Jul 20 2013

Lessons I Learned at State

League Tennis | USTA | USTA Junior Team Tennis       Clif Render      

I just finished one of the longest weekends of my life. I am sitting in a hotel room in Auburn, Alabama at the end of Alabama's USTA Junior Team Tennis State Championship weekend. My son just completed his first season playing USTA Junior Team Tennis. It wasn't necessarily the most successful season in terms of wins and losses but the lessons it taught us were truly remarkable. These were lessons learned from experience. And as I am continually reminded, a lesson learned from experience is truly a lesson learned.

For us the season began with a phone call from a coach at our local tennis club. I had never met Coach Clay Parrish before but I really should have. He's a USPTA Certified teaching pro and Pastor and is one of the primary coaches of up and coming junior players in the Pelham, Alabama area. My son had just completed his 7th grade year. He had played on his middle school tennis team and really wanted to play more over the summer. He had taken a number of clinics from another exceptional Junior's coach at Pelham Racquet Club, Rusty Wilkes who was awarded the USPTA's Southern Assistant Tennis Pro of the Year for 2013 but Rusty was overloaded with Junior teams for the Summer and didn't have one for my son's skill level.

As it turns out, though, Coach Clay (who Rusty works closely with) had several players that were interesting in starting one and was he was willing to act as the team's Coach if he could find a Captain for the team. I still remember his phone call. "I would love to have your son play on the team - but only if I can find a captain...which brings me to my next question. Would you be willing to Captain the team? It'll involve helping to coordinate and run 4 to 6 regular season games as well as a trip to State competition in July. "

Oh boy, I thought. That sounds like a lot of work. And that thought translated from my brain to my mouth as "Sure, no problem." I had agreed - much to the chagrin of my wife. I knew that my son would have a great time and I really do love tennis and young people so I decided just to dive right in head first. And that was how my Junior Team Tennis journey began.

Lesson Number 1: Friendships Thrive When Seasoned With Adversity

As my son began attending Coach Clay's clinics, I began to get familiar with the other players on the team, as did my son. The clinics weren't just for our team, though. They were for all of Coach Clay's teams together which meant that our team didn't get a lot of "team time" so there was no real chemistry. That is, until our first match.

Our first match was with another program nearby that had a reputation for being difficult to deal with (or so I was to learn). Their captain was nice enough and very easy to work with but their program is a bit... How should I put this? Let's say intense. Their players are taught to repeatedly question calls and dispute just about near a line. One of their captain's gave me their reasoning for this type of behavior. In their words, "Hey, you never know. It sure couldn't hurt." I couldn't disagree more. Stealing points is still stealing. And besides, in the words of fellow USTA Junior Team Tennis parent, Mark, "It'll come back around."

Well, regardless of the negative Karmic tornado following them everywhere they went, several of their players really believed in this philosophy and questioned every possible call. And they didn't just question it. They would tell our players "That ball was in." Then, no matter what our players said, they just kept saying "The ball was in," until our players politeness and conflict aversion overwhelmed them. Our team had just acquired a common enemy and that shared experience would make them fast friends.

Lesson Number 2: 90% of tennis is mental and the other 10% is also mental

As the season progressed, I saw our players improve and, in some cases, thrive. In the beginning they were all pretty hesitant and timid - easily losing rallies that they could have won just because they didn't really believe that they could win them. They hadn't really won much before. "Winning" was largely a new concept for many of them.

My son, in particular, played for his Middle school team but his is not a team that is well known for it's tennis prowress. They don't even have enough courts to have home games. All their games have to be played as "Away" games at other facilities in neighboring towns. He had won a game here and there during the school tennis season but each win was still a surprise and you could tell it. By the end of the USTA Junior Team Tennis season, though, he was playing in local tournaments and social events with teammates and winning. Had his skills really improved that much? Maybe. They certainly had improved some but I don't think that was the biggest difference maker in his play.

No, the biggest difference, I think, was that he had discovered that he actually could win games. His mentality had completely changed. The brain, you see, creates mental pathways to support common interactions and feelings. When you lose a lot, your brain gets really good at carrying "Loser" signals from place to place. Likewise, once you start to win a good bit, your brain starts learning to carry "Winner" signals and this was what was happening. Our players were slowly turning from "Losers" to "Winners" right before our eyes.

