Many of you know that I coach part-time with the National Junior Tennis League (NJTL). The NJTL is a national organization begun by the great Arthur Ashe and is designed to help “develop the character of young people through tennis, life skills, educational enrichment and healthy living choices.” I participate in the program because I used to play for the organization, I love helping kids ages 5-18 learn to appreciate the sport I love (and really, the only one I am any good at), and it gives me a chance to play indoors during the cold winter months.
If you were to come to one of my sessions, you would see a lot of happy, smiling kids doing a lot of unique things. They “hug” their racquets so that they do not hit one another. They walk their “dogs” (using their racket as a “leash” to keep their ball “dog” walking along the sideline.) They race around pointing out a net, a ball, the baseline, service box, etc. They play catch with a friend to get a sense of the controlled force they need to maintain while playing the game. We clap out beats to get a sense of the pacing. They get an abbreviated geometry class to understand how the angles can make or break your game and they toss a lot of footballs. That’s the exercise that causes the most confusion – until players they realize they will use the same kind of arm movement to serve a tennis ball properly.
What you won’t see is an overbearing coach berating a child about his or her performance, or filling their heads with dreams of winning Wimbledon. While I tend to heap praise on the little ones because I know they need the extra encouragement, I really try to temper my comments to the older ones and I strive to be as specific as possible about what they do right while downplaying deficiencies as something we can “work on.”
I do this because at least once a season, I know I will be approached by a parent who sees their son or daughter have a good day on the court and can’t help thinking about the possibilities. I don’t know if they are mentally counting Grand Slam victories and Nike deals or if it’s the college scholarship they have their eye on, but I always dread the moment that they come up and ask, “Do you think so-and-so has real potential?”
“I have no idea,” I tell them. “That’s not my job. My job is to help them discover the game and learn to love it so that they want to keep playing it.”
It’s not the answer they want to hear of course, but it is the truth. Tennis is an interdisciplinary game that you can play your entire life. It is physical. It is mental. It is emotional. It is educational and it is challenging. There are amazing coaches out there who run premier programs and will tweak every aspect of a player’s game in ways I cannot imagine…but that’s not what I do. That’s not my job. My job is to spark their interest, welcome them, help them learn the basics, love it and hopefully…keep coming back until they advance to the next level.
It’s not always easy to remember that – especially when I find a player who is a cut above the others and with whom I enjoy hitting. I revel in those moments when, for six whole weeks, I am in the company of a contender…someone who comes naturally to the game, who gives me a good workout, who will perfect the basics quickly, and move on. Someone who will go on to play for his or her school team and may even get a scholarship one day. Sometimes I wish they could stay in my little class forever, but deep down I know they can’t. Someone else needs me more. It may be that uncoordinated kid who starts off looking awkward, but ends up with the best serve of the bunch. It may be the kid who cries on the first day but eventually skips around the court humming a tune. It may be the child in the pink tutu who could try the patience of a saint, but who has taught me more about perseverance than I could ever hope to teach her. That’s my role. That’s my job and that is what I’m called to do.
Jesus understood that His job description often compelled Him to act in ways that seemed contrary to the perceived order of things. I’m sure there were moments in which He would have loved to spend more time with the righteous, tweaking the little things in their lives that needed improvement. But He knew that their faith came naturally and would be OK…but there were others who needed Him more. And it was His job to spark their interest, welcome them, guide them through the basics, love it and keep coming back for more. What He had to offer was a Grand Slam game with a big “advantage” and one that can be claimed when you “love” all.
Today’s readings for Mass: 1 SM 9:1-4, 17-19; 10:1; PS 21: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7; MK 2 13-17