11/12/2012 01:54 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Lessons From a Tennis Mom

I never set out to get my daughter hooked on tennis. She just got jealous of the fun I was having with Dad and took my spot. I'm not complaining. I've learned a few things on the sidelines...

1. Let love serve.

"Good try!"

"Nice hit!"

"Great serve!"


This isn't Katie's coach hollering encouragement. This is a standard volley between her and her opponent during a match.

It was disorienting for Darrell and me, at first. After one such exchange I couldn't resist.

"Great outfit!" I hollered from the bleachers.

Slowly it dawned on me. It isn't whether you win or lose. It's how many parents of the opposing team tell you they've never met a sweeter kid than yours.

Katie wants to win, don't get me wrong. But to see her ache for the other gal when she does, you'd swear she didn't.

"Nice attitude!"

2. Don't miss the point.

Why is it such a joy to watch Katie play? Oh sure, there's the hairstyle and the hair ornament and the endless touchups of the bright red lipstick between games -- the woman has her priorities -- not to mention the sportsmanship I just talked about.

That isn't it.

She dives after every ball with intensity -- but that isn't it, either.

It's her personality. It's the look of relief -- and the sharp exhale -- when the opponent with a killer serve smashes the ball into the net. It's the delight when she accidentally flings the ball so high it hits the bubble above the court. "Cool!" she exclaims, as she loses the point but wins over more of the crowd. It's the smirk she gives a teammate who hollers an encouraging cliché -- when she's apparently thankful for the sentiment but wondering some variation of, "Have I not trained you to be more creative?"

"It's not tennis to you, is it?" I thought to ask during still another recap. "It's improv."

Her face lit up. "It is," she said. "It's a performance. I'm putting on a show, and I want people to be entertained."

With Katie it's all about fun, something that -- from casual observation all my life -- I realize is rare. It isn't whether you win or lose, it's whether you have fun. Have fun, and learn a lot. Katie knows at 17 what it took me much longer to realize -- and some people never do.

It's not work. It's play. And if that play on words is impossible to process, I hope you'll consider the possibility you'd be better served -- and better at serving the world -- playing at something else.

3. There's a reason they call it a lifetime sport.

One thing I'm proud of as a parent is how rarely I've pulled rank. Oh sure, there's the occasional movie or side trip we take on vacation that I insist on only because I know Katie will love whatever it is the way she almost always does.

I made an exception to that policy with tennis. Darrell and I agreed if she didn't want to cross-country ski anymore, her choice. The same with golf. She learned how to play the piano well enough in eight years of lessons to stop at that point -- and she got zero objection from us when she did.

But tennis? We insisted she keep at it. Yes, even though it was fall musical season and she was carrying the usual load of AP classes and volunteering for practically everything it's possible for a high school kid to volunteer for.

Insisting she watch Moneyball with us is one thing. But to insist she go all-out as first singles player on varsity tennis -- a commitment that meant months out of the year for years out of her life? I sure hoped this was the right move.

It was. She was so glad we didn't let her quit. And she didn't make us wait until she was in her twenties or thirties to tell us!

I'm glad that as I grew up, I noticed how few old people were obese. I'm glad I noticed how many old people were having so much fun playing tennis. I'm almost glad I moved to a small town where there isn't a lot to distract you from the sport.

When Katie goes to college next fall I'll reclaim my spot across the net from Darrell. I haven't made peace with that yet, given how much fun I've had watching the two of them play.

But I'll take comfort in knowing we sent Katie into the world armed with the best present money can't buy -- a way to work out that's so much fun you forget you're working.

Tennis anyone?