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Growing Up Match Tough

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Growing Up Match Tough

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We were joking in the car, passing the Red Robin restaurant in Latham, when it hit me again – the resilience of youth. A year ago, to the day, we had been huddled in that parking lot at 11:30 at night crying. Well I like to think that I wasn’t crying, but my then thirteen year old was most certainly sobbing as if she had lost her most prized possession. That day, she had had a full day of school, been picked up and driven 2 and a half hours from Riverdale to Latham where she started a match at 8:30pm. After two sets and two and a half hours the score was 6:7,7:6. After playing two set tie breakers she had nothing left in the tank when the third set started at 11:00pm. The third set went quickly, she lost 6:0 and as she staggered to the car, I searched in vain for words of comfort.

“Erm, you want something to eat?” Yes I know, I’ll pay for the therapy to correct all the times I’ve comforted her with food.

She nodded. She didn’t look hungry, but she was trying to act normal, maybe to comfort me too.

“Let’s drive until we find someplace.” We drove in silence taking in the bleakness of Wolf Road at 11:30 at night. It seemed like an intrusion to talk to her. She had played for three hours, was sopping wet with sweat and tears. Asking her for anything else, even the effort of conversation, was cruel.

Finally I turned into the Red Robin Parking Lot. There were people in the restaurant, but the door was closed. We had just missed it. I said that to Gibby then. “We almost made it.”

And she lost it.

She came apart like a drum that had been filled with too much too quickly. I opened my arms and she crawled into them, bending herself around the steering wheel and the compartments between us as if they were not there. She lay on my chest and I kissed her sweaty hair and whispered words that I’ve forgotten now, but probably went something like this, “I love you. I love you. I love you. You are wonderful. You were wonderful this morning and you are wonderful now. I know that this hurts and makes you doubt yourself but please believe me, you are wonderful.”

It was the hardest I had seen her cry in a long time. It was long and hard and constant for more than ten minutes. And it was dark and lonely and weird in a strange parking lot in Latham two and a half hours from home. And just when she started to catch her breath, a car pulled up beside her, another parent from the tournament. I looked at her over Gibby’s head and shook my own. She pointed to the back of her car, where, through windows up and locked tightly, I could see the red eyed but tearless face of her daughter, staring straight ahead. I gave her the one weary smile I had left in me and she nodded and whispered to her husband. Then they drove away.

And then, and not for the first time, I wondered what the hell we were doing to our kids. Seriously, what is this all for? A scholarship to college? That doesn’t make sense. Tennis is pricey. If I invested what we spend on tennis per year, or even just put in under my mattress, I could pay for college myself. She is never going pro. That’s not her ambition, or mine. Then why do we do it? I have to tell you that when I finally took my exhausted kid to the cheapest hotel I could find on priceline, and when she had showered and crawled into bed, still sad and silent, I had not figured it out.

Fast forward to this year – to Saturday, and the bustling parking lot of Red Robin. Same tournament, but this year Gib played the 18s. The matches started on Saturday morning, so we drove up after a good night’s sleep. Her first match of the day had gone better than expected. The other girl was terrific, but Gibby dominated 6:2, 6:1. As we passed the parking lot we were on our way to lunch with her coach and the other players from Concordia. It was sunny and bright, cold and crisp, a perfect fall day in  New York state.
“How about Red Robin?” the other parent suggested. I closed my eyes for a second, allowing the horror of that night to pass before laughing gaily, “Nah, that place holds bad memories. Panera!”

***

So how did this tournament end? Brilliantly actually, but that is not all that I took away from the experience. As I watched Gibby go from strength to strength at this year’s tournament, not just winning, but dominating in three out of the four matches that she played, I found it hard not to grin like an idiot. There is just something about how dauntless this child of mine has become. Last year she won nothing, but this year, when she walked out on the court, she had shaken off that experience. Red Robin’s parking lot was miles from her mind.

It was present in mine. She is dauntless, but I fear for her. She flies, and I run around on the ground securing the edges of the giant air mattress that will catch her if she falls. She searches her opponent’s game for weakness. I search her face for any sign of want. It is like this in everything. Tennis is just the stage on which it is most evident.

