Late in the 1990s, I was having a pretty good coaching run. Players from experienced professionals to talented yet troubled teens were showing up to my court, hoping for some of the success my other players were having. Admittedly, having world class players striving to book my time was flattering, but in all honestly, the work itself was pretty dull. They all knew what they wanted; I just happened to be local and available, and didn’t mind slugging balls with them for hours on end.
The work I found most rewarding during that time was with the troubled ones, kids who had all kinds of game but struggled putting in the work on a consistent basis. The underlying lapses in interest were the usual teenager stuff, with a few more complex cases. By no master plan of my own, I had developed a knack for connecting with these wayward kids, finding ways to keep them enjoying tennis until they sorted out their issues. One player in particular who arrived at my court his senior year of a high school was a teenager named Andrew.
Andrew was a super bright kid from a highly accomplished family; father was a Professor at UCLA, sister was a brainiac geneticist, who spent her evenings sitting in with avant-garde hipster bands. Growing up Cohen meant being on a crash course with success, with excellence and high achievement considered an expectation more than an accomplishment
But something was amiss in young Andrew’s world. Some measure of teenage rebellion is to be expected from nearly all our youth, but Andrew’s spells were the cause of concern. In a brief span, activities that used to avidly stimulate Andrew, suddenly became meaningless to him. A formerly high ranked junior player, by the time he arrived at my court, he was barely playing once a week, and that once was only at his weekly lesson. Academically an Honors student from his first day of school, now Andrew was rarely turning in his homework, that’s if he was showing up to school at all. His whole high school experience had become one big optional exercise, with taking or leaving it his new philosophy.
Obviously, Andrew’s new approach to life wasn’t sitting well with his parents. A little Senior-itis is expected among gifted kids like Andrew, but Andrew’s disinterest was becoming grounds for concern. His rebellion was taking on a dark tone; angry spells of disobedience, apathy and rejection of everything that once mattered to him. Attempts to talk reasonably to him were met with fits of rage and disrespect. Something heavier than fear of the future was driving his behavior, putting his poor parents at their wits end as to where to turn.
When he arrived at my court, tennis, school, family, and friendships had all been demoted to a waste of time. Left to his own devices, Andrew would have been just fine endlessly playing online video games as long as everyone would just leave him be. And for the most part they did. Yet asking him to take a break from playing was generally not received well and the source of ever further flare-ups between them. To Andrew’s parents, the simplistic solution to Andrew’s predicament was if they could keep him from the video game, everything would return to normal. But I wasn’t buying that. The video game obsession was a mere symptom of a much deeper angst afflicting Andrew, an angst I would spend the next few months patiently trying to decode.
So to my court he arrived. All 5’9″ of him with zero percent body fat, a nasty semi western forehand he could rip from anywhere, a solid two handed backhand he missed once and hour, and a competitive streak a mile wide. Normally kids of Andrew’s ability and intellect have their choices of schools to attend. But with his tennis falling off so drastically, the college coaches were no longer calling. He was going to need some help if he was ever to play college tennis at a serious program.
The one attribute he had though that always gave me hope for him was his competitiveness. And not so much that he hated to lose, it was he’s seemingly endless enjoyment of competing. As soon as one game was over, no matter how he played, or how bad the score, he would immediately state “Let’s play another one”. There were no handshakes, there was no talk of stopping or conceding. All that mattered was how quickly could we start another game. And though I never said this to him at the time, because he wasn’t training anywhere near enough, but in all my experience, I never met a kid who loved to compete like that not eventually get pretty darn good.
At the time I was developing a coaching reputation as someone who could put out fires before they got out of control, whether it be issues with anger or emotions or over the top parents or worst of all, substance abuse issues, I was becoming the one they called. For better or worse, I had a keen eye for uprooting the causes of dysfunctional development. Not that I was always successful, nor did every family take well to my diagnoses. Actually, quite the contrary really.
But my job was not graded on my results. Resolving these dynamics often took substantial time. My job was to identify problems, suggest courses for action designed to get the student and his family back on the right track, while giving as much of myself as possible to the kids at risk, just hoping to make enough of a difference.
Organically, helping these types of kids became my professional passion. Likely because I was one myself, I could too easily relate to the complex feelings of strained adolescence. But every case was different, each wrought with unique challenges, often beyond my scope of expertise.
In Andrew’s case, it was two fold. First, just get him through the last couple months of high school without incident. Second was to be much tougher, to convince a college tennis coach, that despite the obvious red flags, Andrew would contribute avidly to a college tennis team once surrounded by a productive atmosphere.
