| By Lonnie Mitchel

My father, who was in the field of education for almost 20 years, said to me many years ago: “Your students will challenge you in many ways and they will teach you many things.” He also said that “students will give you many gifts that will come back to you in ways that just cannot be measured.”

When I got into my 40s and that midlife crisis that so many people talk about snuck up on me, it was tennis that yet again saved me. I would teach 15-20 hours each week, laboring through each lesson, hoping that I could invoke some wisdom to my students and praying that they would understand that it was not just about hitting a tennis ball. I always talked about effort as the most important part of improving and doing things on the court that could help you in other parts of your life. From there, I always thought that a student would also learn to deal better with adversity, the ebbs and flows of life, and the winning and losing that life’s challenges throws our way. That was my greatest motive because I knew that I was not teaching my students to play at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. I wanted them to enjoy tennis as a gift to have for the rest of their lives. I have talked about this subject in other articles, so there is no need to embellish any further.

However, here is what I found out and my father’s wise words actually materialized. When mid-life crisis occurs, one usually asks themselves, “Am I making a difference?”

I was no different in my daily soul-searching activities. But I did finally have an “Aha!” moment when I needed it most. Some of my students would tell me how they did in their club tournaments, school matches and about a friend that they made because of their involvement in tennis. I had parents call me and thank me for the gift I gave to their children, and because of my efforts, they made the tennis team at school.

I had another parent call me and ask me for a recommendation for their daughter when she was applying for college. At the beginning, when I received these comments and accolades, I dismissed them as just the natural process of teaching. I don’t do that anymore. Now before you read this and say that I am just bragging about my victories as a teacher, its really not true. Like any coach or teacher, I had victories as well as my share of defeats. At times, I was unsuccessful as a teacher, and the student and I would part ways. Thank goodness I had many more victories, but I do realize you just cannot win them all. That is why a tennis club has different instructors, they all have different styles. A variety of styles is good for a tennis club and provides choices.

Here is the point of the article for both instructors and students … for the instructor, I say this: “Never think what you are doing is not worthwhile or a chore because teaching on a tennis court five or six hours in row can appear to be a laborious activity. You never know what you say to a tennis student will stick and give him or her that special gift not just to them, but will come back to you in a cherished way.” For the tennis student, ”keep the glass empty.” In other words, you never know when the teacher can say that one thing that will enrich your life in a way that you never thought. It might even come back to you years later. No, it is not just tennis. It is an opportunity to enrich your life.

I finally figured it out…I matter and I do make a difference!

Lonnie Mitchel

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 lonniemitchel@yahoo.com.