It’s a warm fall September day in 1975, and I am in my senior year of high school. The football players are getting ready for practice in the locker room. They have blood stains all over their shirts and pants and “machismo” oozing out of their lockers and onto the field. In the back of the locker, there are a few of us tennis players getting ready for tennis practice because in those days, boys high school tennis was played in the fall season. I am trying to be inconspicuous and not let the football players see me.
I am a thin nerdy kid putting on my tennis whites and I am about to trot out to the tennis courts which, of course, is right next to the football field.
The merciless trash talking directed at us was hardly bearable. “Tennis was for nerds, tennis is a sissy sport, real men play football” were comments that I heard almost on a daily basis. I emerged from the locker room unscathed and my head was still held up high with pride. Not just because there was something deep inside me that told me that the football players were wrong, but how could they be right? I had tendonitis in my knees, my body ached from the daily pounding I took running on the hard cement with the endless directional changes just to win one point. I had blisters on my feet and calluses all over my hands and feet. I felt a mental toughness that the football players would never experience in that I was out on the tennis court battling my opponent one on one. I was 100 percent committed to the sport of tennis, and I worked hard at it throughout the year.
Never once did the football coach tell the players to respect the other school athletes, and yes, I am sorry to say that the high school tennis coach was part-timer who really knew very little about tennis. I was truly out there on my own along with my teammates. I did not know it at the time, but I really believe these experiences helped build some great character.
I wonder what Mike Holmgren and Pat Summerall would have said? What would Chad Ocho Cinco and Drew Brees say? Well, who are they? Mike Holmgren, in addition to his illustrious career as football coach in the NFL having coached two separate teams to the Super Bowl, started his coaching career as a coach for the high school girl’s tennis team. He is now the president of football operations for the Cleveland Browns. Pat Summerall, a great football player who played for the New York Giants won the Florida State Tennis Championship. Chad Ocho Cinco, a regular competitor in the USTA, is now an all-star wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. Drew Brees was an accomplished high school and collegiate tennis player who beat Andy Roddick early in their junior tennis careers who, as quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, won Super Bowl XLIV. All have one thing in common … they learned much of their athletic and coaching exploits on a tennis court.
Football is played on a rectangular plot of grass where the players and teams compete for real estate and territorial positioning. Tennis is also played on a rectangular playing surface and each player battles for positioning advantages. These two games have a lot in common and let’s not forget about the mental toughness each game requires of their participants. I wish I knew then what I know now. I could have been a much better ambassador for our game rather then just hoping it to make it out of the locker room in one piece. However, I did wonder why many of the football players then and now did not give the respect a tennis player deserves. Other than ignorance, there is more to it than that in the eyes of a teenager.
In middle class towns across Long Island and nationwide, the high school football player trains, in many cases, year-round for what amounts to a less than a three-month season. Football players are required to lift weights and begin their practices in mid- to late-summer. These practices can last two-plus hours in some cases and are usually performed in 90 degree heat, oftentimes twice a day. This is a requirement, otherwise you cannot play.
The coaches rarely tolerate a note from a parent for a child to leave practice early because of a doctor’s appointment, orthodontic appointment or a similar excuse. Yet, in my game, the great game of tennis, the game that can be played for a lifetime, many of the participants want to be on an athletic team but just don’t take it quite as serious. The parents of some of these participants might be as guilty as well thinking that the coach won’t mind if they miss a practice here or there. Now I am saying it as blunt and straight as I can … short of an academic excuse or a major health issue, “you come to practice or you’re off the team.” Plain and simple, I cannot make it. Of course, I am not talking about some of the top USTA ranked players who might be leaving their team practice to practice elsewhere. I am talking about the high number of members of these teams who play tennis only during tennis season so they can have something nice on their transcript. Some do not bother to train in the offseason, whether it is some weight training, cardiovascular work or the obvious tennis drills like hitting a tennis ball. I know this for a fact because some of my students show up just three to four weeks before tennis tryouts looking for the magic pill to make them a tennis player. Guess what, there is no magic pill. If you want respect from your athletic peers, you have to prepare and do the things that work.
I was recently at a gathering with some other families who have teenagers that participate on the tennis team. The comments coming from them were just unbelievable to me, “Oh, the coach did not like my child because he missed practice because of orthodontic appointments, he was too tired that day, etc.” I am a tennis coach, so this is something I am admittedly more sensitive to. Come on, if you want respect from your peers in the athletic arena, you damn well better take it serious. Suffice is to say they did not agree with me. But I am a tennis coach, what could I possibly know? I am blunt on this topic and even opinionated maybe to a fault. Like any successful coach though, commitment is demanded and nothing less is tolerated. This is how I feel on this matter. Just imagine the football, basketball and baseball coaches allowing this. Maybe if the coaches on some of these tennis teams give their players some tough love, the tennis team in some of these schools would earn a little more respect. The high school caliber player will improve and that helps the sport in general. Come on high school tennis coaches and players … if you want more respect … go and earn it. Tennis is a game that requires brains, brawn and commitment!
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.