In this entry of Soul Coaching, I’d like to introduce you to Yoav Saarony. It’s people like Yoav and his following story that in my opinion gives tennis its heart and soul. If you have a similar giving back story like Yoav’s here and would like to share it with the tennis world, drop me an email at [email protected]…We really can make a difference in people’s lives if we seek to….Peace.
Soul Coaching: By Yoav Saarony
In January of 2011, I moved to the Bay area from Vermont. I had been a tennis instructor most of my life, coaching at all levels, from beginners to professionals. From my first years as a professional, I believed firmly that coaching on the tour was the place I wanted to be. But after experiencing that life for many years traveling with pros and juniors, I began to realize I might have been wrong and that there were other ways of finding fulfillment within my coaching industry.
As my career advanced, opportunities to volunteer for various causes would periodically come my way. Though there was little financial compensation given for the work, I always took note of how gratified I felt after freely giving of my time. Most of my volunteering was for various children’s causes, often kids in unfortunate or disadvantaged homes. It was a chance meeting with one of those kids that changed my perspective of my coaching life forever and for the better.
I had a job with a small club. On a pretty gloomy day in April of 2011, I was teaching one of my regular lessons. At the end of our session, I noticed a young girl watching our lesson through the fence. When I made eye contact with her, she immediately fired back at me with a huge smile. I’ve always felt something disarming yet engaging when a person meets your look with a smile. As the Grateful Dead lyric goes, nothing left to do but smile smile smile. It instantly eased the space between us. Her smile soon led to a hello and a conversation. After learning her name I asked her if she played tennis. She said she had gone to a couple clinics and she really loved it. I said great and maybe I would teach her next time I taught the junior clinic.
The young lady, who I will refer to as MB here, was 12 years old at the time of our first meeting. As I walked over to shake her hand, I noticed her mother waiting in the car for her. I approached her mom to say hello to her also. Her Mom spoke with a pretty thick Spanish accent. Knowing a little Spanish myself, we finished the conversation in her native tongue, where at the end, she asked me how much a private lesson for her daughter would be. Not liking to make assumptions about people, I told her my rate, which I knew was pretty pricey. Upon hearing the figure, her head immediately sank, with her muttering “Thank you anyway”
This obviously wasn’t the first time someone had told me private lessons were too expensive. Usually my response in the past was to get defensive, often replying “you get what you pay for.” This time though, I felt an unfamiliar calmness about me, as I seemed to time travel back to my own childhood. There was a time when I was that young wide-eyed kid looking through the fence wishing I could afford a private lesson like all the other kids. My tennis journey being quite unconventional, lets just say growing up in my house, tennis lessons were not our first priority.
But here I was, with an opportunity to pay it forward, to give a young aspiring player a chance I never had myself. I didn’t have to think long before I instinctively asked Maria and her daughter if they were available Friday at 3 for a private lesson with me at the club, free of charge, completely my pleasure.
I used to have this reoccurring dream when I was young that if I fell in love with tennis, I could win a scholarship to a tennis academy. And though that dream didn’t come true for myself, after a lot of hard work, many other dreams did come true later in my coaching life, including playing College tennis and coaching in all 4 Grand Slams.
And here I was, with this lovely young family right before me, with an opportunity to give back to the game that had given me so much. So I offered MB a deal. Come for a free lesson, and If I liked her effort, she could continue to come on Fridays at 3:00. as long as they wanted. As the weeks went by, we started establishing a rapport where I learned no one in her family had ever gone to college. They were immigrants from Mexico who had to work so very hard just to make ends meet and provide for their family. Which touched me greatly, being an immigrant myself from Israel with a very similar background.
Over the months to follow, we made a pledge to each other. If she committed to working hard, studying hard, and continuing her evolution towards being a high character person, that I would do everything I could to see to it she someday played College tennis.
MB was very quiet, shy, yet extremely hard working and polite. I would give her assignments to do off court and she would always do them, without ever complaining She was always on time, always treated myself and whoever she was playing with the utmost respect. Her habits were showing me that she cared deeply about what we were doing. She could have gone on to win a Major tournament, but if she did not develop the humility and quality of character I requested, I would have considered all our work together a failure. But here she was, growing as a player, growing as a person, basically growing up in to exactly the kind of person you would want all your students to become. I could not have been more proud. I could see my experiment in tennis generosity was paying off for all parties involved.
As 6 years of Friday lessons have now passed, MB is now in college and playing college tennis, living out the dream and the deal we agreed upon. Today we get to sit back and smile. She still has a lot of hard work in front of her as she is playing 2 years of Junior College play before she transfers to a 4 year school. She is the first person in her family to ever attend College. She’s an adult now, but she still calls me Coach, something that’s likely never to change and which I’m alright with.
The day she found out she had been accepted in to college and had made the tennis team, she sent me a text.
“Coach, I could have never dreamed of achieving any of this without you. Thank you for believing in me and giving me your precious time.”
It’s hard not to get emotional retelling this story. Sure, its great for the ego when your best students take the court and conquer on tennis’ largest stages. But there are different types of victories in this Coaching Life, ones where we are able to affect the trajectory of a young person’s life, not by being a super coach or some self-proclaimed guru. But just by caring and giving back.
Coaching is not what I do, it’s who I am. As the years roll by I have realized that winning is different for me now. Winning is about caring, nurturing, and helping people feel good about themselves. Having a role in the nurturing of another caring being puts so much direly needed positive energy back out in to the universe.
I really encourage coaches to find some child that may have struggles in some ways and help them. Offer some free time to a person that could really benefit from it. The Tennis life is so positive in so many ways; it really can change lives for the better. You never know how things will play out. The person you help could go on to do great things, or nothing at all. It can’t be about the end results But I know of no more gratifying pursuit than investing time in the creation of a like minded kind soul. The rewards of the spirit will always remain beyond the scope of any normal life accounting.
We coaches have a lot power to change lives if we take a second and realize how fortunate we are for all we have. My relationship with MB has changed my life for ever. I will be forever grateful for that!
Yoav’s Bio… Yoav Saarony has been a USTA High Performance Coach, USTA Sports Science Level 1, PTR Professional/ ATP/WTA with 22 years of experience teaching tennis, and since 1998, has been certified by the Professional Tennis Registry or (PTR). He has coached professionally off and on for years, including all 4 grand slams, the Masters 1000 as well as the WTA tour. Yoav lives in the San Fransicsco Bay Area and is quickly becoming a good friend to Tennis.Life. Expect more coaching contributions from Yoav in the near future.