By Wilbur T. Braithwaite
In 1952 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, tennis teacher Jean Hoxie and some of her players staged a clinic for coaches and interested parties. It was my good fortune to be there as a graduate student on a teaching fellowship.
Aside from the impressive drills that were demonstrated, the sense of camaraderie between Jean and her students (both boys and girls, ages 12-17) was a joy to behold. Mrs. Hoxie, a sixth-grade teacher, helped to develop world-class players including the Barkowitz sisters, "Peaches" and "Plums."
A tennis player with aspirations of becoming a basketball and tennis coach, her demonstration piqued my interest in mentoring athletes. For 38 years, I coached varsity basketball and tennis. After retirement as a teacher/coach, the school asked me to continue coaching tennis, which evolved into a total of 51 years.
With this background, following are some points for bonding in the two sports. What applies to basketball and tennis, applies for all team and individual sports.
1. Championship teams normally develop strong friendships on and off the court between the players and their coach. A lifetime memory is created by "taking state" or by winning district or region. In the case of a state championship, the trophy is hoisted and lapped around the field house floor. Each player cuts a loop off the net and the coach cuts off and retrieves the net to be put along with the trophy in the display case at the victorious school. If a state championship is won, the general public of the town lines Main Street while the players stand on the siren-ringing fire truck.
2. Losing teams pose a more complicated picture. Bonding can be as strong as any championship team, if players keep the game in proper perspective. If your best effort is respected and your giving-everything-you've-got effort is admired, it will prevail over years to come. But if your best performance is not good enough, bickering, what-ifs and alibis take over. This breakdown of team discipline includes calls of the referees, coaching decisions, players mistakes, the wrong pregame meal and “if Johnnie had played more rather than Jimmie we would have won.”
Now let's take a look at tennis.
1. Tennis most always a non-spectator sport. If a team takes state, players do not ride down Main Street on a fire engine. No headlines appear in the state papers. There are no color photos of teams – the No. I singles champ might be cited. The school will likely present the trophy in a regular assembly.
2. By nature, tennis is a duel in the sun. Weapons used are not revolvers but rackets. Weaknesses of opponents are uncovered, then exploited with sheer speed, deft drop shots, booming overheads, topspin, underpin and angles of trajectory. It is a battle to the finish.
3. There are no referees to blame (except at state.) You make the decisions. If the ball hits the line, it's good, if not it's out. If you can't decide, give it to the opponent. You must own up to your own conscience. Like all individual sports, tennis is a hybrid – half individual and half team.
There are two kinds of bonding. One is in victory and the other can come in defeat. Of these catalysts, perhaps losing, in the long-range view is the superior cement.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer left fame and fortune in Germany to answer an inward call to go to Africa. He brought his humanitarian spirit to the destitute masses of humanity there. Importantly, his medical doctorate helped to heal the physical while his skill on the organ soothed the mind.
Schweitzer talked about the Fellowship of Pain. In athletics the Fellowship of Losing may trump the Fellowship of Winning taken over the long haul.
Good luck to all young coaches! Take up the challenge of winning without boasting and losing with grace.
About the Author: Wilbur Braithwaite passed away in April of 2010 at the age of 83. He was one of the nation’s most beloved high school coaches and of the key contributors to the NFHS Coaches’ Quarterly magazine. Braithwaite coached basketball and tennis at Manti High School in Utah. He coached basketball for 37 years and tennis for 53 years. He was inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in 1989.