Life Experience

Tennis, like life itself, is full of various experiences.  Our goal should be to learn from these experiences in order to make ourselves better human beings.  After all, it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game . . . right?

A couple of weeks ago, my son asked if he could play in the US Open Sectional Qualifier tourney that was being held at a local club.  The entry fee was higher than we were used to paying ($100 for singles, $65 for mixed doubles, single elimination in both draws), but my husband and I agreed to let him play.  We figured he might have the chance to play against some very high-level players which would be a great opportunity to see how his game holds up.  We were right.

In the first round of the tournament, my son drew David Hopkins (see photo above), the recently-graduated #1 doubles player and #1/#2 singles player for Wake Forest University.  One look at David and I immediately thought “football player” – he’s a 6’2″, All-ACC player who is built like a linebacker!  During the warm-up (in the 100+ degree heat, I might add), David simply stroked the ball on both sides, moving very little, looking like he was just out for a simple pick-up match at the local park.  But, once the match started, the All-ACC player came out in full force and didn’t leave until the match was won.  He hit double-digit aces.  He had an inside-out backhand that was so flat and so hard that you didn’t even see it coming.  And, he just didn’t miss.

During the match, one of David’s teammates, Adam Lee, was sitting next to me, and we struck up a conversation.  He told me how David had been continually recruited by the Wake Forest football coach throughout his college career but chose tennis over football time and again.  He told me how David is a gentle, unassuming character whose fierceness takes you by surprise on the court.  He told me how everyone feared coming up against him in a tournament.  Later, I spoke with both David and Adam about my son and his tennis goals.  Both young men were very complimentary and encouraging about my son’s chances to play D1 tennis.  David’s words:  “Tell him to keep working hard.  He’s way ahead of where I was at his age.  It just takes lots of hard work.”

In the mixed doubles, my son again had the opportunity to play against very experienced players.  In fact, the man on the opposing team played on the 2005 Davis Cup team for Puerto Rico, and the woman was a 4-time ITA All-American at Georgia College & State University.  Our kids held their own.

After the tournament, I gushed to my son about how well he played and what incredible opportunities he had to play such experienced and accomplished opponents.  In typical teenager fashion, he replied, “I wasn’t out there for a good experience, Mom.  I was out there to win!”  Sigh.

At some point, he will realize where I’m coming from with all this “good experience” talk.  It will sink in, and he will see that he’s on the right track to achieve his tennis goals.  He will understand that it’s not always about winning the match but sometimes about having a barometer to measure your progress.

Maybe he’s getting it sooner rather than later.  Last night, he signed up to play the ITA Summer Circuit tournament at UGA.  The tournament overlaps the Georgia State Junior Open by one day.  When I pointed that out to my son, he said, “Mom, I’m going to be in a draw with college players.  I don’t think I’m going to make it to the Finals.  It’s okay.”

I love it when the lightbulb turns on!

Why Every Junior Should Attend Tennis Camp

My son just spent the past 5 days in Athens, Georgia, at UGA’s tennis camp as he has done each of the last 7 years.  It is typically the highlight of his summer.  The boys stay in the dorms, order late-night takeout, and spend literally all day on the tennis courts hitting with each other and the UGA team members and coaches.  What a life, right?

Some will argue that tennis camp is a waste of time for high-level players, that their time would be better spent in drills or playing practice sets or at actual tournaments.  I respectfully disagree.

Here’s what my son has gotten out of seven years of tennis camp (so far):

  • A realization that he really really really wants to play college tennis
  • An understanding of what it takes to progress as a junior player
  • The opportunity to talk to real-life college players and hear firsthand what’s involved in playing for your school
  • Understanding the importance of tradition:  we have our annual photos with the coach and assistant coach, our annual lunch at the same restaurant (The Varsity), our file of camp evaluations – you get the picture!
  • Developing a relationship with a coach and his team which gives my son some go-to people as we navigate the college recruiting process

I’m sure there are many, many more benefits that my son could list, not counting improving his tennis playing skills over that 5-day period.  But, that’s not the point.  The point is that there’s so much more to this junior tennis stuff than just hitting fuzzy yellow balls across the net in order to win trophies and ranking points.  And spending a few days away from home with other players who also love the sport is a great way to learn how tennis figures into the Big Picture.

So, if you’re looking for a camp for your child to attend this summer, it’s not too late.  I just googled “tennis camp” and came up with over 50 pages of results.  There are plenty of camps available, and I’m sure there are several that would be a great fit for your player.