Lesson Number 3: The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend (At Least Until We Play Again)

After 6 to 8 weeks of sporadic match play, the regular season had come to an end. Due to availability issues, we ended up struggling to come up with our first match win. We won lots of individual courts and points but we just never had the right people all there at the same time to take an entire match. It was summer, after all, and Summer time is vacation time. As our roster was fairly thin, we were just lucky to be able to field a full roster every time. But fill the roster, we did. Before long, the time for the State Championship in Auburn, Alabama had arrived.

There were two other teams on our division. One team, the local team, from Auburn was an exceptionally gifted group. They had a number of really good players and all had excellent attitudes. The other team was none other than, you guessed it, team "Question Everything." They would face Auburn in round one of the tournament and the Auburn team was shocked at what they had to face. They just couldn't believe the attitudes and bad sportsmanship in the way they played. Auburn won fairly easily but their kids were quite surprised by the psychological onslaught that faced. Surprised, that is, and worried. Worried, mainly because team "Question Everything" told them that we were even more difficult to deal with than they were. They were now totally dreading what they were expecting to be yet another miserable playing experience.

The next day, however, showed their fears to be unnecessary. As it turns out, we really weren't that painful a team to play against. They beat us by a little wider margin than they beat team "Question Everything" but afterwards thanked us profusely just for "not being like that other team." They couldn't believe how bad an experience it was to play the other team. Needless to say, their team and ours became fast friends over our shared trauma.

Later that day, we ourselves came up against the now infamous "Question Everything" team. This is the team that had beaten us routinely in the regular season. The closest that we had ever gotten to beating them was an overall tie on points which they then ended up winning in a very close Super Match tiebreaker. This earlier experience, however, ended up playing an extremely significant role in the events of the day as we, once again, ended up with an overall tie on points. Since we knew the procedure from the regular season, we sent the last players that had played each other back out on the court for one more 10 point tiebreaker to decide the match. Our parents prayed for God to intervene and send us a miracle but we ended up losing. Their players were ecstatic, cheering and chanting and having a great time enjoying their victory. We, of course, were not. We were understandably disappointed but I, personally, was still pretty happy that we played them so closely. It really was a good outcome even if it was a loss.

When I walked up to the tournament check-in desk with their Captain, we related to the on-duty pro exactly what we had done and she was quite taken aback. She did not know the proper procedure for handling this and had to call in backup. Apparently no one else had tied yet and they had no idea how to handle it, either. Two more people later, a piece of paper with the rules printed out were presented and read. Apparently, the Super Match tiebreak procedure is handled differently for championship play. The championship play rules still say that the tiebreak will be broken by another 10 point tiebreak but this tiebreak must be a mixed doubles match and the mixed doubles team can be composed of any two people who played that day. 

Now if this wasn't an interesting turn of events. One of our strongest doubles pairings included my son and he hadn't played in a while, was fresh, and was chomping at the bit to play. After briefly conferring with the team and parents, we put my son's team in and they proceeded to roll all over the other team winning the tiebreak 10 - 2. The other team was crushed and mad and could barely contain themselves. Hello Miracle!

Lesson Number 4: When it rains it pours and when it pours you have to stop playing Tennis

In the next round, it was time to play our new friends from Auburn again. They were delighted to hear the outcome of the previous match. They could think of no better way for Team "Question Everything" to lose a match. I still felt a little bad about the whole ordeal but I certainly wasn't going to complain. Besides, we now had another match to play. And boy, was it a doosie! We gave them a serious run for their money and ended up pretty close in score before the pesky rain clouds that had been watching the match decided to come down and try to play the game themselves. For the next two hours or so, we had to sit and wait - waiting for the rain to stop, the courts to be sponged and for play to resume. By the time it resumed, team "Question Everything" had arrived to prepare for their next round match which involved a rematch with us. I was very optimistic about this rematch as we had a strong lineup and had done so well with the night before. Little did I know how wrong my assumption of strength would be.

