Long before I competed at Wimbledon, won a Grand Slam, or stepped on the same court as Bobby Riggs, I was a fifth-grade student in Long Beach, Calif., holding a tennis racquet for the very first time.
Back then, I hardly understood the basic concepts of tennis, let alone how to hold the racquet and hit the ball over the net.
When I was in the fifth grade, my classmate, Susan Williams, introduced me to the sport, and as soon as we learned that Clyde Walker, a local coach, was offering free instruction on Tuesday afternoons, we went to see what he could teach us.
That's when everything changed.
Clyde was an exceptional coach, but more importantly, he was a great role model. He had patience when we struggled and took the time to help us correct our mistakes, always infusing energy and laughter into our practice sessions. Clyde made tennis come alive -- he made it FUN!
When my mother picked me up after the first group session, I told her my new mission in life: I was going to be the number one tennis player in the world.
Perhaps it was a lofty goal for an 11-year-old girl to settle upon, but as I learned over time, it was those early developmental years that truly shaped much of the rest of my life. Had I not had Clyde as my coach and been fortunate enough to have such a positive sports experience at that early age, there may never have been a "Battle of the Sexes" or the opportunity to see through that fifth-grade dream of mine.
The lessons that Clyde and future coaches, such as Alice Marble, Mervyn Rose and Frank Brennan, instilled in me are lessons that have benefitted me both on and off the court. I learned to focus on my strengths and leverage those rather than dwell on my weaknesses. There was always someone who could hit the ball harder or move around the court a bit faster, but I was taught to never lose sight of my own capabilities.
I discovered that pressure is a privilege and that champions adjust. Life is full of adversity, but even in moments of great pressure there are opportunities to learn and grow as an athlete and as a person. Those who can adapt are the ones who will ultimately succeed in life.
Finally, I learned that coaching comes with round-the-clock responsibilities. Again, this sort of pressure is truly a privilege. Most athletes view their coaches as leaders, which gives coaches the opportunity to represent and teach many positive values and lessons to their students.
Coaches can be role models to their students at all times. Most kids don't just become strong leaders, quality teammates or supportive friends -- they often need to see it to be it. They need to be able to visualize and believe in their potential in order to reach it.
Coaches who place a priority on delivering positive childhood experiences through sports will shape futures and change lives for the better. I witnessed this firsthand during my Tuesday afternoons in Long Beach, and I hope that current and future generations of coaches will provide young athletes with the same support and encouragement that Clyde Walker and others provided to me.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in conjunction with the latter's "Project Play." Project Play aims to re-imagine youth sports in the U.S., and on November 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will convene more than 30 thought leaders to help develop a plan to grow the quality and quantity of youth coaches nationally. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about Project Play, click here or follow @AspenInstSports.
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