When a new high school sports season surfaces from the depths of summer, varsity coaches want to hit the ground running. Typically, they know who is returning from the previous season or have received notice of any newcomers months before the start of the season. Trinity’s tennis head coach Mary Smith, however, was greeted on the first day of tryouts by 12 students who had never played competitive tennis before.
“On that first day, we had two juniors who showed up who didn’t have racquets,” said Smith. “I brought 10 brand new racquets with me with the hope that people would want to come out for the team. What I have preached this entire season is that it isn’t going to be about winning. I wanted everyone on the team to develop a love for the game no matter how little experience they had.”
Even though Smith didn’t cut anyone from the team this year, the fact remained that the team was going to compete against players who have been playing tennis their whole lives. There was only so much work that could be jammed into a tight two-hour practice window — much less time for teaching the team the rules of the game.
“I asked one of my nieces or nephews, ‘How did you learn to keep score for tennis?’ and they said, ‘on the Wii!'” Smith recalled.
Intrigued by the possibility of how it could accelerate her team’s comprehension of the game, Smith told her group of newcomers to play Wii Tennis if they owned a game console.
“With their limited experience, we can’t spend a ton of time teaching them how to keep score,” said Smith. “I had to focus on the logistical part of teaching the game. Even then there were times where I said, ‘If you need to work on something that we don’t have the time in practice for, go on YouTube.'”
Knowing how to execute a backhand and learning to keep score is different from understanding the nuances of tennis. Players have to make the assessment of when to restring and regrip their racquets and not to linger in “no man’s land.” At a certain point, experience is the only training tool players can use to enhance their skillsets.
That’s what makes the rise of sophomore transfer Grace Bennet one of the biggest surprises for Trinity’s inexperienced team. Though she hasn’t played competitive tennis, Bennet has become Trinity’s No. 2 singles player. She stays every day after practice with her father (who also hadn’t played tennis before this year), and they watch videos of Serena Williams to help her game. On the varsity level, she hasn’t won any matches but when she faces opposing JV players, she doesn’t lose a game.
“It’s hard to lose because I am a very competitive person,” said Bennet. “I’m learning to not express my emotions too much and control my competitiveness on the court. It’s hard to do that when you lose.”
Telling varsity athletes that winning isn’t everything is like telling children that Halloween is for keto diets: they can’t comprehend the concept. However, Smith has created a learning environment that is teaching her kids the value of showing up every day and committing themselves to a daily grind.
“Before this season, I just had a lot of free time my freshman year,” said sophomore Cyanne Alverez. “Coach Smith has really helped us stay on top of everything, and I feel like I am starting to get how to go to school, then go to tennis, and then take care of everything after that. I’m glad I joined this year.”
A couple of weeks ago, Trinity had a half day of school. Smith decided to cancel practice to give the kids free time on Friday. Most teenagers would jump at the chance of extending their weekend.
Not this team.
Instead, they were bummed out that they couldn’t get extra reps in and it shows that Smith’s mantra has rubbed off on the team.
“This is a game that you can play late into your life,” said Smith. “We are building tennis players, but more importantly, we are building strong, young women.”