And this is why I let her play. Even though I fear, I love the fact that she does not. I love that she knows that there are girls with more talent, and that this does not make her talent smaller. I love that she knows that there are girls with less talent and more access, and that this knowledge does not make her bitter. I love that she is aware that when she trains harder and listens and adjusts, she wins more games and eventually more matches. The correlation between hard work and success is clear to her, even when all things are not equal, which is important, because all things are never equal.

So she is growing up on the tennis court with her friends.They are learning lessons I learned in my thirties and forties about grinding when it’s time to grind. They are learning to advocate for themselves; to make their case firmly but politely; to shake hands after a hard loss, even if the opponent was an unmitigated cheater. They are learning to finish the match even when they feel like quitting. They are learning to be match tough and world ready.

And from my seat on the bleachers, or in the viewing room or in the lobby of each tournament facility, I am growing up too. When she crawled into my lap last year, I realized I couldn’t make it better and that scared me. What good is a mama if she can’t make it better right? Only time has taught me that I don’t have to make it better anymore, I just have to be there, wherever she left me, so she has a base. And I have to show her that I bet on her, every time. If I think it is possible, there is a part of her that will always attempt the impossible. Sometimes the impossible does not bend to our combined will, but you would be surprised at the amount of times that it has.

By the way, my apologies to the good people at the red robin in Latham. I’m sure your food is awesome and we will try it someday, this year was just too soon.

Finding a Perfect Match

Doubles partners at the National Clay Court Championships in 2013

Doubles partners at the National Clay Court Championships in 2013

I have to tell you that everytime I pick up the phone to ask a parent if their daughter would like to play doubles with mine, I am really nervous. I feel like I am approaching a rich family with my daughter and two cows and trying to arrange a marriage.  I used to keep these crazy thoughts to myself, but the other day I was waiting for my daughter to finish her clinic, enjoying some rare downtime with a couple of Funny Mommies when the topic came up. I was delighted to find that I was not alone with this problem.

Let me share some of our experiences. I’ll break the ice with one of my own stories. Last summer I called a family in New Jersey to see if their daughter wanted to play dubs with my daughter at a tournament there. The dad answered the phone. English is not his first language, so it took a little while for us to get through the preliminaries of the conversation and for me to get him to understand that Gibby wanted to partner with his daughter in the tournament that weekend. But when he understood he was sooo excited! Now his daughter was ranked higher than Gibby at the time, and in truth I was surprised she didn’t yet have a partner, but I was really touched by his response. It is just what you need to hear when you make such a request. “My daughter would be pleased, no – very honored to play with Gibby.”

Wow! This highly ranked player would be honored to play with Gibby. Well, we had clearly arrived. I was in the middle of patting myself on the back when Jersey Dad interrupted me “Wait, so you are Gabby’s mom right?”

“No. I am Gibby’s mom.”

“You are not Gabby Price’s mom?” Gabby Price was probably ranked number 3 in the Section at the time. Gibby was in the high 30s.

“No. I am sorry.” Sorry for what exactly though? I had not misled him. I had said Gibby. And I wasn’t sorry that I was Gibby’s mom. I love her, even now in the lippy preteen years.

“Oh,” He said. “My wife will have to call you. I don’t think my daughter is playing doubles in this tournament.” A half hour later his wife called to confirm that his daughter would not in fact be playing doubles in the tournament. It was one of the most awkward conversations I have ever had. “Perhaps another time,” She offered. I don’t think so.

I can’t say I exactly blame them. I mean, this must be the same reception Sarena Williams gets when she calls Vika Azarenka to suggest they play doubles in the US Open. “Serena?!!! OF COURSE!!!!! Let’s do it GIRL! We got this! Sorry, what? This is not Serena Williams? But you said Serena Williams. Oh SARENA!!! Oh I am sorry, it seems I am not playing doubles this year. Good luck I hope you can find another partner. Perhaps another time.”

My current favorite doubles story isn’t mine to tell. But I will try. One of my Funny Mommy girlfriends told me that her son has played doubles with the same kid for about a year. They win some, they lose some, but they always seem to have a good time. Recently she called the other mom to register for a national level doubles competition. The other mom, a sweet, softly spoken woman of great charm, explained that her son would be entering but with anyone but my friend’s son. “I don’t think they are growing as players when they play together. I don’t think they should play together anymore.”

