The other day, my wife and I dropped our oldest child, Mike, off at college. After we said our goodbyes, Kelley and I got in the car and the emotions began to flow. Sadness, nervousness, excitement, pride and, of course, love.
Like all parents, Kelley and I did our best when raising Mike and his younger sister, Katie. Before they were born we read the books and attended the classes. As they grew, we went to the conferences and activities. We always strived to be involved, set a good example and keep the lines of communication open.
Did we make mistakes along the way? Sure, but we tried to learn from them, make adjustments and move on. In other words, we made our children the top priority in our lives so when Mike moved out, there was clearly a void.
Anyway, kids leave but life goes on. The next day I arrived at the club bright and early for my first lesson with a new student. When Kevin walked through the door, the son-sick parent in me immediately thought, "He's not much older than Mike."
After a few minutes of casual, get to know you, conversation, Kevin and I walked out onto the court to warm up. Once he was loose, I called him up to the net and asked him what he wanted to work on. "A topspin backhand" was his immediate reply.
Kevin was finding that against stronger players, his slice backhand just wasn't cutting it. He wanted to learn to be more aggressive from his left side and that meant topspin. I agreed so we sat down and I went over the necessary steps Kevin would have to take to first learn and then incorporate a topspin backhand into his repertoire.
I told Kevin that first and foremost he had to understand what he was getting himself into. Change takes time and patience. His backhand would most probably get worse before it got better and he would have to prepare himself for some bumps in the road.
Then I laid out the five-step process that I have used for the past 35 years when attempting to learn or teach a new technique. They are:
- Understand what you're getting yourself into and commit to the change.
- Get the information.
- Put in the time.
- Use in practice matches.
- Incorporate into tournament play.
For Kevin this meant firmly deciding to suffer through the growing pains that accompany a change. Once he made that commitment, I then had to provide him with the technical information (grip, stroke, etc.) that would allow him to hit topspin. Once he had the information, he then would have to put in the time. That meant hitting thousands of backhands in a drilling situation so that he could get comfortable with, and learn to control, his new stroke.
Once Kevin got used to hitting his new backhand in a drill environment it was time to try it out in a simulated pressure situation. Drilling is one thing but hitting a new shot with someone attacking the net is entirely different. This means practice matches to gain the confidence of executing the shot under pressure.
Finally, after all the technique work, drilling and practice scenarios, Kevin would then test his new backhand in the real world of tennis---tournament play. Hopefully, his new backhand would be an aggressive asset to his game. Plus, he would be a better all-around player because he would still have his reliable slice to support him if he needed it.
As Kevin and I talked about the "process" my mind kept wandering to my son and suddenly I realized that the process I had just described to my new student was exactly the same as Kelley and I used when raising our children.
Is learning a new tennis stroke really like raising children? Sounds crazy? It certainly did to me. "I must just be another middle-aged parent suffering from a case of empty nest syndrome," I said to myself. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't quite so crazy after all. Let me show you.
Understand What You're Getting Into And Commit To Change: People say that life changes when you get married. I've always found that to be ridiculous. However, there is no bigger change in a relationship than when a couple decides to have children.
Before we had kids, Kelley and I did everything together. We got up early to play tennis, spent our days working together and then went home at night together. Having a child changed our day to day existence drastically. However, one of our life goals was to raise a family. Understanding the inevitable lifestyle change, we eagerly made the commitment to have children.
Get The Information: After Kelley was fortunate enough to get pregnant, like all expectant parents, we gathered our information. We took the Lamaze classes, read the books on child rearing and tried to prepare ourselves as much as possible for the little person that would be coming in a short few months.
Put In The Time: Once Mike and, three years later, Katie was born, we learned something new each day as our time was spent taking care of, playing with, cleaning up after, driving to, and worrying about, our children. Together now meant three and then four.
As the years went by (and they do move quickly) the goal of preparing our children for the "real world" became foremost in our minds. We tried to teach our kids the things that we felt were important. We made every effort to set a good example by our actions, understanding that 18 years after they arrive, ready or not, they're out the door.
Use In Practice Matches: As I think about Mike at college, I realize that the next four years are meant to be his practice match for entry into the real world of life. He's on his own to make his decisions. His Mom won't be there to get him up for class, make his meals or do his laundry. No one will be there to make sure he gets enough exercise and puts in enough time studying. Though not totally on his own, he will definitely get a taste of what freedom and life as an adult is like.
Use In Tournament Play:
Four years from now (hopefully), Mike will graduate from college and step out into the real world. He'll need to find a place to live, start a career and get on with building his life. Rehearsal is over, it's for real.
Is it really possible that Kelley and I learned our parenting techniques through our many years of playing tennis? Odd as it may seem, I think the answer is, at least in part, yes.
As subconscious as it may have been, the process we used in raising Mike and Katie is quite similar to the one we used when developing our tennis games. I'm confident that Kevin will put in the time to develop his topspin backhand just as I am certain that my son will build a life that he can enjoy and be proud of.
Certainly both will experience their victories and defeats along the way. And just as Kevin will always have his slice backhand to help him when he needs it, Mike and Katie will always have their Mom and Dad to do the same.