The Tragedy of Children’s Sports and What You can Do About it

Part II: Tennis, Joy on the Court

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series by Contributor Marc Machiz. Click here for Part I.]

The tennis great Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”  It is a perfect life lesson to be sure, and I wish I had that quote as motto when I was coaching soccer, both for myself and for my kids.  But tennis, better than any other sport I know, reliably rewards that mindset. 

In all the team sports (and most of life), kids like me struggle with the sensation of being out of place.  Putting a team together, in baseball, softball football and soccer almost always results in participants who at least half the time feel inadequate.  A few will revel in stardom, and now and again someone like my Romanian team member, a soccer savant, will appear in a league that offers no challenge at all. 

But it only takes two to play tennis, and never more than four.  In other sports, kids sit on the bench waiting for their chance to play.  Even when a child gets in the game, his or her role will often be minor.  The left fielder in little league may have two or three at bats and touch the ball a half dozen times over the course of a game, if that. 

I was that left fielder, and the mental challenge was pulling myself from a reverie on the rare occasions that the ball came my way: an hour of dreaming punctuated by a few moments threatening the ultimate humiliation, the dropped fly ball. 

Tennis is non-violent, non-contact. Your child will not be tackled, beaned by a wild pitch, knocked to the ground while driving for a layup, exposed to concussions or CTE from banging heads or heading soccer balls.  No sport is injury free, a hard hit tennis ball can catch an eye. Faulty technique will produce tennis elbow; hamstrings will pull, ankles will twist.  But tennis is mostly safe, while building endurance and functional fitness.

As in any sport, greatness is a statistical improbability, but that magical sense of flow that comes from using all your abilities, a sense you can only get with a well matched opponent and well matched teammates (in doubles tennis), is readily available on a tennis court to players of every level.  Once your child achieves a modest competence, she or he will enjoy themselves.   

Beware. Tournament tennis incorporating a seeding system where the best players match up in the first round against the weakest can produce as cruel and lopsided an experience as any sport. But recreational tennis organized around matching services, leagues and ladders has at its core the goal of placing almost equally matched players and doubles teams on the court together.  Be sensitive to the right balance for your kid.

The best match is between players or doubles teams of equal ability.  But matches between the mildly mismatched are among the best tennis lessons.   In tennis, unlike other sports, the weaker player always gets the ball–in singles because there are only two opposing players, in doubles because the opposing team will see to it.  

The best tennis coaches teach an approach to competition that is almost Zen like in its detachment.  Your child will learn to approach each match aiming to improve a few aspects of his or her game.  You can lose the match, but “win” if you fix your serve.  To be sure, you can bring this mindset to other games, schoolwork and professional advancement, but only a tennis match provides so many chances at self-improvement.

Other lessons are unexpected.  There is math in the scoring system and geometry on the court.  Every position on the court presents a different array of angles to the player that can be used to hit a winner or create one on the next shot. 

There is physics in the stroke and the flight of the ball. From afar, the game is two dimensional, but as played spins, arcs and even sun and wind make the game fully three dimensional.

It is a cliché that sports teach sportsmanship, but poor sportsmanship is an option in most sports absent adult supervision.  Not so much in tennis.  Most importantly, children will make their own line calls and be responsible for making a call against themselves if they let a ball bounce twice or touch a racquet to the net.  A gentleperson gives the opposing player always the benefit of every doubt; failure to do so engenders a reputation for hooking, manipulating calls to win a match.  If this is your reputation, no one will want to play with you.   Tennis makes you a better person.

It is a cliché that tennis is a sport for life, but not less true for being a commonplace.  I retired at age sixty-four, and took some tennis lessons as a lark.  Out of shape from 35+ years behind a desk, I pulled a hamstring minutes into my first lesson, convincing the pro that I’d never be seen on a court again.  Four years later, my wife and I are both addicted, strong members of our 2.5 (essentially beginner) senior teams, and realistically aspiring to moving up in class.  We practice and take lessons together several times a week.  Almost as improbable as my midlife stint coaching soccer, I captain a mixed doubles team. Retirement communities are well stocked with devoted tennis players in their seventies, and those with a bit of luck managing injuries play into their eighties.  An active subculture plays elite competitive super senior tennis grouped by age into their nineties as detailed in the charming documentary, Gold Balls.  For a meditation on trying to achieve excellence late in life read Late to the Ball by Gerald Marzorati.

But wait, there’s more. 

Those same oldsters playing intense tennis, when their contemporaries are content to walk a golf course (or ride a cart), likely owe their longevity in large part to the game.  Everyone knows that exercise adds vigor to your old age and about 3 years to your life expectancy.  But something about tennis appears to add far more years of life than any other sport.

Sure, you want to give your kids a deeply engaging sport, that they can take with them into a drastically extended old age, but how to get them started?  Tennis was not always kind to young beginners. But just as small sided games on miniature playing fields transformed childhood soccer, child sized lightweight racquets, soft compression balls and half-sized courts have transformed early childhood tennis over my lifetime. The USTA will tell you all you need to know. More generally, the USTA website has an array of resources that will help you find coaching and play opportunities for all ages.  The generally accepted youngest age to begin is four years of age. 

Is there a moral dimension to tennis? 

Not that many decades ago, tennis was a country club sport dominated by white male players dressed in tennis whites. But a parade of heroes and heroines and an army of tennis coaches have radically changed the sport’s demographic profile.  A great kid’s picture book, I Am Billie Jean King, by Brad Meltzer tells part of the story.  There is no shortage of children’s books about the Williams sisters and Arthur Ashe.  More recently, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keyes and Coco Gauf have driven home the remarkable diversity of contemporary (especially women’s) professional tennis.  But if you think we’re done, follow the story of Martina Navritilova calling out Margaret Court, whose name graces the Arena where the Australian Open is played, as a racist and a homophobe.  Once you and your kids are involved, it’s up to you to make sure that the everyone around you feels welcome.  As Arthur Ashe said, “start where you are….”

Marc I. Machiz–Contributor
Marc spent his career as an advocate for participants in employee benefit plans, primarily by practicing law. He has three sons with his wife Jean, of 37 years and they are looking forward to welcoming their first grandchild. In semi-retirement, Marc plays tennis, advocates for immigrant rights and has founded a mediation and expert witness business, Justician Mediation, LLC.

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