After meeting Andrew a couple times, I new I had a tough case on my hand. Polite, yet pretty quiet, he was communicative but only in a defensive way, rarely asking questions, poised to pivot promptly from any topic that even hinted at being personal or probing. I quickly grasped; keep the conversation light, keep the questions off of him, and cohabiting the same space in the short term would not be difficult.
His aura quite guarded, his body language inverted, his shoulders were always slumped over, like a weight he couldn’t shake had taken residence upon him a bit too long for comfort and was beginning to slowly wear him down. There was little laughter, we still had some feeling out of each other before any shit talking could begin, but if my timing was right, I could evoke an occasional wry smile from him. This was going to be a process and I knew it. And rule number one in these delicate type of working relationships was a simple one. Do no more harm.
Understandably, his parents tried to get me up to speed on everything that was going on with him.
Andrew’s Mom was the parent in more obvious distress. “As a younger kid, he was a hard worker and loved being on the court, beating almost everybody he faced. Then everybody grew except him. Now he’s getting overpowered by kids who just two years ago could barely get games from him. Everybody’s caught up to him and they’re all beating him. You would think that would motivate him to play more, to work harder, but its been the total opposite. Now all he wants to do is play his video games. We’ve tried everything. We’ve been permissive, that didn’t work. We were extra strict, that didn’t work. Now he’s just totally checked out and won’t listen to anything we say.”
“And it’s not just the tennis. He’s not socializing anymore, he’s not studying anymore. His grades are starting to suffer, if he attends school at all. He may not graduate from high school if he keeps this up and he just won’t listen. His school counselor is confused, he refuses to go see professional help. His last coach recommended we give you a call, that you had some experience with getting kids like Andrew back on track. Do you think you can help us?”
It’s always so hard to hear the same story. The facts may differ from family to family, but in the end. its all top line data, enveloped in fear, wrapped in anxiety, whereas the kid in question never has a voice in how his life should be structured. The performance anxiety emanating from his folks was palpable; I’ve seen that energy wear kids out well before their primes.
Yet I say that with full compassion. These were two of the loveliest and loving parents a kid could ever want. They had done everything they could to raise Andrew and his siblings well, and by any standards, they were enormously successful. What they were dealing with now was adversity, not something dealt with well in our high performance culture. This was beyond a simple list of dos and do nots.
This was about troubleshooting a situation we didn’t have all the facts of, like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle a few pieces short. It was going to take patience, something both parents were completely lacking by the time Andrew reached my court. The whole dynamic had devolved to the parents anxieties and fears and the child finding ways to insulate himself from them, hence the video game obsession and a steadfast refusal to engage in any activity the parents would have a say in.
My approach to kids like Andrew were always three-pronged. First came respect, second came admiration, and with any luck with the first two, the third and most important dynamic to create was trust. But first things first. How to get Andrew’s respect.In times like these, it was best to let the rackets do the talking.
My lesson plan with him was obscenely simple. After a little warm up and some harmless chit chat, I asked Andrew pointedly “What do you feel like doing today?”
Apparently unaccustomed to being asked his opinion about anything, he looked back upon me quizzically. “I don’t know”
Fully prepared for that, I came back “Well, what is it you like to do the best”?
“I just like to hit and play points”
“Perfect. Me too. Let me put this basket and ball mower back in the shed, lets crack a couple of new cans, and lets slug some balls”
And that we did. I was still in my mid 30’s, pretty fit, while still hitting a pretty clean ball. He was all of 16, 5’9, 135, wiry yet strong, without a muscle on him to impede his youthful flexible whip. I could see right from the start the kid could move and hit ground strokes all day. He had the perfect make up to play solid college tennis if he could just give himself that chance. I could tell we were going to hit well together. And as a coach who’s gotten the most from my students by slugging tons of balls with each other, after a couple weeks of hitting, I felt cautiously optimistic.
After a seemingly intense stretch of rallying, Andrew started angling toward the bench. “Did you forget something”?
“No. I’m exhausted. I need to sit down”
Not one to miss a chance to draw a little playful blood, I started doing my best Thomas Muster imitation, snapping off some jumping jacks while Andrew collapsed upon the bench. After a few Jumping Jacks, I hit the ground for twenty push ups, then flipped over for 20 more crunches. He looked upon me bewildered, unsure how to respond to my antics. Then I started in..
“Andrew, let me ask you a question. I’m old and over the hill with no future, yet I’m out here working harder than you. What’s up with that you think”?
“I don’t know. Maybe somebody dropped you on your head”?
