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Celebrating Tennis Diversity -- 'My Wild Mustangs'

July 5, 2010 09:16 AM
Back row left to right: Coach Gary Shepherd and Chris Ward, Skills Center director with Madison Middle School students
by Gary Shepherd, USPTA Recreational Coach
June 2010 -- It's another typical after-school session with the diverse, rowdy, very LOUD group of teenagers I've come to think of as my "Wild Mustangs." We're in the echoing basketball gym at Madison Middle School in Tampa, Fla., known as the "Home of the Mustangs." The head coach has not yet called the session to order and it's pretty crazy in the gym.

A.G., a "Precious"-like 13-year-old African-American girl who is smart as a whip, with thick glasses, is chasing after C.S. She's seriously angry, or at least pretending to be angry, and she's chasing C.S. with all the speed she can muster. After a few months of tennis activity, A.G. has decided she wants to be a tennis umpire; doing that job empowers and delights her.

C.S., a fairly athletic 14-year-old African-American boy, easily stays out of range of A.G. He cackles with laughter as he scrambles to dodge her. C.S., had he started playing tennis at a younger age, could have been an excellent seasonal player. He's already amazingly good for a rookie.

Meanwhile, S.P., a 13-year-old Latino boy who never smiles and rarely speaks (except about sports), watches as C.S. avoids A.G. Clearly, S.P. is disgusted at such dumb horseplay. S.P. doesn't have time for the nonsense -- he's ready to play tennis. Around the gym, about 15 other kids are shooting baskets, chasing each other, using their cell phones, laughing, shouting, screaming in a joyous mix of after-school energy and freedom.

Then my boss, big Chris Ward, shouts loud enough for the kids to hear: "All right! Settle down! Come on over here so we can take roll." The kids respond, some of them teasing one another, some smiling, some still working their cell phones. They slowly stroll over to the bleacher seats. Slowly, just as Chris ordered, they settle down. It's time to get down to business -- for Chris, it's basketball instruction; for me, tennis.

The nonprofit outfit I work for, The Skills Center, has a contract with Tampa's Hillsborough County School District. In a prototype program, we work with a few dozen underprivileged kids at Madison. The Skills Center's core idea is wonderful: building character through sports.

Founders Celeste Roberts and Chris Ward (along with other directors and staffers) have had a lot of success, both in terms of turning around kids' lives, and earning the funding and getting the contracts to do the job. The Skills Center's basketball, football, soccer, baseball, and tennis coach -- namely, me, a proud USPTA coach for about five years, after 45 or so years of 4.0 amateur play -- tries to bring some order into the lives of these chaotic young teenagers. These kids are generally from broken, poor, one-parent homes in not-so-desirable neighborhoods. They are tough, sometimes angry, and terrifically smart and creative, too.

For many of these kids, Madison's after-school "212 Program" is a last chance to get extra credit. All of them are either a grade behind or about to be. After their "212 Program" is done for the day, the kids -- proud of their funky haircuts and colorful cell phones and often wearing very sharp clothes -- clamber aboard yellow buses to head back to West Tampa, or Ybor City, or elsewhere. They live in places many Tampa suburbanites see only from Interstate-275, at a distance, at 65 miles per hour, just passing through in their late model SUVs and luxury sedans.

For tennis at Madison, I mostly use QuickStart gear -- kids pick up the sport more easily using QuickStart equipment. We use a QuickStart net or a lowered volleyball net; basketball lines serve as baselines and sidelines, either inside the gym or outside on the basketball court. Forget service lines; there is simply no point to having service lines. That's too complicated. That's not how we roll.

Sometimes, for the kids who are interested and starting to get a feel for "the sport of a lifetime," I'll use regulation gear. I'll even break out my ball machine and try to teach some actual tennis. But that's not really what this is all about.

My kids are a diverse group, mostly African-American and Hispanic, with a handful of white and Asian girls and boys, ages 11 to 14. On a typical day, I'll have about a dozen or fewer kids. For most of them, the time with me is their first exposure to tennis. And at first, it's a pretty hard sell.

I've been working with The Skills Center for about a year. I love it. It's the most meaningful work I've ever done in tennis, maybe the most rewarding work I've done ever -- even better than working as an investigative reporter and uncovering nefarious behavior in the business world.

My boss, Chris Ward, a 6-foot-7-inch former pro basketball player with time in a dozen countries from Spain to Israel, instantly commands respect from these kids. His size and his sincerity, his seriousness, get his message across -- don't mess with Chris.

But, while Chris looks like a bad _ _ _ , he has a heart of gold. He trains NBA players, and works at IMG (Nick Bollettieri's place, in Bradenton, 40 miles southwest of Madison Middle School), and otherwise is doing fine. Chris, 37, and with worn-out hips, doesn't have to do this hard work.

Chris absolutely loves working with kids, especially kids who are off track and heading the wrong way. "The prison systems are being built with you kids in mind," he tells them sometimes in his gentle, sonorous voice. "And that's where you are going, to prison, if you don't straighten yourselves out." Instantly, when these kids see Chris, they know he is The Man in Charge. And they pay attention immediately.

Me? Not so much. I'm a tennis coach, I'm not what the kids consider cool, I'm 58, and -- while I'm in pretty good shape for an old guy -- I'm not exactly an intimidating force; I certainly don't intimidate these kids. Furthermore, I usually work with middle-class children and adults -- students who very much want to learn tennis. I usually work in comfortable surroundings, and I'm completely comfortable on any tennis court, anywhere.

Initially, I was pretty uncomfortable trying to teach tennis to these kids, but after a year, I enjoy it a lot.

My Wild Mustangs initially don't want to play tennis. They, at first, consider it a sissy sport, a country club sport, a game for wimps in white shorts and pink shirts who work at banks and flower shops, or perhaps live off their inheritance money. These kids are tough. They mostly play basketball; some play football.

But, after I've convinced them to give it a try, after they realize tennis can be a blast, they buy in. They have fun. They laugh. Then, after they realize that tennis is not only fun, it's extremely hard work, they begin to respect the game. And then, the real work starts.

Tennis, through this program and others like it, offers lessons in organizational skills. Tennis offers lessons in math, in following rules, in being rewarded for hard work, in behavior -- in good behavior. Calmly shaking hands after a match, for these kids, is a stunning change of behavior -- a very good change.

For these kids, tennis is a simple way to teach this: Although the world is often crazy and scary and out of control, it doesn't always have to be crazy and scary. Tennis teaches that, if you follow the rules, sometimes you can win. If you play fair, you feel good about yourself. If -- win or lose -- you can smile and shake hands with your opponent when the game is over, you have learned something about the dignity of controlling your emotions and being a good sport.

And maybe, just maybe, you'll think life's not so bad after all. Because, after all, where there's tennis, there's hope. 
This article originally appeared on the ADDvantage magazine website.





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