If your child has attended a camp, I would love to hear about his/her experiences there.  Please share them in the Comments box below.

Time Off for Bad Behavior

School isn’t the only place – the Junior Tennis World will give you time off for bad behavior, too!  And, yes, I do speak from personal experience.

I haven’t really addressed the whole area of conduct and suspension points on ParentingAces yet, so I figure now is as good a time as any given that my kid just avoided a very close call with a 3-month tournament suspension.  I suspect there are junior tennis players who will get through their entire tournament career without ever receiving a code violation or suspension point, but my kid isn’t one of them.

Let me advise you once again that if you and your child have NOT yet read the USTA publication FRIEND AT COURT, do so immediately!  It is crucial that you and your child are both familiar with the Code of Conduct (Part 2 of the Friend At Court beginning on Page 45 of the pdf file) and understand which behaviors are permitted and which are not as well as the possible consequences.  While most tournament officials are well-trained and well-intentioned, every now and then you’ll run across one who is not, and it is imperative that your child understands his “rights” in terms of warnings, code violations, suspension points, and appeals (see page 180 of the Friend At Court).  Also, many of the guidelines for assessing penalties are left up to the discretion of the official (see Table 17 on page 124); therefore, it is best for players to avoid completely ANY behaviors that might be punishable by loss of a point.  Please note that it is within the discretion of the officials to immediately disqualify a player, without warning, who exhibits a single act of flagrant unsportsmanlike behavior.

As with most things USTA-related, each state or section may have its own rules regarding suspension.  In Georgia, “the Point Penalty System is linked to a Suspension Point System [see page 17 of the 2012 Junior Rules & Regulations], whereby players are suspended from all USTA play for a period of 3 months if they accumulate ten (10) Suspension Points in a twelve (12) month period.”  The Point Penalty System applies to violations during the warm-up as well as the match as follows:
• During all matches (main draw, compass draw, consolation, qualifying and doubles);
• During tournament activities;
• At tournament facilities;
• At facilities, such as hotels, dormitories, and homes where players stay.

Here’s what our Georgia Juniors need to know:

  •  Every effort will be made by USTA Georgia to notify any player who has accumulated six (6) or more suspension points that s/he is more than half-way to a suspension. Timing sometimes makes this impossible. Absence of such notification in no way alters the validity of suspension points assessed.
  •  The player will be notified using the contact information on file with USTA Membership when he/she reaches ten (10) or more Junior Suspension Points. The player will have one week to submit a written appeal to the USTA Georgia office – attention Grievance Committee. If the suspension is deemed appropriate after the appeal process, the suspension from any USTA Georgia sanctioned event will immediately be effective for a minimum period of three (3) months.
  • After serving the suspension these ten (10) Junior Suspension Points will be cleared from the player’s record. All other suspension points, if any, shall remain on the player’s record and count toward a second suspension.
  • All Tournament Directors and the USTA Southern office will be notified of each suspension.
  • Suspensions apply to all USTA Sanctioned programs and tournaments, including Adult League, Junior TeamTennis, Adult tournaments and Junior tournaments in other sections.
  • Repercussions from suspension will include elimination of selection for any special programs sponsored by USTA Georgia such as Junior Southern Cup, USTA Tennis Player Development Programs, USTA Competition Training Center programs, USTA Southern Training Camps, USTA Georgia Training Camps, etc.
  • Players whose suspensions extend up to the sanctioned start date of the Georgia State Junior Closed Qualifying Championship or through the Georgia State Junior Closed Qualifying Championship are not eligible to request a Waiver for the USTA Southern Closed Junior Championship.
  • If a violation leading to a suspension (3 months or longer) occurs thirty (30) days prior to or during the Level 1 Georgia State Junior Closed Qualifying Championship, the player will not be endorsed to the USTA Southern Closed Junior Championship.
  • A suspension with onset during the Georgia State Junior Closed Qualifying Championship cannot be appealed to the USTA Georgia Grievance Committee.

My son went into this year’s Georgia Qualifying Championship with 9 suspension points on his record, most of which came during a particularly stressful period last summer.  In addition to the pressure of trying to qualify for the Southern Closed, my son was also dealing with the pressure of having to be on his absolute best behavior so as to avoid having his summer tournament plans go out the window.  Believe me, this is NOT a situation my kid ever wants to be in again, nor is it a situation that his coach (or his parents!) want him to replicate.