“Well, not exactly, but that’s a pretty close guess. I’m working harder than you probably because I like winning more than you do. And not being the most gifted athlete out here, I have to work that extra hard to have any chance of beating you. Soooo, my advice to you, is if you ever want to win one of these games against me, you’re going to have to work just as hard as myself if not harder, because you have the game, we just need to kickstart that fire to win that’s inside of you so we can get you get back to competing again someday down the road
“You trying to tell me you’re in better shape than me”?
“Well, I’m not the one stumbling to the bench. Heck, I’m using the time to do even more calisthenics while you regroup.”
“Oh whatever old man.!!! Now that I’m loose, I’m gonna run your ass all over the place, and we’ll see then who needs the bench.”
“Well alright then. Let’s see about that. Ok, lets play a new game. How about we play a game up to 101, with a few creative scoring wrinkles of course.”
“Are they fair?
“Absolutely they’re fair. OK, here are the rules. Whoever feeds gets to determine the rules. I’ll feed the first game so you get a feel for things. One point at a time. Winners count for 5. Winners on the line pay double. Any winner hit out of the air, volley, overhead, whatever, also pays double. Any point with a net cord is automatically double value, two net cords in the same point, quadruple value, etc. Back fence on the fly, minus ten. Bounce an error in to the net, I consider that a really bad shot, so that counts double against you. If you can hit the side fence on one bounce for a winner, that pays double. Obviously, if you can talk smack while hitting a winner, double value again. If you win a point while shanking a ball, also known as a shankie, that pays double. We’ll get to Jungle Ball another day. There’s more, but I’ll start you slow for your first game. Got it?
“That’s slow? When I get to feed, do I get to make up my own scoring?
“Of course, just don’t suck”
“Why do you play like this”?
“I play like this because standard tennis can be incredibly boring, especially if you’re in a slump. So we liven it up a little bit. Gets some hooting and hollering going. Like if someone were to come by and watch us playing, they’d say “Geez, those boys sure look like they’re having a lot of fun. Cuz you know what? This is a game, and its supposed to be fun. Stick with the fun people for a little bit kid. Before long, you’ll look forward to coming here.
The first game was a disaster, Andrew overwhelmed trying to keep track of all the new rules. Until right near the, when he scored the magic point. A point with two let cords that he finished with a swing volley while gurgling out some “Yo Mamma ” joke that was so bad you had to laugh. Eighty points accrued with one point, with Andrew breaking out in to the biggest smile I’d seen since I met him.
“I know how to beat you now. This is gonna be easy” he boasted, having fun on a tennis court for the first time in a long while.
A couple weeks of playing this way, Andrew reached match point on me in a tight game. Right before he served, I called him up to the net to talk.
“Hey, Before you serve this match point, I just have one thing I want you to think about. You know that Pete Sampras guy right. Ok, the last time I played Pete in a match for money, when we were done and it came time for the tournament director to hand out the checks, I got handed the winning check and Pete got handed the losing check…So, uh, when you’re lining up your serve here on match point and all. I just want you to let that sink in a little.”
A marginally mortified look descended across his face. His first serve never had a chance. His second even less.
“That was totally unfair”
“What you mean unfair”?
“You telling me that story on match point… totally psyched me out”.
“File it away under there’s more than one way to skin a cat”.
“Did you really beat Pete Sampras for money”?
“Yeah. But it wasn’t exactly the US Open, it was at a wedding reception up here on the Hill, and it was in doubles, but it was 500 each to the winning team and it wasn’t like he was 12. He was already well on his way to becoming “Pete” ”
“Did you ever play him again”?
“In practice a couple times, but never again for money. After that match I think I downed like 4 double Jack Daniels right in front of him, then lit up a cigarette. I think he pretty much decided from that point on I was completely insane. In retrospect, I really couldn’t argue with him either”
“So you could have been as good as Sampras”?
“Absolutely not!! Not even close. The moral of the story Andrew is I never gave myself a chance to become my own best. I had all this ability, but I also had all this stuff going on in my life keeping me from reaching my potential. Worse yet, there were a lot of people around me telling me this, trying to help me, trying to give me advice, people who had been through what I was going through, that knew the way forward and could have really helped me if I would have just listened and not been so hard headed and stubborn….. Sound familiar”
He paused slightly before uttering…”Maybe….Ok, Lets play another game”
We would play many more games to 21 in the weeks to come. I asked Andrew no questions about his life, I asked no questions about what may or may not be bothering him. I played my hardest against him, giving him absolutely no tennis advice. I was going to be the best example of what a fierce competitor looked like and see how he responded. I could tell he loved how hard I tried against him. And he could tell how much I loved that all he wanted to do, no matter how bad I was beating him, was to play another game.