The Funny Mommies and I listened with straight faces as my friend told this story. She totally understood the other mom’s point of view, and also understood that her son was the problem. She spoke without judgment for Gracious Mommy’s edict. And when she was finished we burst into riotous laughter! “SHE BROKE UP WITH YOU!!!!” We held our bellies and laughed so hard I am surprised the kids on the courts didn’t hear us. “You’ve been dumped. Just admit it. Did she say it wasn’t you, it’s her?”

“Yes,” She had actually said that. A complete and classic break up then. My friend, seeing that she was never going to stop the mirth train, got on board.

The thing with Funny Mommies is that we laugh when it hurts. But we didn’t laugh at this next story. M’s momma told us about his experience playing a Little Mo tournament last summer. Her baby was about ten at the time, and the sweetest little boy. I know his sweetness isn’t relevant to the story, but it heightened our indignation. At the tournament site, they wandered around asking people if their son would partner with M. They were repeatedly rejected. Several people actually said “No thank you. We prefer to keep looking.”

Are you kidding me? What is wrong with people? These kids are ten and eleven years old. Their doubles partners are kids they like and can hang with for an hour. Nobody is actually proposing marriage, or any other long term arrangement at this age.

Mind you, if I am being honest, I have kind of developed short list of traits that Gibby needs in a doubles partner. Well, actually the reverse. There a list of traits that a kid cannot have and be Gibby’s doubles partner. They are:

Obnoxious parents – hey I have to stand next to these people for an hour while our kids are on the court. If they are the kind of parents that shoot mean looks at their kids, and look pointedly at me when Gibby makes an error, it’s not a good time.

Obnoxious habits – I don’t like kids who yell at their doubles partners on the court. Gibby has a coach, and he is not a twelve year old girl. If she makes more errors than you can stand, don’t play with her again. Watch your own game, because screaming at my kid and then double faulting the entire last game will probably mean you won’t have the option of playing with her again.

Overactive tearducts – Stop the crying on the tennis court. The thing I like most about doubles is that finally my kid has a buddy out on the court with her. So when things go right they can celebrate together, and when things go wrong they can figure it out or laugh it off. I honestly don’t want her having to deal with her partners tears over a bad shot.

Fortunately, these three traits often go together. Obnoxious parents tend to make obnoxious kids or in extreme cases, little cryers. So my list only really eliminates a small, but really annoying segment of the population.

So what do I do when these people call? I have never actually had this problem. Here is why. I repel obnoxious parents. I do. I must smell like Eau De Slacker (Givenchy makes it, in a pink bottle), and obnoxious parents hate that. They are really anxiously running on their little hamster wheel of life promoting their 12 year old’s spectacular tennis career all the time. So the people who ask Gibby to play are her buddies or the children of my buddies, and its all good.

In fact I am off to call my friend now. There is a mixed doubles oppportunity at the end of the month. Hopefully she doesn’t think I am proposing to her son. Course he is charming and smart and has a really Funny Mommy so……

NO #1

So anyone who has come in contact with me in the past couple of weeks knows that Gibby made the Horace Mann Middle Division tennis team. Earning this privilege was a process. First there were the tryouts. At the end of those the coaches said “Congrats. You’ve made the team.” Gibby and her seventh grade friends exhaled. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they weren’t sure they would make it, and they were relieved. The eighth graders continued to hold their collective breath. They had been here before, and they knew that making the team was just the first step.

The next week brought the ladder matches. In essence every girl played every other girl in an attempt to establish a ranking and determine positions on the team. This is a democratic and an objective process. It is no respecter of person or popularity. Ladder matches are a ruthless but fair way of determining the order in which the girls will take the court to represent their school. At the end of the day, the girl who beat every one else should be number one, because the assumption is that the other schools are engaging in this same objective process, and in competition we want our best to play their best. This process is expected to yield our best.