By reading and learning the Code, we parents can help our kids avoid situations like my son’s.  By instilling our own personal Code in our kids and enforcing it from the beginning of their tennis-playing years, we can help them learn to manage their emotions more effectively even when in the heat of battle.  My husband and I didn’t do such a great job at that, but we’ve learned our lesson . . . and so has our son.

Beyond Winning & Losing

Our state qualifier for the Southern Closed was this past week.  For the first time ever, my son knew when he applied for entry to the tournament that he would get in – he had worked hard all year to move his state ranking into a proper position.  Now the challenge was getting far enough in the Qualifier to secure a spot in the Closed.

The Tennis Gods smiled upon him with his draw, but it was still up to him to capitalize on some great opportunities to get to the Round of 16 (or further) and get that guaranteed entry into the sectional tourney.  It was going to be a challenge, for sure.  His track record with “gifts” in the draw wasn’t all that great – in the past, he had often lost to players with much lower rankings than his own, so he was going to have to draw on all the training he had been doing with his coach to stay focused and get the job done.

After winning his first match in less-than-ideal weather conditions, he got to play his second round on center court at the main tournament site with several of his friends and other coaches standing around and periodically watching him.  He won the first set 6-0 in about 12 minutes, absolutely crushing his opponent at every opportunity.  But, old habits die hard, and he wound up falling behind 0-4 in the 2nd set before fighting back a bit then losing it 4-6.  Thank goodness for the 10-minute break after splitting sets!  I have no idea what my son’s coach told him on the phone, but he came into that 3rd set swinging away, jumping to a 5-0 lead before finally closing out the set and the match 6-0, 4-6, 6-2.  He had made it to the Round of 16 and had his spot in the Closed!

The next morning, he was slated to play the 2 seed, a boy who he had never played before, a boy who is a 5-star rated player, a boy who wins big tournaments on a regular basis.  This was my son’s chance to test his game against the Big Boys, to see how he held up and where he needed work.  What an opportunity!  He went on court ready to do battle.  He pushed the 2 seed hard in the first set, making him work for every point and every game.  My son lost that set 4-6, but he proved to himself that he could compete at this level, that he has what it takes to keep moving forward with his development.  The next set didn’t go quite as well, but, still, my son walked off the court with his head held high, knowing he had left everything he had out there.

Day 3 brought the Back Draw and another opportunity to play a 5-star player in the day’s second match.  By this point, my son was exhausted – mentally and physically – and the match ended quickly though not in my son’s favor.  The tournament was now over for him, and it was time to reflect:

  • He reached his goal of qualifying for the Southern Closed.
  • One of his favorite college coaches saw him play and crush his opponent then congratulated him afterward on the great win.
  • His former coach saw him play the 2 seed and commented on how far he’s come in the last year.
  • After playing the 2 seed, he immediately got a text from another player asking him to play doubles in the Southern Closed – his Tennis Clout jumped about 100 places as a result of his effort in that match.
  • His current coach watched his first back draw match and got the opportunity to coach him during a rain delay following a sloppy first set.  My son went back on court and did exactly what his coach told him,  winning the match at his first opportunity.  His coach was beaming!
  • His tennis peers told him repeatedly over the course of the tournament how well he was playing – that does a teenage ego good!
  • He used his mental toughness training and stayed calm throughout each match – you have no idea how huge that is!!!!
  • He saw what he needs to work on between now and the Closed and is ready to put in the hard yards.  The next level is finally within his reach.

Oh, The Sacrifices We Make!

My oldest daughter, Emma, didn’t come by the acting bug by accident.  Oh, no!  She inherited that vital gene directly from her momma.  And, believe me, it’s a STRONG one.  In my LBT (Life Before Tennis), I owned a fitness business and spent many, many hours promoting it as an “expert” on the radio, the Web, tv, and in front of live audiences.  I never passed up an opportunity to be on camera (or on mic), even when it meant schlepping my infant son across the country on an 8-city promo tour with an athletic shoe company.

So, last week, when I was given a lead for a new reality television show about Tennis Moms (a la Dance Moms), I jumped on it.  I called the producer and spoke with her at length about my experiences in the Junior Tennis World as well as with the media, thinking I would be the perfect candidate for her.  The thought of being on tv again excited me.  I was already trying to figure out how I would squeeze in more workout sessions before the show taped so I would be at my fittest and strongest on camera and how in the world I was going to afford new clothes.

And then my son came home.

And I told him about the tv show.

And he begged me not to pursue it.