The match with Auburn would continue to be a close one and would end, prophetically, with another Super Match Tiebreak. Their Captain and I were both amazed. Two of these in one day - how crazy was that? It was a great contest with lots of back and forth point swings. I had made the decision to pull my son from this one as I wanted fresh legs and a fresh attitude in the game (he had lost his mixed match and still hadn't fully recovered mentally) but my gamble didn't work out. While our pair fought hard, it just wasn't meant to be. Auburn took the extra point and the win. We were, obviously, a bit let down but we did still play a good match with plenty of really great tennis to go around. The fact that we tied these guys - rather than beating them significantly meant that we probably couldn't even come close to beating them out for first place but that didn't worry me too much. They were good folks. If we had to lose, it might as well be to good folks.

With that match in the books, and several hours worth of other rain-delayed matches to filter through, we sat back to wait for our next match. Time was no longer our friend. We had been at the courts since 7:00 that morning (It was now about 2:30), we had already played a lot of tennis and had waited for several hours in hot, steamy, sunny conditions for our next match. Our kids were tired, lethargic and worn out and there was nothing that I could do about it. Team "Question Everything," on the other hand, was well rested, had found a court to warm up on and was really fired up from yesterday's loss. It was a recipe for disaster. I should have known when I heard my kids talking about how easy their matches were going to be that bad things were about to happen. First up were our Boys and Girls doubles matches - the exact same match ups from the day before. We had won easily the day before so why wouldn't it be the same today? Unfortunately, I could see problems from the very first point. The kids were tired and not moving their feet. Balls they had returned dozens of times before just wouldn't go back in play. They had no energy and they played like it. As it turned out, the scores were almost exactly the same as they had been the day before but this time the results were reversed. They trounced us jumping out to a huge lead in points as my son stormed off the court angry (I know - we're working on that) and one of our girls left in tears. Next up, Boy's Singles, was in a first set tiebreak with our team down 5-1 when the rains came back down again. This time there was no stopping them. After about an hour of deliberations, the decision was made to move the remainder of our matches to the indoor courts and play them to completion there.

Up until this point, I didn't have a very high opinion of the indoor courts. There were 6 of them. They were loud, poorly ventilated, and on a completely different surface - concrete instead of clay but at this point I was just eager to get the hurting over with - finish the matches and head home. Based on what I remembered the scores being when I looked at them the night before, I thought that we needed to win this match and win it by 5 or 6 points in order to pull into second place overall. That dream now seemed shot. As far down as we were, there was virtually no way to make up that much ground - not even if we won every game in all of the remaining courts. So, at this point, I was preparing myself for another painful drubbing - this time in a hot, loud, indoor facility rather than in the hot breezy outside. Boy was I wrong.

Lesson Number 5: Attitude is everything. Well, maybe not everything but it certainly does affect everything.

One of the unique things about USTA Junior Team Tennis is that you can coach your team during changeovers (not during a tiebreak, though, which I learned the hard way) and during disruptions in play - disruptions like a change in venue so I went over to our Boy's singles player who was down 5-2 in his first set tiebreak and told him that he was in a new venue, it was a new game, it didn't matter if he won this set or not at this point, all he needed to focus on was winning one point to start to build some momentum for the next set. Ever the dutiful and obedient player, he promptly went out there and won one point, lost the next, and the set was over. His perfect obedience still has me wondering if he would have won that set right there if I had just told him, too. Regardless he had, indeed, build up a great deal of momentum in just that one point and that momentum was about to yield some pretty amazing results.

At this point, I should probably remind you about our friends from Auburn. They were done with all their matches and were now so far ahead in the point standings that there was no way that anyone could catch them. They were a lock for first place. The only competition now was for second place and according to my calculations, there wasn't a whole lot of hope there. They had left for their homes hours ago shortly after our matches had concluded but as soon as the officials decided on the change of venue, I started seeing the Auburn Players, Coaches, and Parents showing back up. "Strange," I thought. What are they doing here?"

