Thoughts for Young Coaches

Recently, an Elon graduate, Kyle Smialek, and his family donated tennis scoreboards at the Jimmy Powell Tennis Center on the campus of Elon University. Graciously, they named the scoreboards in honor of my assistant, Bob Owens and me.


Kyle’s mom, Jill Smialek, wrote me with this nice email:

I am hoping you will be be there!!   Kyle is going as well as Kaylyn.

If it wasn’t for you my Children wouldn’t be going and there might not be a scoreboard!!

But, God bless you, you had given him a chance – and to his credit he followed through for four years.   Because of your dedication which you have passed on to my son.   He never gave up.   He was Elon inside and out.

Tom, you have given my son the determination to try his best.   He may never had been given that chance if it weren’t for you.   He may not ever made it “big” in college tennis but his loyalty and his determination is admirable.   And that loyalty drove Kaylyn to try her best at Elon.   And again she struggled with tennis but never gave up!

I attribute that determination to you.   They have both grown through Elon tennis and have now become successful adults.   Two Children that make me very proud of their accomplishments.

So when you are there – look at those scoreboards and know you made a difference on not one but two people’s lives.   You deserve that scoreboard.   Enjoy it!!

Hope you get to catch Kyle and Kaylyn while there.

My very best to Margaret



I responded with the following email and the thought, “One parent is worth more than 100 teachers…”

Jill–what a kind note and thanks.   Here is an alternate explanation for the kid’s successes..In James Michener’s MEXICO, Michener uses bull fighting as a metaphor for death…he asked the reader “…what is the worst thing that can happen from a promoter’s point of view?”   Answer:  The bull must have courage or he won’t fight!   Picture “Ferninand the Bull”.   Next question—what is the surest way to determine if a bull has the necessary courage? Practice fight?   Can’t do that, because one practice and the bull figures the deal about the cape out.   Kills the matador.   Promoter’s best guess at determining the potential courage of a young bull?  Fight the mothers…if the mother has heart, the offspring will have courage.  You did good with the kids, Mom.  Jill,   I loved Kyle as a person and you all as a family.    I’m glad, but not surprised about their success.  Margaret and I are quite thrilled about the scoreboards and look forward to seeing them in action.   (Hopefully with some Phoenix wins on the boards).    I must tell you and your family that as much as we appreciate our names up there with Elon, our most intense thanks are for the remembrance of our beloved friend, Bob Owens.  I truly believe Bob is an angel.  Can’t wait till next weekend.

Stay in touch, and thanks once again.

Tom and Margaret Parham

The Smialeks think I did Kyle a favor by keeping him on the team.   It was a “no-brainer.” First of all, he was a good player.   More importantly, he was a heckuva fine student and person.

But I started to think about unsung contributors who often don’t get to play much.   Football coach Henry Trevathan is a dear friend and legendary coach.   I once asked Coach Trevathan what he liked most about coaching.   As was his way, he pondered the question a while and finally said: “There was almost always a kid trying out for the football team who had no business trying out; too small, lack of talent, slow—whatever.   But he had one quality.   He wouldn’t quit.  I somehow could keep him around and turn it into a positive for him, the team and myself.   Took some time, some patience, some faith.”

I had several of those kids who’d played for me, Kyle was one, his friend George Memory was another.    George’s family, the Don Memorys, are part of the “Memorys of Wake Forest College”.   Bull and Jasper Memory are iconic at “Old Wake Forest.”   They were also tennis players who took my father, E.T. Parham, under their wing when he was an aspiring young theology student and ministerial hopeful.  They taught him tennis and he played #4 for Wake Forest in 1928. I met Don Memory socially when George was a senior in high school.  We uncovered our connection and I learned that George was interested in Elon.   We got him to Elon and he was a “marginal” player who I kept on the squad.  The summer of George’s second year I checked my returning player data with Elon and George was not enrolled.   I called his Dad and I don’t believe Don would object to me saying there were “tears in his voice” when he told me that George “had worsened” (he suffered from severe kidney problems) and would not be able to play anymore.   And he was not going back to Elon.   I encouraged both to have him come back.    I would keep him as manager and “in” tennis—a game he loved.