Two weeks ago, at the end of the process, the coach (whose name escapes me – don’t judge, I have a hectic life) any way the coach turned to my twelve year old and said “Congrats. You’re number 1.” I asked Gibby to tell me how she said it. I thought a pronouncement like that must have been made with some kind of pomp and circumstance. I was imagining confetti, maybe the theme music from Rocky. Gibby probably would run across the courts with her gloves, no make that her racquet, waving high in the air, while her teammates burst into spontaneous slow, swelling, thunderous applause.

She rolled her eyes. “We gave her the score and she wrote it down and then she said it Mom, okay?”

Okay… Fine then. No. Not fine. Being number 1 is a big deal. It doesn’t happen as often as these little kids think, nor as much as we big kids would like. It’s a special moment, and an increasingly rare one. But since I seemed to be the only person in the house excited, I told my facebook friends and said a quick prayer of gratitude and held my peace.

Last week, Number 2 asked to play my daughter again – a challenge to see if she was still worthy of the number 1 spot one week later. Number 2 clearly understands the value of being Number 1. Gibby was surprised. “We haven’t even played our first match yet.” Clearly my little innocent still thinks the world is fair. She thinks it would have been sporting of Number 2 to allow her an opportunity to play in the number 1 position at least once before challenging her for it.

But she played, and she won again. And this time she was willing to enjoy it.

What’s the difference? I think I know. I think that the week before she thought enjoying her moment would diminish her teammates. Gibby works so hard to practice and improve her game, and she stays up well past any decent bedtime most nights to study because she is on the court when her friends are studying. But she is still a little afraid to own the rewards of that work.

Her natural competitiveness and her love of the game drives her to win. Her modesty, and something societal that we teach girls, prevents her from fully owning that win. Who wants to be known as the cocky 7th grader who thinks she’s Serena Williams or Maria Sharpova? What if the popular 8th graders she beat to become number 1 resent her and ostracize her? What if celebrating her monster tennis game messes up her budding social game?

Right now my male readers and the parents of boys are completely puzzled. As a society, I don’t think we teach these same fears to our boys. I think boys are encouraged to go for the win, earn the stripes and wear them. I think we are slowly getting there with our girls. They are going for the win, and earning the stripes, but they are just a little hesitant to wear them. Baby steps.

Thank God for Number 2. That girl taught my daughter a lesson that I could not. Number 2 is an eight grader, who is probably less than happy to relinquish the Number 1 spot to an upstart 7th grader. So she is going to challenge her every time she can. And already her determination is having a great effect on my kid. She is seeing that it is okay to want that top spot, even on a team of perceived equals. She is seeing that it is okay to play hard for it, and she is realizing that if you play hard and win then its okay to celebrate.

Last week she came home and described the win for me in more detail. She told me that the eighth grade girls were very kind to her afterwards and congratulated her warmly. She told me that the eighth grade boys were shocked because Number 2 practices at the John McEnroe Academy, and was widely accepted as the best player in the middle school. The seventh graders were not surprised, but they were proud and gave her hugs and hand shakes and literal pats on the back all day.

Best of all though, she didn’t roll her eyes when I called her No #1. She just shoveled in more of her celebratory frozen yogurt and grinned.

Second Set Let Down

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So we’ve had a tough weekend over here at Team Gibson HQ. Gibby played in the twelves at the sectionals in Syracuse. She had two devastating losses. They were particularly devastating in their similarity. In both, she won the first set, only to watch the second set slip away, and then, in the confusion and self doubt engineered by the second set loss, she couldn’t rebound in time to win the super tie breaker.

I wasn’t with her. Her dad took her to Syracuse, while I went off with my Mom and aunts to celebrate another aunt’s birthday in Canada. I went because I really love this aunt. She is gracious and lovely and kind and unflappable, and these are all traits I want to develop in time for Gibby to see and emulate. But even so, on this weekend, I felt a little trapped with my hard drinking, hard partying, hard to take family. I felt that my place was with my baby. To make things worse, after her second loss, Gibby sent me an email. She said “Mama I lost again. The same exact way. I am so sad. I want you here with me.”

I couldn’t be with her. And I couldn’t fix her sadness. Her daddy was there though, and in a move straight from the Best Practices For Good Daddies Who Know Their Little Girls (“BPFGDWKTLG”) he found oxtails in Syracuse and Les Mis on the hotel tv. Now if you are ever with my daughter and she is sad, this is the only way to go. She was fine by the time I spoke to her, but she still needed to talk about the two losses. “What’s wrong with me mama?”