Almost as in answer to my question, I ran into one of the parents who had earlier pulled me aside to let me know how impressed they were with our team's positive attitudes and and how much they had enjoyed playing with us. I asked him what brought them back to the Tennis Center and he said that they had come back to cheer for us. I kinda' laughed and said, "Yeah, right," but then he said that they really had come back just for that reason. I still thought he was kidding but I played along and told him that he was probably going to be disappointed as our team had gotten beaten up pretty bad in the first two courts and were pretty much out of the running for second. He said that he was sorry to hear that but they would be there to cheer for us anyway. Shortly after that I ran into their captain who said pretty much the same thing. Since she had some affiliation with the host facility, though, I was pretty sure that she had come back to volunteer to help with takedown. Certainly all these parents, coaches, and team members weren't going to come back from their comfortable air conditioned homes (remember that they all lived nearby) just to get sweaty watching people they didn't even know play matches that wouldn't matter. No, certainly not.

Lesson Number 6: Never Underestimate the Intangibles

Back to boy's singles. You remember our boy's singles player? Let's call him "Big D." We'll call him that mainly because that's what his dad (a longtime baseball player) called him and, of course, because it's cool. So, "Big D", as you remember dutifully won one point in the tiebreaker and then began his new set. Keep that place in your head. "Big D" was on court 2 - one court over from the bleachers where we were so when our Girls singles match started on court one right in front of us, I lost track of "Big D" for a while. Now, unfortunately, you will, too.

So our girl's singles player has just now taken to the court, warmed up, and begun to play. She is a fantastic player (my son's favorite mixed doubles partner in part because she's a great player but also, I think, because she's cute - just don't tell him I said so). She has played this opponent before and won but for some reason she just doesn't look very comfortable out on the court right now. She starts off by losing point after point in a fairly decisive fashion with the other player looking quite dominant and comfortable out on the court. I thought that if anyone could overcome the rest of the team's general lethargy, it would be her. I walked over to her Mom and Dad and asked if she looked nervous to them. "Oh yes," her Mom said. Her dad agreed.

It looked like she was just completely overwhelmed by the entire environment. All the things that were happening in that room were assaulting her senses. The building was, essentially, just a long warehouse with six courts all in a row - very loud - with no curtains or anything to break up the sound. There were big groups of people in different places cheering at different times and for different courts. Add to this the fact that our player is truly a kind, polite, gentle soul currently getting trounced by potentially the biggest offender to kindness and courteousness I have ever seen on a tennis court and what you have is really not a pretty sight. It was then that I noticed the large contingent of orange on the other side of the stands. It was the other Auburn team - they actually were all here - every single one of them along with all their parents and coaches. I knew they probably weren't really there to cheer for us but that did give me an idea. What would make a gifted yet nervous introverted tennis player feel comfortable in a stressful environment? Answer: being surrounded by friends. Hmmm... I decided to give it a shot. It might help or it might hurt. Hard to know what would happen. Well, things couldn't really get any worse, so at the very next changeover she was down 3-0 in the first set. Things were almost completely out of hand now. I ran out to the court and pulled her aside for a little coaching.

"You're really nervous, aren't you?". She looked surprised at first then she laughed. "Yeah," she said and nodded smiling.

"Listen, here's the thing. You just need to relax and go out there and do what you do. You can do this. Just don't let all this stuff get into your head. Hey, do you see that big blob of orange covering that half of the stands?" I asked.


"That's the Auburn team. They're all here to cheer for you."

"Really?" She looked genuinely taken aback at this and smiled even bigger than she had before. I was a little surprised that it had this much of an effect on her. I thought it might help a little but now, off of the sudden, she looked...relieved...excited...completely at ease.

I then told her to just relax, have fun and see what would happen. I then turned around, jogged back to the stands, and held my breath.

What I saw was utterly amazing. It was almost as if a light switch had been flipped. Somehow she was all of the sudden playing lights out tennis. Before you knew it, it was tied up at 3-3 and they were in a first set tiebreak. It seemed like the points were going longer and longer but somehow, she seemed to be winning every one of them. She won the tiebreak and then went on to win the second set in a blowout. It was truly an amazing thing to see.

