Life lessons on the 20th Street courts

As I figure out what I’m doing with my life this year, I’m feeling nostalgic about my first job. I worked for the Department of Parks and Recreation, at one of the youth camps they host at the 20th Street tennis courts. I started helping out at the summer camps when I was 16 years old.

Coach Raymond was my boss. He told me he hired me because I connected with the kids. I was not a good tennis player at all, although I improved a bit because sometimes he stayed late to coach me. However, I learned a lot more than tennis from him. Coach Raymond modeled a work ethic which I still carry in my heart.

Here are three things I learned during the three summers I worked for him:

1) “If you’re early, you’re on time and if you’re on time, you’re late.” Now I know this is a common phrase, but I heard it first from Coach Raymond. When I started the job, I would sleep in as long as possible, race across town on my bicycle, and arrive at the tennis courts sweaty and breathless. Coach Raymond, on the other hand, would always be there early and relaxed. 

One day he encouraged me to clock in earlier so I wouldn’t be so rushed. I began to enjoy waking up at sunrise because I knew time was on my side. I felt more in control, which gave me a clear head throughout the rest of the day. 

2) “Fake confidence until you feel confident.” At first, I had trouble projecting my voice to give instructions. When I stood in front of a group of kids my mouth was dry with anxiety. Coach Raymond could tell I was shy about leading kids who were not much younger than me. 

“You can teach them too,” he said, “just do what I do.” I imitated how he interacted with the kids and copied the exact phrases he used. It didn’t happen overnight, but I slowly became more sure of myself. 

I was also insecure because the other assistant coaches were all guys who played on tennis teams in high school or college. I felt like the odd one out because I didn’t know tennis terminology and I couldn’t even serve the ball properly. Coach Raymond reminded me that my main job was to run simple drills and give the kids positive feedback. I soon realized that no one cared about my lack of tennis skill and it was only a problem in my own head.

3) “Attitude is everything.” The camps ended by noon, but sometimes it would get unbearably hot on the court by mid-morning. Coach Raymond often reiterated that us coaches had the power to influence the campers’ attitudes for the better. 

One of the assistant coaches was the king of reverse psychology. He would say “I’m freezing” on hot days. The higher the temperature, the more he said it. One scorching July day, he disappeared into the storage shed for a few moments and came back out fake shivering, wearing a thick sweater. The kids laughed but he had proved his point and shifted their perspective. For the rest of the day, no one whined about the heat.

It’s been almost a decade since my first day on the tennis court. Although I have not yet planted my feet on a firm career path, I am blessed because I’ve almost always been employed. From babysitting to bartending, every job teaches me new wisdom that helps me grow as a person. I’m still thinking about the life lessons I learned from tennis camp. They may seem corny, but it’s the basic truths that resonate most. So to all the great bosses and kind mentors out there who shape our lives for the better just by being themselves: thank you.

3 thoughts on “Life lessons on the 20th Street courts

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