A few months passed, finally his parents started coming at me, wanting to know this and that about his progress, his moods, his attitude, and if he had opened up about what was eating at him yet. I said he had not nor had I asked.
His parents then opened up. Time was running out. He was obsessed with this video game, playing it often 8 hours a day. He was skipping school, hadn’t even filled out his college applications, and was seriously at risk of not graduating if he didn’t turn it around and quickly.
I paused, wanting to say the right thing that would save the day for everybody, but he was tricky one. Super smart. If he caught one whiff that I was doing his parents bidding, all progress made would be wiped out. He would see right through all of it.
“Listen, I’m connecting really well with him right now and he’s listening to me. I’m able to make him laugh from start to finish in all our sessions and that’s really important because he wasn’t even smiling when he first showed up here. I have his respect and admiration, I’m just not sure if that adds up to trust yet. He’s very guarded about his life. What I’ve done is share my own mistakes and shortcomings in the hope he feels safe to share his, but not as of yet. He’s pretty walled off. But knowing what you just told me, I have an idea to approach him with so let me give it a shot”
Next time I saw Andrew I shared a few stories with him about some rather embarrassing on court meltdowns I’d had at his age and getting suspended by the SCTA. Later I shared about getting kicked off the Junior Davis Cup team for breaking all the rules on pretty much a daily basis, then I told him how I learned how to take the SAT for other people for money and how I’d gotten the highest score on the whole Peninsula for a guy who had barely passed Algebra (that story really excited him the most. He insisted I tell him how I did it).
Trying not to romanticize my past, I was trying to implore to Andrew there are no do-overs in life. If he ever wanted to play college tennis, which he was more than good enough to do, he was gonna have to step it up a bit, show these coaches he was serious about working hard and competing for a team. I made it clear that beating his 30-something coach in a game to 21 wasn’t going to get him on any rosters etc…
He nodded at what I said, not exactly indicating he agreed with anything I said, but that he had heard what he had said.
Then I took a chance. “I heard your tanking school”
“I am not..Its so easy. I don’t even need to study to get straight A’s”
“I can totally relate. I went through the same experience. But you can’t just blow school off and go do whatever. If you’re absent too much, they can’t pass you. These are the new rules and there’s no way around them. And if they don’t pass you, you don’t graduate, and then what are you going to do? All these years of school and tennis will have been a complete waste”
“I just don’t care. It all just seems so pointless. Everything I do is what everybody else wants me to do”.
“Again, I get that too…But I have to say a big Whoa right there..I know you’re not getting along so well with your parents right now, but they’re worried about you kid. They see you with all this ability and potential and you’re just pissing it away. And you know what? I have to agree with them. You not only should be playing college tennis next year, you should be at an awesome school with tons of new interesting friends having the time of your life while winning tennis matches for your school. What sane kid your age wouldn’t want that?
“I’ll make you a deal. You have to show up for your classes. They’re going to fail you if you don’t. If you graduate, I will reach out to my friends in the coaching community and see if anyone needs a player at the last minute. I can’t promise anything. We are way behind. But I’ll try my tail off for you if you finish school…but you have to play a couple tournaments too, I’m sorry. Your ranking in the 14’s isn’t going to cut it.”
“Maybe??!! C’mon. I haven’t asked you do one thing since we started training a few months ago. Not one thing. I’m asking you to do one thing. Promise me you’ll show up for school these last couple weeks and get this high school thing behind you”
“OK OK…That’s it though. Don’t tell me to do anything else, promise?”
“Two tournaments. You have to play a little. This isn’t going to be easy”
“Ok. That’s it”
The final weeks of school concluded, Andrew graduated without incident. I managed to coerce him in to playing a couple local tournaments. He fared respectably. Then the work began. No major Division 1 program was going to give him the time of day. Too many red flags. I started reaching out in the coaching community to friends and colleagues whom I had good experiences with in the past. Weeks of unreturned communications ended when Division 3 legend Bob Hansen at UC Santa Cruz responded to my inquiry.
Bob and I connected quickly, we knew and respected many of the same people from the industry. By circumstance, he had seen Andrew play some years before, so he knew he had some game, but like all coaches, there was genuine concern. He was a little young to be having such a gap in his playing resume.