Wow. In my eyes, there is nothing wrong with my child. She is all things beautiful, an outright win in a world of compromise. My mama bear was immediately turned up. I started researching kids who lose tennis matches in the second set. Seriously the internet is amazing – I know I sound like an old lady here, but it is. Anyhow, within five minutes, I had realized that it was a thing. It even had a name – Second Set Let Down.

Apparently, in stressful situations, the body’s nervous system produces the necessary fright or flight hormones to get us through. Immediately after the emergency passes however, the nervous system causes us to “let down,” which means we lose focus and relax. In real life, this is a good thing. It is nature’s way of quickly restoring the system to normal. In a tennis match, it’s a real problem.

Apparently after every game and set, tennis players have a letdown. According to Kathy Krajco in her article on the subject, “This letdown is partly physical and partly mental. Mentally, it’s a loss of intensity, focus, concentration — a little mental breather we take after a pressure-packed moment. Because winning increases the sense of relief, winning a game or set increases the tendency to let down.”

Grown men and women have let downs – on and off the tennis court. So we really shouldn’t be surprised when twelve year olds experience this. It’s just hard to watch them go through it. So now we have to work it out. We have to do what we do and get Gibby over this hump. I have a little plan that I will need talk to her coach about. I’ll let you guys know how it works out.

But while I am doing that I am going to keep reminding my little girl that her losses on the tennis court are just that – losses on the tennis court. They don’t mean anything except that her opponent’s focus and determination was stronger than hers on that one day. I want her to know that she is more than her USTA rank, and more than her win loss ratio, although both are impressive. She is more than her report card, and more than her role in the play. She is more than the slightly scary pile of invitations on her desk, and more than her instagram likes and followers.

What she is, and what she has always been, is a gift from a merciful God. If I had not named her Gibson, I might have named her Grace. She is, to me, more than I deserve and all that I aspire to earn. And even so, I still know that she will be more, because she is my beautiful, unfinished girl.

Something like Smiling

Gibby played a nine year old wunderkind last Sunday in the finals of a level 1 twelves tournament. She won the first set, and then the little girl showed why her parents drove hours to take her to tournaments every weekend. Every shot off her racquet was accurate, every placement calculated to cause maximum damage. My 11 year old, easily a foot taller, watched with some dismay as this pint sized powerhouse dismantled her game and, to some extent, her swagger on the court.

They split sets, but walking into the ten point super-tiebreaker I could see my daughter relax. Her opponent came out hard, but Gibby leaned on the two years extra life experience (no for real, this is what happened…seriously, stop laughing), and stayed very very calm. She completed all her strokes, but didn’t go for any winners. Against this awesome kid, she had no room for error, so she played the defensive game for which she is often scolded by her parents and coaches. This made for a long tie break, but eventually the little girl made more errors than winners and gave Gibby the match. Gibby looked relieved. The little girl burst into tears.

Her parents quickly leapt into action, sweeping her off to the corner and surrounding her with love and soft words of comfort. Gibby came to us, shaken by her near loss, but also full of sympathy for her opponent – sympathy, and immense respect. “Do you know that kid is only NINE Mom? NINE!!!!!!!!! She is sooooo good. I’m sorry I played so defensively, but she was sooooooooo good. And sooooo NINE.”

Daddy and Grandma laughed with me, even as we gave her the raised eyebrow. The raised eyebrow means enjoy your victory, but we will talk about that strategy… Then the tournament director called her over for the presentation of the trophies. He presented the runner up trophy and then the winner’s trophy and then asked the girls to pose together for a picture.

Has anyone ever really thought this whole thing through? We ask little children to go on the court and play their little hearts out. Then, if they lose, we ask them to be gracious in defeat and shake hands and congratulate the winner. Then, when they should be free to hug their moms in the privacy of their cars and cry until they feel better, we ask them to suck it up, just a minute longer. Dry those tears, hoist your trophy, and smile for the camera.

Last Sunday that little girl impressed me and every one else in the room with her grace. She smiled as hard as she could, her eyes still glassy with tears, and her face flushed with emotion and the effort of the moment. I watched for a moment, even snapping the picture as her parents were doing, but then I had to walk away.