Lesson Number 7: The Power of "Team"

During the course of this truly amazing comeback, I began to realize that the biggest problem with this building was that it was just way too loud - too much noise. So, I decided that maybe the solution to the problem of too much noise was not to stifle it but to use it - to make the noise a positive thing. I began cheering for her every time I could - not coaching, mind you - just cheering, like any fan appreciative of a good match might do. Before long she was feeding off the energy, doing better and better and the other team who had now called in reinforcements in red (their team color) was doing their best to do the same for their player but it didn't seem to be helping them. Our player just seemed to get more relaxed and comfortable with every point and soon no amount of cheering could help or hurt. The match was over. David had triumphed over Goliath and the meek had, indeed inherited the earth. I was cheering, her parents were cheering, the whole team was cheering. Even the Auburn fans were cheering. Not only were they cheering but, as it turns out, I would find out later that the opposing captain had actually lodged a complaint against them because he said that they were cheering the other player on so much that they were disturbing the match. Needless to say I was a bit taken aback. As it turns out, they actually were there to cheer us on the whole time. Awesome! Absolutely Awesome! The strength of our team had more than doubled.

It was at this point that I turned my attention back to "Big D." He had lost the first set, remember, but he went on to roll in the second set feeding off the energy of the crowd and he was now in his third set tiebreaker. Back and forth the points went with everyone in the bleachers cheering for every good point. If you've ever been to a Davis Cup match then you'll understand the atmosphere. Think College Football meets golf and you are either totally confused or you have a pretty good idea of exactly what it was like in there. "Big D"s match was now over too, and he'd won in a big way.

Awesome! Two matches down, one match to go. It was Mixed Doubles. Our mixed match had been held up because "Big D" was playing in that one, too, and I was actually very worried about this one. His partner had had a really rough weekend so far. Earlier that day, we asked her to play singles for the first time ever and it was against a really tough opponent. She nearly had a breakdown but she didn't walk off the court or quit. She just pushed through and did her best. I was very proud of her for that but she did have a tendency to get down on herself when things didn't go right and I was worried that this bombastic indoor environment was going to prove to be too much for her. Boy, was I wrong! Little did I know that she would come to feed off the energy of the crowd as well. They completely devastated a very tough doubles team repeatedly making shots at the net that neither one of them had any business making. She played by far the best I have ever seen her play and she was super excited afterwards, justifiably so.

Lesson Number 8: Miracles, The Secret Weapon

The match was now over. All four players on the court just stood there stunned and not sure what to do. I'm not even really sure that they knew that the match was over. Finally, the other captain stepped in and told them to pack their things. It was at this point, that I reverted out of cheerleader mode and back into captain mode, tallying up the scores to see how they'd come out. It was just as I'd suspected. They had beaten us for the match by 5 points and, since I was pretty sure that we needed to beat them by six points in order to pull into second place, I knew it was over. We had won the battle - three battles, in fact, - but they had won the war. I began thinking about the number of miraculous things that had happened that weekend. The tiebreak was thrown out and ended up in our favor. The rain that moved us indoors and somehow completely re-energized our kids. And, of course, our friends from Auburn were really there to cheer for us after all. It was a bit overwhelming. I remembered seeing several of the parents praying over our kids before they went on court. I remembered the raised hands and mumbled prayers during the tiebreak that was reversed.

"Miracles." I said to myself.

At this point, the Captain from the other team came up. I was ready for him. I had run my totals and knew we didn't have a tie and I was pretty sure that I hadn't miscounted. He came up and we compared numbers. There were a few discrepancies: a game here, a game there - nothing major. They were simply cases where the player told me that it was either this or that and I had picked the wrong one. We got it all straightened out in the end, though, and they were still up by 5 points.

"Looks like you guys still got us." I said to their captain.

He looked at me numbly and said, "No, I think you got us."

"No, I'm pretty sure the overall puts you in second place ahead of us." And that's when it hit me. BAM! Another miracle. We consulted the numbers and, sure enough, we had pulled ahead of them by 1 point. It was unreal. Our friends from Auburn were there to hear the news and cheered with (and for) us. They even asked if we could get both teams together for a group photo.

It really was a weekend to remember. The kids learned and grew and so did I. And now it's time for a nap.

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