I concurred with Coach Hansen, my only response being something had been going on that had unsettled him some, set him back a little bit, but he was turning it around, hoping to find a program that would accept him at such a late date. I assured Coach Hansen I knew both the parents well and that they were both the sweetest and most solid providers a kid could ever want, just that the kid had gone through a couple tough adolescent years, certainly not an unprecedented event, and if he wasn’t a tennis player, nobody would really be all that concerned.
Cautiously, Coach Hansen agreed to give Andrew a look, but that he had a couple dead lines facing him square in the face that absolutely could not be extended. I spoke to the Cohens, they made contact with Coach Hansen, and with no guarantees in any way, they started the process of late admission for Andrew to see if they could sneak him in.
Word got to Coach Hansen that Andrew was training harder, and by a stroke of fate, a committed freshman backed out at the last second, leaving Hansen a spot to fill, if only he could get Andrew in.
Then Coach Hansen opened up to me..”Listen, we’re not Pepperdine or USC where we can get a kid in at the last second if we want him. Here on campus, academics is first, second, and third. But that said, I’ve been here a while, I’ve won a bunch of Championships, and I graduate my players. As I like to say, with the Administration, I have a gun with one bullet in it if I choose to use it, no questions asked. I’ve earned that trust with the Admissions Department here. Usually that bullet would have been long gone by now, but as circumstances played out this year, I still have it in the chamber. I could use it with Andrew, but I’m just not sure.
Excited, I tried to keep my cool, responding. “Coach, I can’t tell you what to do or not to do and I have no idea how its going to play out with this kid. All I can say is this kid was going through a tough time, not all that unlike many temperamental teenagers do. He made me a promise to finish his schooling strong, and he lived up to it. I asked him to play a couple tournaments and he did. He’s still working hard with me on the court, and I know he’s been practicing much more now that college tennis is a possibility. I’m pretty sure the worst of what he was going through is behind him. You’ll be taking a chance on him, I know that. But he’s a great kid who can really hit the ball and he fights like hell. He’ll win a lot of important matches for you over 4 years, of that, I am sure.
I know. I know. That’s what I feel too. I’ll let you know my decision by weeks end.
And come weeks end, Coach Hansen decided to give Andrew a chance, granting him a spot as a Freshman on UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs Mens Division 3 tennis team, class of 2005.
If the story ended there, it would be a great one. But it wasn’t long in to Andrew’s schooling that I found out the cause of his high school angst. His Father was dying. He had leukemia, it was seemingly in remission, but in a flash, it came back fiercely, taking his life not long after Andrew had begun college. And that’s what had been eating him alive.
In spite of this terrible loss, Andrew hung in there at school, getting solid grades, while excelling at tennis, putting up a 20-10 record as a Freshman, with only bigger moments to come.
Fast forward to Andrew’s senior year, his team is strong, Andrew is playing a solid #4 singles all year, and Santa Cruz finds itself in the Finals of the NCAAs with a chance to win a National Championship. Obviously, if this were Hollywood, Andrew would hit the winning shot in the winning match, getting carried off the courts by his team mates, tears in everyone’s eyes, to win it all for his school.
This being reality, Andrew won the first set of his match, his injured opponent was forced to retire, giving Santa Cruz its first singles point, from which the team went on to win the Finals easily and capturing UC Santa Cruz another National Championship for Coach Hansen, as well as all his players.
That evening, I awaited a call from Andrew’s Mom to here what had transpired. When I saw her number come in, I answered the call nervously, so hoping they had gone all the way..After a quick hello, I asked “How did they do”?
To which Andrew’s Mom tried to answer me, but all she could do was sob in to the phone, streaming tears of happiness and gratitude. Yet in between the sobs, I could make out a “Yes they had won.” But beyond that, all I could make out from her was “thank you, thank you, thank you so much for believing in my son”.
It was a phone call I’ll never forget. And if I coach another 100 years, this will always be my proudest moment in my profession. The best part about it was it had so little to do with tennis. In my brief time with Andrew, I never gave up on the kid. I just kept seeking ways to reach him. I could get him to understand me, I could get him to like me, but could I get him to trust me at a time the world seemed to be conspiring so severely against him?
This one time it worked. I like to refer to these types of events as soul coaching. Where coaches and players connect in areas beyond the constructs of a tennis court. Andrew needed a little something more than the traditional tennis lesson. He needed some soul coaching. And I’m eternally grateful I had the training to provide it for him
Do you have stories in your career like these? Soul Coaching, so far beyond the striking of the ball it deserves its own name… Please contact me if you do. I hope to run a recurring column here at Tennis.Life with stories just like Andrew’s. Private message me if you do and hopefully we can bring your experiences to print here on our site.