THE CODE AND HIDDEN VIRTUES (77)

While the humor in sports is great, more impressive are the truly noble
things that manifest themselves on the court. Line calling in tennis
provides a mirror to one’s character. There was never a player I coached
who I didn’t have a pretty good estimation of their “line calling” philosophy. Being honest is quite tough sometimes, but it is tennis’s
finest moment. I have already described what was my “most impressive
show of sportsmanship.”
“If you are not positive it’s out, it’s good.” That’s not complicated.
It’s just as wrong to unjustifiably accuse an opponent of cheating as it
is to cheat yourself.
There are, of course, all kinds of other rules, but line calling is crucial to
a worthy contest.
Steve Wilkinson, long-time coach at Gustavus Adolphus College in
Minnesota, did the best job of any coach I observed at fostering good
sportsmanship among his players. His team guidelines were stellar.
One teacher would drop a ball inside the court and ask his group of
students: “In or out?” “In” was the obvious response. He would then have
them close their eyes. Then he’d drop a second ball: “In or out?” The
puzzled ones would hear the perceptive ones reply, “In” (if you can’t see it
out, it’s in).
My age and my job were beginning to conflict. Someone said it’s time
to quit coaching when the pain of losing is worse that the joy of winning.
I can tell you there is a place beyond that: When you don’t really care
whether you win or lose. I wasn’t quite there but I knew it wasn’t far off.
I had begun to look at things differently. Dr. White had asked me to add
the girls’ team to my duties. I decided I couldn’t say no to Alan, plus I would
do my best after I said yes.
We’d had several good women’s team coaches but longevity was a
problem. Title IX, too.
In retrospect I should have argued for two coaches. Coaching two teams
is best done if you have a M.W.A. degree (“Management While Wandering
Around”).
I loved the girls. They are different to coach. Anson Dorrance of North
Carolina soccer fame has done the most clinical study of effective coaching
of women. I recommend his book. It took me a while to communicate well
particularly with other women’s team’s coaches. Those who were men were
unreasonably protective of “their girls,” and there was a genre of women
who coached I never did figure out. I got into more arguments coaching
women for three years than I did in 40 for men.
Jessica Fisher typifies my changed attitude toward coaching later on.
Jessica was sweet, a limited player, who’d never been in the lineup. My
first fall practice she asked me about being a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding during our spring break. We had a four match spring trip
scheduled. I approved the absence. Jessica was number eight on our team.
We could survive, particularly when the four teams were clearly better than
our best possibilities. Before our trip we had some illness and injuries. We
were down to five, needing six girls to have a full team. Plus with five you
forfeit two points. On a drizzling March morning we were loading the van.
Across the parking lot I saw Jessica dragging her team bag and crying. I
mean sobbing. She can’t talk, but she hoisted the bag in the back. “Jessica,
you don’t have to go. We’ll be okay. I told you so in the fall.” Through her
sobs she said, “I won’t let an Elon team be short-handed.” And she crawled
in the back. Company girl.
What I began to realize and see were all the good things kids do. People
who tell you that young people are not as good as they used to be are
wrong.
And it didn’t have to be my kids. The coach from the College of
Charleston, Angelo Anastapoulo, asked if he could sub a senior girl in
our match. “She hasn’t gotten to play much.” “Sure.” Both girls played a
fine match. Down to a tiebreaker. I watched this young woman with
admiration. There were five or six close calls. Calls I’d spent a career
watching and wondering about. The girl never batted an eye. Almost
overly fair and truly a good sport. She lost. I asked Angie if I might speak
to her. “Sure.”
“You are about to graduate aren’t you?”
“Yes sir, three weeks.”
“When all this tennis stuff is over, you’ll still be honest won’t you?”
“Yes sir,” she smiled.
I’ve had parents who asked me how to make their kid be more like
those who cheat. Really? I always asked do you really want your good kid
to actually change?
My last year a boy I’d often encouraged to watch his calls and behavior
wound up in a crucial final match against our chief rival.
Fate tests you. The deciding tiebreaker featured an unbelievable number
of balls in favor of the other player and team. It was truly uncanny. Our kid
lost, having made every call honestly. He came to me with tears flowing,
saying, “Coach, I let you down.” I told him the truth. “Mike, I’ve never been
more proud of a player.”
The next week we drew the same team in the tournament and wore
them out.
I saw that happen in Kansas City once. A boy named Ben Taylor had lost a District title on a ninth point (old tiebreaker) of the deciding set. Playing an
hour from his campus, his coach said he didn’t speak all the way back. His
opponent’s own fans had seen the call and booed their classmate openly.
His coach dropped Ben off and confirmed: “Ben, you know your shot was
good.” Ben said, “I should have beaten him anyway.” With a draw of 256
men in the NAIA Nationals, fate pitted Ben against the same guy.
Taylor by 6–2, 6–1.
It was beautiful to watch the shows of honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, playing injured for team, and teamwork in sports. Beautiful moments.

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