And this is one more tiny little sacrifice I will make for one of my kids.  Because that’s what we parents do – we sometimes put aside our own wants (and even needs) for our kids.  In this case, it was an easy decision.  My son has worked too long and too hard for me to risk jeopardizing his efforts because of my own narcissistic tendencies.  He’s right – by being part of a show that will magnify the already-huge personalities of some extreme tennis parents, I would be putting him in an awkward (at best!) position with his tennis peers, their parents, and the governing body.

I honored my son’s wishes and stepped away from the tv project.  I figure that just frees me up when the Tennis Channel comes calling!

Dealing with Disappointment

I know.  You saw the title and expected to read about how to deal with your child’s disappointment after a loss . . . or something along those lines.  But, this piece is about dealing with your own disappointment when something doesn’t go quite right in your child’s tennis-centric world.

A fellow tennis parent wrote me last week, telling me about her child’s recent tournament schedule.  He has some important tournaments coming up and so decided to play a low-level local tourney just to build some confidence.  The child figured he could get a couple of easy wins and feel ready for next weekend, which will be a much tougher tournament.

Well, as I am sure you can guess, it didn’t go as planned and the child played the worst tennis of his life.  This was odd because the coach had just gotten done telling the parents and the player that he’s playing the best he’s (the coach) ever seen him play. Now he goes out and loses to a kid who is (according to the mom) awful, who he beat 0 & 1 a year ago, who has no serve, no strokes, and probably very few tennis lessons.  The mom wrote, “He was supposed to play a second match and I did something I’ve never done before.  We took him out of the tournament because given his mental state, all he would have done was go out and lose to another player he shouldn’t lose to.”

Mom went on to say, “I don’t usually get upset by these things but this whole thing has been really bothersome.  First of all, how could he actually lose to this boy? Second, how does a ranking recover from such an awful loss — does it? And third, why is this bothering me so much?”

The #3 part is what really got to me!  We tennis parents invest so much energy, emotion, time, and, yes, money in our kids that I think it’s perfectly normal to take their results personally.  The important thing is the face we present to THEM, the words we use when discussing their results with them.  But, again, I think it’s perfectly normal to FEEL disappointment when our child doesn’t live up to our (or their own) expectations.

My advice to the parent who wrote me was that it’s okay to feel the disappointment and even to vocalize it every now and then if you feel your kid isn’t putting in the necessary effort.  But, at some point, we have to let go and let our kids own their tennis.  In this particular case, the mom reported that her son did a very healthy, mature thing – he shrugged off the loss as “having a bad day” and then proceeded to let it go, going back to work on the courts the next morning.  The takeaway from these types of experiences should be something along the lines of:  I have taught my kid well, he has been a willing student, I have to trust him with his tennis.

I’m going through something similar with my son right now, but it has to do with his academic performance rather than his performance on a tennis court.  Having two older children for whom school came pretty willingly and naturally, I really don’t know how to parent a kid who only wants to play tennis and who hasn’t yet realized the importance of balancing that with a good education.  Every time he brings home a grade that I consider less than stellar, I feel let down, like I’ve somehow failed him as a parent.  Should I have read to him more as a baby?  Was homeschooling him for part of  middle school a huge mistake?  Should I move him to a small private school for the remainder of his high school career so he gets more personal attention?  How did he miss getting the I-Love-To-Learn gene?  What did I do wrong???

And, then, I take a deep breath (okay, maybe 100 deep breaths!) and realize that my son is now at the age where he HAS to take responsibility for his dreams and goals.  I can’t – and shouldn’t – do it for him.  If he wants to have a shot at playing tennis at his dream schools, then HE has to buckle down, study better, and get the grades necessary to be a desirable recruit.  Grades do matter.  SAT/ACT scores do matter.  He heard that from the horses’ mouths this past weekend in Athens.  Now, it’s up to him.

That doesn’t mean I won’t feel disappointed if he doesn’t figure this school thing out.  That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t feel disappointed if he doesn’t figure it out.  And, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to my disappointment or that I should down-play it as unimportant – my disappointment matters, too!

But, as disappointed as I might feel when he bombs a test or loses an easy match, I know it’s nothing compared to how he’s feeling inside.  The on-going challenge for me is putting my own disappointment aside and being his firm support when he most needs me.  So far, I haven’t been all that successful in that department – I’ve let my own feelings show way too much.  But, I’m working on it and will continue to work on it, both for my own sake and for my son’s, so I don’t disappoint either of us.

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!