I walked away to dry my own embarrassing tears. Something about that moment, and that child, tugged hard on my own heart. I told myself that I was tearing up because I had taken the same picture of Gibby two months before. She had also lost in a super tie breaker and she was trying to hold it together for the camera, but the tears were still evident in her strange attempt at a smile.

The truth is, I think I was just moved by the humanity of the moment, and by the insight it provided into how gracious people are made. Sometimes this privilege we have as parents – to watch, and even influence the way the adults of tomorrow will behave, is overwhelming. Sometimes I am acutely aware that I am witnessing a moment that is shaping another human being’s character.

This was a heavy lesson for a nine year old girl, this losing with grace. But her parents chose to let her learn it now. They could have smiled and declined the picture taking ritual. They could have been gracious for her, while allowing her to wallow in her well earned tears. Every parent in the room would have understood. Instead though, they asked her to do the hard thing, even at nine. They didn’t even make a big fuss about it. They just led her to the trophy table and stood back and watched her with pride. I watched her with something akin to awe.

For her part, she lifted the trophy she had earned, even though it wasn’t the one for which she had fought. And she fixed her face to resemble a smile. Like real champions do.

Come On!

The happiest sound on Earth has nothing to do with Disney. It is unrelated to Christmas, or fairytales, or baby birdies in the springtime. It is, in fact, the sound an eleven year old makes at the end of a long, hotly contested point on a tennis court. Mine tries to be discreet about it, she turns halfway, trying not to rub her victory cry in her opponent’s face. She makes a fist, but doesn’t actually pump it, and then the low growl escapes, it is audible, but not loud. In fact, unless we are sitting court side, which we rarely are, I have to read her lips, and more often than not they are saying the same thing. Sometimes I whisper it with her “Come on!”

Come on! There is wealth of words in her visceral, yet controlled shout. It means I knew I could do it, and I did. Look at me, I executed what I was taught; I followed through; I did what I do; and I made something happen. This has little or nothing to do with the girl on the other side of the net. Usually, she did what she was supposed to do as well. Her real opponent is that yellow ball, and her real challenge is to strike it at just the right angle, with just the right amount of force, allowing the racquet to stay in contact with the ball for exactly the right period of time. And when it all comes together in an indisputable winner, the heavens open for a brief second and the choirs of angels sing a preteen hallelujah, and Gibby sings with them “COME ON!”

The minute Gibby was born she became my favorite toy, and I played with her constantly. Often I read to her from the works of Jane Austen and Chinua Achebe. Hey, she didn’t express any preferences so I went with mine. But the one game she clearly enjoyed was the one where you hold the baby in front of your face until she makes an expression, then you quickly mirror that expression. You hold it until she changes her expression, and then you mirror it again. She sticks her tongue out, you stick your tongue out. Baby doesn’t realize that you are making the same expressions she is making, but she quickly figures out that she is controlling you. She is making something happen. My baby loved this game. I am sure this surprises no one. This is one kid who lives to make something happen. She loves to control the outcome.

In tennis though, as in any sport, controlling the outcome doesn’t start when you take the court for a match. By then it is way too late. You control the outcome when you choose practice over tv time. You control the outcome when you show up mentally every time and when you live the adage that practice does not make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect. So when a child makes that perfect shot on the court, that shot is coming from a thousand practice shots in clinic, and in her private lessons, and on her own against an unforgiving wall. No wonder her little victory shout echoes, it is bouncing off of all the effort she puts into honing that skill. Come on!

Older tennis players yell too. Not to be confused with the annoying grunting that accompanies some players’ every shot, this shout comes from a good strong place. It should, I think, be met with understanding. It is the Amen at the end of a prayer heard. It is the involuntary answer to unasked question, “Am I good enough?” Or perhaps in the case of the older tennis player, “Do I still have it?”

I think we could all use a little of what these kids have: the will to prepare, the presence of mind to execute, and the courage to own the results. I know that they inspire me to find the areas in my life where I am not controlling the outcome, and try something new. Let’s challenge ourselves to lean on our experience and our abilities and go for broke like these kids do. Let’s hit some winners. COME ON!Image