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Great Expectations

Some months or even years ago, our friend Barry explained how some young athletes get overly hyped early in their career, leaving them to surprise or disappoint later. The phenomenon most often occurs in coachable children with some natural ability or talent. These kids can run, kick, hit, or throw, but what really sets them apart in their youth is that they care, pay attention, practice, and learn.

This certainly describes Simon. He’s usually one of the better soccer players on any team he plays on, being especially good at passing. He’s also got a good swing in baseball and a decent shot in basketball. But where potential talent really shows up is in tennis. Last year, when he was 5 1/2 and did a week of camp, his coach left him with notes about use of spin, told him his aim on the volley was “spectacular”, and praised his “fluid” motions, “which are key to being an amazing performer.” That was pretty exciting to read. Then, at the end she noted that “You listen so well.” Which made me wonder: talent or listening skills?

This summer, at the end of his first week of tennis camp, his coach Dave came to find me after the first day.

“Do you know what an amazing player your son is?” he asked me.

“Uh, no. I think he’s probably pretty good, but I’m so awful myself that I have no frame of reference.”

“Well he’s really amazing. I can’t believe he’s only had one week of camp here. He’s my best rallyer.”

Wow! Dave’s notes gushed. According to him, Simon’s backhand could be a “real weapon”, his strokes are “pretty and natural” and his comments included advice on adding lots of top spin and adding slice to his powerful serve and other tennis lingo I don’t understand myself. Dave wrote that he was “blown away by your skill this week” and that Simon has “a great future in tennis.” Then he sat me down with the Junior Development clinic flyer and circled the one he wants Simon to enroll in: Beginner/Advanced Beginner Ages 9-10.

Exciting right? A sign of real talent for sure. Unless it’s the attention span again. Because last week Simon returned for one more camp session. Dave was there, and he grabbed Simon immediately and put him in with the advanced 8-9-year-old group along with Coach Matt and Coach Joe. Simon was the youngest and shortest kid out there, and in his notes Coach Joe praised him for “holding your own against all the bigger kids” and wrote that “No doubt you’re going to be a great tennis player.”

Just about the time it sounds like you’ve got a little phenom on your hands, he adds this: “You worked hard all week, really listen, and had a great attitude.” There’s that coachability again. Whenever I hear comments like this, I hear Barry’s voice in my head and caution myself against getting too excited. One day those attention-challenged boys are going to start to listen, and at that point the truly talented will be sorted out from the merely hard working and compliant.

Given Simon’s genetic inheritance, it seems unlikely he’ll end up being the next big thing. Then again, given my portion of his genetic inheritance, it’s nothing short of a miracle that he can hit the ball at all. Thankfully, our life goals for Simon never included his being a sports star, so our hearts will not be broken when other kids break away. Still, I have to sheepishly admit that it’s been fun—a lot of fun—having multiple coaches gush over Simon’s on-court ability.


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