match or take a time-out to regroup after a rough patch.  In either case, I think it’s time for professional tennis to take a lesson from the juniors and teach the players how to care for themselves court-side or just resign themselves to the fact that the fitter, healthier player is going to win that day.

Very few junior tournaments have medical trainers on staff – it’s just too expensive for the tournament directors – so it’s really important that your junior player understands how to take care of any minor (let me stress the minor part) ailments or injuries on court.  What constitutes a “minor” ailment or injury?  Of course, this is a very individual thing, but things like blisters, muscle aches, slight muscle cramps, a scraped knee, or a headache can probably be handled by the player at the side change as long as he is prepared.  If there is any question regarding the severity of an injury or illness, the player should seek IMMEDIATE medical attention.

Part of being prepared is making sure your player has the proper first aid components in his tennis bag.  A few things that my son always keeps on-hand are BandAids of varying shapes and sizes (including the special blister-relief ones), first aid tape and scissors, Super Glue (great for blisters!), Advil, Tiger’s Balm, and an old tennis ball for massaging tight or cramping muscles.  During tournaments, he also brings plenty of water and PowerAde as well as pretzels and either grape tomatoes or blueberries to stay hydrated and keep his sodium levels within a safe range to help prevent cramping.  A Frogg Togg Chilly Pad towel is a necessity during the hot and humid summer months – keeping it in a cooler with ice really helps it do the job of bringing down your player’s body temperature on those brutal days.

If you think an injury might warrant a visit to the doctor, Orthopedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine/Spine Specialist, Carl Goodman, offers this advice:  “Stay fit and stay strong has been my mantra for preventing and treating most tennis ailments.  Lower back pain and shoulder problems are the primary complaints I hear in my orthopedic practice- light exercise will usually resolve these problems and allow you to continue your tennis activities. Complete rest is a no-no for me if you want to get well fast!”

He goes on to say that, for junior players, “lower back pain that does not resolve after 2 weeks may represent a stress fracture in the spine. Consultation with an orthopedic doctor is advised at that time.”

When it comes down to it, it really is your child’s responsibility to take care of himself while on court.  Whether it’s taping up a blister or rolling out a tight muscle, knowing how to “treat” those minor ailments during a match could be the difference between getting to play another round or going home.  That said, no match is worth risking a long-term injury or illness, so knowing when to say, “Sorry, but I need to retire!” is vital, too.

Keeping It All In Perspective

I have a confession to make:  I am NOT a perfect tennis parent.  Shocking, I know (!), but sometimes I tend to lose perspective, letting the little things get in the way of the big ones.

Last week, my son had Spring Break from school.  A few weeks earlier, my husband had mentioned that he’d like to take our son on a father-son trip, maybe fishing or skiing.  Given that I’m the parent in charge of All Things Tennis, my husband asked me which tournaments were coming up during our son’s break from school to figure out how best to schedule their getaway.  Of course, there were two big tournaments planned during that week, each within an hour and a half of our house and each one that our son really wanted to play.  I told my husband about the tournaments and asked him to try to schedule around them.  After all, our son had finally overcome the dreaded Alternate List and was likely to get into both tournaments and have an opportunity for some high-level competition.

In my warped perspective, his opportunity to play a couple of tennis tournaments trumped his opportunity for some precious father-son bonding.  What in the world was I thinking???

Luckily for both of my guys, my husband was the voice of reason and quickly made me recognize my mis-perception of what was REALLY important here.  Needless to say, my son skipped both tournaments and went skiing with his dad.  And both of them came home with some new inside jokes, shared experiences, and a renewed appreciation for each other.  My skewed perspective almost prevented all that from happening.  Thankfully, my husband has a broader view when it comes to our son’s tennis, and, also thankfully, this time I listened!

It’s so easy to get sucked into the mindset that it has to be All Tennis All The Time for our junior players.  It’s important to remember, though, that our goal is not only to create good tennis players but also good human beings.  Sometimes that means setting aside the tennis for other equally – if not more – valuable experiences.  Keep reminding me of that, okay?