Julia and friend as beginners at tennis.
I remember trying to teach Julia how to hit a tennis ball when she was around three years of age.
It was a disaster. A torrent of tears. Lots of blaming daddy. Julia was really too young still to hit a tennis ball with any success. Julia has always been a perfectionist, and nobody is perfect at tennis in the beginning. So the toddler threw a temper tantrum and blamed her father. Julia would cry and scream at me, sitting down and refusing to get up. Not fun for anybody.
So I outsourced it. Around six years of age we started Julia with tennis lessons in a clinic. It was her and about six other little girls. The tennis pro showed Julia how to hold the racquet and swing it. I stayed out of it.
And month after month we paid for lessons and more lessons.
At the time I tried to remember that tennis at a young age is all about having fun and learning the fundamentals. I have seen plenty of adults try to learn tennis with mixed success; I wanted Julia to learn the proper grips and strokes when she was young enough to be a sponge and just soak it in. This was a gift my parents gave to me.
But for a long long time Julia was no good. I would watch her hit the ball and grit my teeth. So Julia passed first grade and second grade. She finally started playing matches, usually against much older girls. She lost every match but one her first season.
There were some tears, but as long as I took her out to a pasta dinner afterwards Julia was good to go. And I thought learning how to lose with grace was an important part of athletics (and life). To learn how to accept the battle, give your best, and then lose if that happens — to lose with grace, to learn resilience, to see how a loss can teach you where you need to improve. To just get tougher — to get “match tough.”
As long as Julia does not become COMFORTABLE with losing.
Well, after two long years of lessons and Julia is coming around!
Part of it is taking lessons, and part of it is just spending a lot of time on the tennis court hitting with players of all sorts. But most of it probably owes to simply getting bigger, stronger, and more mature. To getting older. Today Julia beat a fifth grader 6-1 in Simi Valley. The older girl was two year’s bigger and stronger but did not have the practice put in or the strokes to play consistently. This fifth grader was never really sure where the ball was going to go when she swung at it. Julia knew where the ball was going to go. It was not even close.
I still see the flaws in Julia’s technique with my adult eyes. I think to myself heatedly, “Turn your shoulder more on the two handed backhand! Hit the ball, girl; don’t push it! Move her left and right and then left again! Don’t hit it right at her!” But I say nothing. I bite my cheek until it bleeds and remain silent. I remind myself that this is the time to have fun. Technique will work itself out with time, practice, and maturity.
I try to stand far away from the court when Julia plays. This is her match, I think to myself. Get yourself out of the way. Let her figure it out. I want her big out there and myself small. I sense the opposite happens when parents hover around the court.
And this is not a sprint, I remind myself. We have plenty of time to maximize whatever talent Julia possesses. We can get more serious later.
Just let her have fun. Let her make friends out there. Be healthy and happy. She is eight years old.
Until very recently I almost never hit tennis balls with her. Julia would accuse me of hitting the ball too hard. There would be tears. She throws unbelievable tantrums with her father. She does not feel comfortable enough with other adults to show such emotion. Julia restrains herself with them. She even listens to them when they give her advice.
Julia has almost never listened to me on the tennis court.
So I almost never hit with her. I outsource the tennis.
But I did hit with her yesterday and it was a revelation. Julia can hold a good tennis rally!
I waited a long time for this.
What is my point?
Well, I am really reminded how hard it is to play proper tennis. The grip, the footwork, the kinetic chain, the swing path, the racquet head angle, the timing to the ball… it is a learned sport. And progress in tennis will be achingly slow, if you want to play it well.
I see hackers on the public courts all the time hitting tennis balls all around with no technique at all. (I wish I saw it more often, as tennis seems to be much less popular than when I was a kid! Often the courts are empty.) I have seen high school tennis teams full of mostly beginners and they are not very good. They try their best, but they did not grow up playing tennis and their technique is not very good. They are beginners, or near to it.
They will be graduated from high school before they have the time to really get good. Most will not keep up with tennis. They are dabblers.
I have heard golf is much the same. You have to have the right technique or you are just spraying the ball all over the course. You will never improve past a certain point until you learn the proper way to hold and swing the club.
It takes time. And lessons. And patience. Paying for more lessons and more lessons. Frustrations at the slow improvement. The desire to throw your club down the golf course after an errant stroke. Patience. Years of practice. Grooving the technique. Muscle memory. Patience. Sustained consistent effort. Then success.
It helps to learn as a child. Helps a lot.
A few have asked me if I have NCAA college tennis, or even professional tennis, goals for Julia. Why then, they imply, spend all this time and money?
I have no extravagant expectations for Julia in tennis. None whatsoever.
I do have plenty of hopes for her to learn to love to sweat and exercise. For Julia to learn that competition is an opportunity to perform at a higher level than she otherwise would be able to compete at. To learn to perform with grace and skill under pressure. To become focused and to execute during those critical moments in competition. To show mental toughness under stress. To make friends and be part of a team. To be strong in body and mind. To learn to set goals, overcome obstacles, and acquire patience. To be nobody’s doormat.
And to enjoy playing with her old man, just like I enjoyed playing with my old man. And he enjoyed playing with his wife.
I do want Julia to become as good a tennis player as she can be. Or as good as she chooses to be. How much she wants to put in the “long yards” as a certain point is her choice, not mine. The long hours of consistent practice. The blood, sweat, and tears it costs to move to those higher “elite” levels of competition.
But I hope we can always go hit. On a Sunday afternoon eight years from now in adolescence when there is tension between her and me — we can just put that to the side and hit a few tennis balls. A physical release. No talking for now.
“Daddy, let’s just rally back and forth,” she says.
Maybe now, unlike in the past, we can find that place between us where we can meet as we rally the tennis ball back and forth.
Where we can enjoy the feel and sound of the ball off the strings, as the warm southern California sun beats down on us.
Where the muscles they warm up, the sweat on the forehead begins, and we can leave the worries of the outside world off the court for thirty minutes. Just hit the ball back and forth.
And enjoy precious father and daughter time.
Julia can teach her own children to play in the future. It is in her DNA. Like serious reading.
But maybe it is time to start hitting more with Julia myself.
I will look forward to it.