Scrappy Tennis

We know we are supposed to prepare our children for the world — roots and wings, they say. I agree. And, also, I think we should not prepare them for everything. What I mean is that I think we should teach them how to do things even when they’re unprepared. Most of life, we know this as adults, is about doing things for which we are unprepared, for which we aren’t quite ready. For example, for parents, remember when they let you go home with your first baby? What the hell was that all about? Talk about figuring it out on the fly.

My first baby is the guy in the neon orange shirt. He learned how to play tennis this summer — picked up a racquet for the first time and took lessons. It’s the only thing he hasn’t wanted to do that I asked him to do for me — well, more like the first thing he hasn’t wanted to do that I asked him to do for me; I’m betting on there being plenty more. I asked him just to learn a few things so that he could play with me on vacation someday; these are my dreams, ok? Let me live. I said he had to give it a week before he could quit. I give the option of quitting almost always if their absence won’t affect a team. They should learn when they have to go and suck it up, and they should learn when it’s ok to say, no thanks, this blows, I'm out. We should learn this, too, as grown-ups, by the way.

He loved tennis this summer. In the mornings, like the basketball practice you saw below, it was an early morning tennis workout off of our garage door. And he can play now - good enough that he can return a ball and he likes it enough to want to beat me. I adore when our kids learn to really hang in some capacity, when I can yell “Don’t choke!” if I hit something good enough that I want him to miss, the way every supportive parent does, right? 😉

Now, though, he wants more — lessons, matches, whatever. But I don’t pay for a sport until they really, really want it. I think the waiting is key to giving them ownership of themselves, their play, their autonomy, their life — and for having them respect the amount of money and time it takes you to get them there. Also, I don’t have to beg kids to go to their own damn classes then — it’s a win-win. Whatever it is is their thing then, not mine. You want to take ballet? Great. Here’s a YouTube girl from whom you can learn. Once you practice so much that I can’t deny you care, then I’ll sign you up. There is almost nothing they can’t learn in its beginning stages from the internet at this time in history - the world is their oyster if you’ve got an internet connection and a chair to use as a barre.

Instead of giving to them every experience and lesson so they can have every experience to see what they like of the world, I say let them learn how to be scrappy. Give them just a little. Make them show you that they want more before you indulge them, if you can indulge them; kids sports are no-joke expensive. We’re all trying to give them what we may not have had, to fill ourselves up through them. It may work for us, but it won’t fill them up. So take it easy. Give them endless love, always, but endless opportunity isn’t necessary or, even, beneficial.

They’ve got to learn resilience somehow. And an easy way to learn that skill, if life has been kind enough to them so far, is through having experiences that aren’t exactly a perfect fit. Resilience lets them know how to hang even when they’re unprepared.

After learning to play this summer, my son hasn’t taken any lessons. He hasn’t really played except with me here and there since August, but he’s wanted to play more and so we found one place that would let him play in a tournament even if he’s not enrolled in lessons. Most of the tennis places won’t let you do that because they like to have all of your money. But we found this place that would let him play in a tournament even though he was the only one participating who isn’t taking lessons currently.

He walked in with his regular old sneakers on to play and he had a racquet that he won this summer from the camp he was in; his racquet is great to him — much better than the hand-me-down one he started with. He had no tennis bag or any of the other accouterments the other players had. He walked onto the court like you’d walk into a bar, except with a tennis racquet in his hand. He has drive, though, and no fear. He has a love of the game, too. And stamina and excitement. He played every point hard — the ones where he was licked from the get-go and the ones where he could win just the same.

We were late to the match. I went to a different location of the building because I didn’t know. He called the place and said we were coming and I was worried he might not get to play the first match at all because tennis doesn’t mess. He felt really bad. I asked him if he was anxious because he seemed nervous and he said, “What’s anxious? I’m sad that we’re late because I don’t want to miss even one match because we paid and I want to get every match in.”

He had to collect himself before he checked in and then he learned how the draw was set and made sure he hadn’t forfeited a game because we were late. He figured it out; he handled it. It’s amazing what any of them are capable of when they want it for themselves and when we, as parents, don’t have a clue and, therefore, can’t help them.

So there he is the kid in the orange who, for now, plays tennis at the park in his sneakers and who played tennis in a tournament in those same sneakers with a racquet he won. He still has major privilege, of course — the ability to have a court that he can ride his bike to that’s nice and clean and safe, parents who are excited for him to play, etc., etc..

But he didn’t win the tournament or anything, though that would be the ending you’d maybe hope to read. That would be the great story that everyone would want to share, I suppose. That’s not this story, though, and that’s not what’s important to me or, I think, to you with your kids, anyways. We just want to know: Can they hang? Can they handle the world? Can they get rattled and still rally? Collect themselves and sign in? Do they know how to be scrappy and get it done?

They can and do if we let them. But it’s like anything: we have to give them so many opportunities to practice. Only practice gets us there. Those are the skills, though, I’m convinced. Those are the ones that got us through when we had them in our arms that first night at home and it was 2am and no one was awake but us and this tiny, new human who was looking at us like, “What now?”, and we were like, “Not really sure, but I’ll just keep trying,” and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since, which is why we’re a little tired. We snuggled them in close, told them that we loved them, lied to them that we knew what we were doing, and then figured it all out on the fly. We got it done, though. Mine are old enough now where I get to see glimpses of them being able to get it done, too, when needed, and that’s a large part of our whole job with them in the end.

And that’s what I thought about at my kid’s first tennis tournament.

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Anne FlavinComment