Why do we get involved in activities? Is it fate or do we gravitate to certain activities with the skills we have at our disposal? 

The summer after my senior year, now 40 short years ago, my best friend and I saw our football coach playing tennis on the community courts. I remember thinking since the most athletic, most intelligent coach was playing tennis with three other athletic young men, this sport had to be something special. After we watched for a while, our coach came over and gave us a couple of his extra rackets and some tennis balls telling us to go to an empty court and he would come down and show us how to play when he was finished.

That hot, summer day the coach taught us the basics in just a few minutes, telling us that tennis is a lifetime sport that involves all of our athletic skills and is a great connection to many other sports that involve footwork and hand-eye coordination. Since he grew up in Ohio, he did not have the football/tennis conflict that we have here in Indiana. Tennis is a boys’ spring sport in Ohio (Michigan and Illinois too) so many of the football coaches in those states encourage their athletes to play tennis.

My football coach started an affinity for tennis for me that still lasts to this day.

A couple weeks ago I finished my 30th year of coaching tennis. (I had decided in 2009 I would not coach boys’ tennis again but I coached the boys this fall and had a lot of fun doing it. As always enjoyment from coaching comes mainly from the players’ attitudes and the connection with parents.) I look back at all of those years and thousands of hours on the court with the only downside being some skin cancer and a couple minor injuries. I do not regret coaching for all of those years and am currently looking forward to spring tennis when the Lady Kings will take on another season of challenges.

In 1984 my coaching tennis career started innocently enough: six eighth grade boys saw me playing tennis and they asked me if I would show them how to play — a déjà vue moment similar to my experience with my football coach.

So, I started the program, at first just teaching the basics eventually leading to a tennis club that traveled around to play against other schools. Then after getting enough players, we were required to have 14 before starting a team at Cass, the varsity team sprinted out onto the court for the first season. Those eighth grade boys were now seniors and they recorded nine team wins, not bad for the first year. Since they were one and done, they had to be replaced with players who had not played for five years and several years of very few team wins followed.

Although we have had some success over the years, I have come to understand that success in high school sports has very little to do with winning. Of course, I want to have a team that is competitive and no one enjoys winning more than I do; however, high school coaches who put all of their emphasis behind how many wins their team has or how many players they have playing at the “next level” totally miss the point.

For all athletes, high school sports should have three major priorities. First, work ethic must be promoted. In life those who learn to work hard will be awarded in whatever field they pursue. Second, sportsmanship. Society is built upon the shoulders of people with integrity. That point must be stressed and is just as important as work ethic and way, way more important than wins. Third, appreciation of life stands beside work ethic and integrity. Why? We in America must understand that we have certain rights to achieve at whatever level we wish to achieve. High school athletes learn about this appreciation of having the intelligence and skills to push themselves toward their goals. These athletes should be aware that they have things that children in other cultures can only dream about. 

Stu Engle has taught English and journalism at Lewis Cass for 34 years. Contact him at engles@sescschools.net.

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