Fast forward two years, George’s health had thankfully improved and he was able to return to the team.   We were playing Davidson;   they were good and it had taken all of efforts to win.   George and Kyle Smialek were up to play doubles together in a “scratch match”.   We may have already won but you’d never know watching Kyle and George.   I don’t remember much else about that day, just that our team won, it was beautiful out and that watching Kyle and George play together made a lot of sense.   It was a tremendous jolt of joy, for me as well as the team.

I did my share of winning.   It is worthwhile to do your best.    I remember a lot of these “Smialek” moments and what great kids some of these non-starter, marginal players were.   Many of my era’s kids would have played on a lot of fine college teams but were bumped by the influx of foreign and international players.   My first team had great guys who would not have played later.   However, given the chance and some time, they blossomed with experience.   Joe Roediger was #13 on my first Elon team.   He worked his way up to #5, graduated when no one thought he could and has taught tennis for twenty years.   No one loves teaching tennis more than Joe.   Many of these marginal players ended up as teachers and coaches.   The ones who are cut,  end up bitter at tennis and probably quit playing, let alone teach it.  The marginals though, will possibly be your next great tennis teacher, pro or coach.

One of the few things that I did not like about Title IX was that it dictated squad size for men be equal to women, or vice versa.   You had to cut at a certain equal number.   Until then, I could let them hang around as long as they would. Coach Jim Verdieck of Redlands University and our NAIA days, kept 32 on his squad.   He gave the top 16 a private hour lesson weekly, the bottom 16 a half hour.   Many of these “subs” are teaching today.   Plus, Verdieck won more national tennis titles than anyone, ever, in college tennis.

I did, of course, kick a few off.   None who didn’t deserve it.   And I kept a few I should have run off.   Maybe I was idealistic but I thought they could all be salvaged.   Very often, a challenge match cost a kid a starting slot, or a chance to stay on the team.  One kid lost a challenge match on the match point of a third set tiebreaker—on a double fault.   That hurts.   But he didn’t quit and eventually became a fine starter.   Almost every kid I kept, sooner or later, came back and got me a crucial win.   Peter Van Graafeiland lost and lost and lost.  He was as nice a kid as ever played.   He figured it out and became solid at the bottom of the lineup.   Jon Hodges, Ashley Shaw, Justin Clark and Micheal Prelec were Americans who sat out until their time came.   John Morel grew 4” in his freshman year and was ineligible.   He later became all conference.

So many more examples, Chad York teaches at one of the better tennis clubs in Charlotte. He took lump after lump and it killed me to watch him come up short.   Chad never blinked, to this day.   Tommy Stratford teaches tennis in D.C.   He would bleed to play and always, always supported the team.   Tommy Nielsen was the same.   A guy named John Potanko was recruited out of PE classes.   Andrew Hodges teaches today. I   watched him play freelance everyday while we practiced.   I convinced him to come over to the varsity courts, hit with some of the better players.   He didn’t think he was good enough.   Great kid.   Kevin McCabe was another.   Sebbe Bredberg, a Swede, fought shoulder problems and substituting for a school year.   Next go—Southern Conference Champion, Bredberg a hero!   There were similar kids at Atlantic Christian and really I’m sure I’ve forgotten several.

I wrote this thinking of, and thanking, the Smialeks.   More than that, thanking my persistent kids.   I loved seeing them make it.   More than either, though, I write this for the young coaches… “Don’t cut ‘em, Don’t give up on ‘em, Coach ‘em, Coach ‘em, Coach ‘em!”


2 thoughts on “Thoughts for Young Coaches

  1. Lane Evans

    Great letter and great analogies coach. I could read your stories all day long. She is simply stating what most of us already knew. You’re a great coach and teacher of the game and life. Your lifetime of experience is what feeds us that care about the game and the next generations who will take it over. I was one of those middle of the road players myself. Not a lot of talent but enough dogged determination for 10 people. I still coach and teach that to this day. I have been teaching tennis for nearly 40 years. I work with high school kids with minimal ability. Each one of them is different with different goals and ideals, especially as it relates to tennis. They are good kids and that is where I begin to build them. They have to feel good about themselves and what they are doing. They have to know that how they grow and progress is important to me. Without this basic foundation, they are going nowhere. Support is the main ingredient with success. But you have known this forever. Thanks for sharing coach. Lane

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