midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the tag “tennis”

Tennis Teaching and Counseling: Immersion in “The People Business”

This summer, I made the seemingly stark transition from working as a counseling intern in an outpatient mental health clinic serving low-income clients to teaching tennis at a large beach resort . One would think the two jobs would have nothing in common, both in clientele and job requirements, but that’s not the case. What’s the common denominator? Quickly evaluating, working with, and constantly interacting with people and all their personality types, moods, behaviors, idiosyncrasies and expectations.

In my previous job and career in public relations, I could frequently go a whole day with minimal direct interactions with people, if I wanted to. People in those jobs often interact mostly through their computer and e-mail and may even intentionally avoid personal, face-to-face conversations.

But that’s not possible as a counselor or as a tennis professional. Tennis is a form of therapy for many people, a way to escape stress, immerse in a physical activity and release tensions on the ball and endorphins in the body. The tennis pro is the counselor on the court. Part of the pro’s job is to figure out what makes people tick, what they want, how to engage, encourage and motivate them, and how to make them feel good about themselves. And that’s just referring to the paying clients. At the resort, there’s a large staff of tennis teachers and administrative workers, all with their own personality quirks, with whom I must interact personally every day.

I’ve learned there’s also some personality diagnosing taking place on the court, and learning how to interact with people differently. Some players are easy going and just happy to be playing; others are more demanding and have certain expectations – in other words, more difficult to please and more apt to complain or emphasize the negative. Many are happy; others crabby. Many are classic high-achievers; some are overly self-critical. Some players are filled with doubts while others have over-inflated egos. Some players like to talk a lot; others rarely utter a word.

Most parents are charming, but a few can be insufferable, as most tennis pros can attest. Most kids are a joy and are eager to please, while a few find pleasure in defiance and pushing limits. Some kids are more fragile than others. A few kids have emotional or behavioral challenges that present on the court.

While I doubt I will have any significant impact on anybody’s life this summer in my role as a tennis pro, like I felt I did as a counseling intern, I believe I am getting great practice at interacting with strangers and seeking to get a sense of who they are and making a quick connection, skills that translate directly to the counseling environment and relationship.

I never thought these two seemingly disparate professions would have such similarities until I became immersed in the tennis resort environment. In many ways, it has been just as challenging as counseling because of the need to develop fast interpersonal relationships, with both my fellow teaching pros and clients. For an introvert like me, that is a skill I am going to be constantly honing, on the court or in a counseling session. In each profession, I am in “the people business.”

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Facing a Match Point

It has not really been intentional, but death has been a recurring theme on this young blog about midlife. There was cyclist Tom Palermo, tragically mowed down in the prime of life by a drunk bishop. Two vibrant co-workers at my current job have been at work one day, gone the next. Perhaps it’s inevitable that when you reach midlife, feelings of immortality are stripped and death becomes less an abstract concept and more a certainty you have to reckon with. And that can be a good thing, motivation to be your real self, focus on the things that are most important and for which you have the most passion, take more risks, express yourself more fully and love more deeply.

This post, however, is about life, not death, though its specter, I would imagine, is present, a hard thing to dance around. It is about the fight for life and the preciousness of life. It is about braving the worst of times so one day again the best of times will feel even sweeter. It is about having to dive deeper into one’s soul and mine further into one’s spirit than ever previously imagined. It is about adjusting and learning new ways of living, being and relating.

I received an e-mail from my tennis buddies that a friend – really an acquaintance, but I know if I knew him better, he would be a friend – had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Before I say more, I want readers to consider making a donation to Bobby through the GoFundMe website set up to help cover costs for him and his family.

Bobby is a tennis pro at the clubs where I play, and has coached at the high school and college levels. We have crossed paths and talked a number of times. I know something about his job from personal experience.

After a layoff from a public relations job in 2002, I got certified as a tennis instructor from the U.S. Professional Tennis Registry. I had been a competitive junior and college tennis player, and had always been interested in teaching – especially competitive juniors – but never had the time. Now I did. I taught for a while for the same recreational organization where Bobby teaches, spent a summer teaching at a summer camp, and coached a girls high school team. I made an arrangement with a local swim and tennis club to teach members and non-members on its two seldom-used courts, and began building up a clientele. I taught for a nonprofit organization that ran after-school programs, and eventually became its organizer and director of a high school training program. I loved it, but as I eventually re-entered the corporate world, my tennis teaching started to dwindle. At one point, I talked to Bobby about assisting him with his juniors program, but it never came to pass.

I only describe my own experience with tennis teaching because I know that as a successful tennis teacher and coach, Bobby possesses many attributes that are going to help him in his fight to recover. Any successful tennis coach must have energy, passion, enthusiasm, patience, positivity and spirit. That’s what rubs off on students and keeps adults and kids coming back and hooked on working to improve their games. I can tell Bobby possesses these traits by his community’s outpouring of love and support. He has had an impact, likely far broader than he ever thought.

As an individual sport, tennis teaches many life lessons: managing emotions; staying positive; focusing on the moment; having a game plan, and adjusting when it’s not working; dealing with adversity; valuing the process as much or more than the results; and fighting hard and never giving up. These, too, can be applied to Bobby’s challenge.

Bobby is somewhere in his 40s, younger than I am and too young for this. For me, as with the Tom Palermo story, this hits home as another case of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Life is unfair. And for Bobby, this sucks. But I notice he is already learning new things. When I e-mailed him about writing about his journey, he responded that he had learned from the outpouring of community support to “put my pride and privacy to the side and allow people that want to help to do so.” We all have our walls and our desire to be invulnerable. In acknowledging vulnerability, I believe Bobby is letting some walls down. And in so doing, he will be letting in the caring and love that will strengthen him to beat his illness. I’m praying for him and his family, and hope with all my heart I see him out on the court with his students, hitting balls and barking encouragement, come spring and summer.

To donate for Bobby, see: http://www.gofundme.com/ka1jw4

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