This year, Santa in His omnipotence left a bright blue Wilson tennis racket under the Christmas tree for Jack. My son never played before, but now on pleasant days you'll find us on the clay courts at the neighborhood park. Santa must have known Jack would have a knack for the sport—and he does. He will happily volley the ball for hours.
Although I've never taken a lesson, I love to play, and I've found myself slipping into the role of an offbeat, Zen tennis coach. I do not subscribe to the school of learning that insists on throwing babies into the pool to teach them to swim, but I always learn quicker by doing than by sitting on the sidelines. I'd rather play the game and figure it out than participate in mind-numbing drills, and Jack is the same way. I took the kid straight to the court and started hitting to him. I assumed he could hit the ball—and to my delight (and his), he could.
At first, I praised him just for making contact. No matter that the ball soared thirty feet in the air or bounded over into the other (empty) tennis court, if he placed his racket in the proximity of the ball, that was pretty darn good. He was so thrilled to make contact that he didn't mind when I showed him how to hold his racket, or how to hit the ball level and flush so as to send the ball in a horizontal direction rather than a vertical one. Pretty soon Jack was lobbing the ball over the net with regularity. After one particularly good, strong hit, I heard myself shout,"Awesome! I want you to remember how that felt and do that again!"
I have no idea if this is a technique that coaches teach their students, but it makes sense to me. When you do something really, really right—even if by accident—if you can remember how it felt, then maybe you'll intuitively learn to enact that success again. Filled with new confidence, Jack grinned.
"Okay, Mom!" he shouted, "Serve me another one."
Moments like these are fleeting. The baby years are all about "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" but at ten, Jack's entering the age when he wants less and less to do with Mom. He and his buddies have hit the South Park phase where everything is an inside joke meant for boys only. And I know, for example, if I ask him, "Hey Jack wanna go hit some balls?" I'll receive a response worthy of Beavis and Butthead. Of course, girls are just as silly. I can recall sniggering about similar double entendre at his age.
Likewise, being a typical 10-year old boy, there are plenty of times when Jack exhibits the sportsmanship of Andre Agassi. If he completely misses a ball or if he hits it wildly off the tip of his racket, he falls to the ground on his knees, sometimes feigning injury. (The first few times I was genuinely alarmed.) He spends more time on his knees sliding on the tennis court than Otis Nixon did heading into second base.* I encourage him to shake off these bad hits and keep playing, but sometimes he gets into the I-can't-do-anything-right-funk.
The other night, after about forty-five minutes of volleying the ball back and forth, Jack became tired and repeatedly misjudged the ball, swinging his racket like a baseball bat, missing completely or hitting the ball into the side fence. After the third time he missed, he threw his racket down onto the court.
"I hate that ball!" he yelled. "It's an evil tennis ball!"
"Maybe we should call it a night," I said.
"Noooo!" he cried
He picked up his racket, retrieved the despicable ball and hit it hard. This time it took flight over the fence and landed in the grass across the street from the tennis courts. As it rolled out of sight Jack began to howl, "I lost my lucky ball!"
I marveled at Jack's ability to go from aversion to attachment in record time. Now, the once-evil, lucky tennis ball was lost forever. Tears filled Jack's eyes, and his mouth trembled.
"I'm a terrible tennis player!" he shouted. "And now my favorite ball is gone forever!"
"Jack! I said sternly. "Calm down. Let's go find it."
Jack and I exited the court through the gate and walked across the street. I was afraid the ball had rolled down a ditch, but it was in the grass like a prize Easter egg. Jack happily nabbed the ball. As we returned to the tennis courts, I stopped him outside the gate.
"Wait a minute," I said. "I want to talk to you before we start playing again."
I wanted to address Jack's overly dramatic behavior in a constructive way that would help him get over his funk. I didn't want to make him feel worse. I remember feeling that same frustration with myself as a kid. If left unchecked it can ruin what was otherwise a nice experience or even sour you on trying again. How could I help him manage his frustration? It's moments like this when I stop and ask for divine inspiration, but before I could speak, Jack began to giggle.
"What's so funny?" I asked, slightly annoyed.
"Mom!" Jack gasped. "Oh my God, look at that sign behind you!"
There it was: A sign. A literal sign. It was, in fact the sign wired to the chain link fence surrounding the tennis courts. Originally it stated, "No Skate Boards or Scooters on the Tennis Courts," in black vinyl letters, but some clever vandal altered the message by extracting the top part of the capital "B" and placing it over the top of the "T" in tennis. .
"Oh my God Mom! It says Pennis," Jack laughed.
I started laughing too. Jack's funk was broken. After he got over the giggles, I knew what to say.
"Jack, you're doing really well," I said. "There's no reason to act that way on the court. Okay?"
"Okay, Mom," Jack said.
"Now do you think you can continue playing in a better mood?" I asked.
"Yes!" he said, grinning. "Oh my God, I can't believe it says that!"
"If you're tired, we should go home," I said. "But if you want to continue playing you need to shake off that mood."
"Okay, Mom," he said.
Jack ran back to his side of the court, and stood there waiting for me to serve.
"Now, turn around three times!" I shouted.
'Why?" asked Jack.
"It will help you get rid of your bad mood," I said.
Jack complied. He slowly turned around one, two, three times.
"Feel better?" I asked.
"Next time you get mad at yourself, shake it off like that,"I said.
Then I took his lucky tennis ball and lobbed it lightly into his court. Jack adjusted his position, evenly swung his racket and solidly volleyed it back to me. The next time he missed, he turned around three times before he got back in position to receive my serve. I'm still not sure about my coaching abilities but someday, I might become a decent parent yet.
* For non-Atlanta Braves fans, Nixon shares the single game stolen base Major League record with 6 on June 16, 1991. He also holds the Atlanta Braves single season record for stolen bases with 72 in 1991. And yes, that is a random piece of baseball trivia that I pulled from my random knowledge of baseball. In fact, I was in the stands screaming my lungs out for many of those 1991 stolen bases. (1991 was the Braves' momentous "worst to first" season.)