The below article was written by Junior Tennis Champions Center Director of Tennis Vesa Ponkka and appeared in the Washington Post on Tuesday, August 20.
The best part of this game is that it is an individual sport. You take the blame; you keep the glory. Nobody can help you out. You are so alone when you get out there it’s not even funny. You have to learn to be strong. You have to learn to trust yourself. It’s up to you. It’s almost like you are totally naked on the court. When you learn to handle those things, it’s valuable the rest of your life. But it is also very hard to be humble when you are good. It is human nature to believe your own hype. It is difficult, because to be good at tennis, you have to only think about you. That is not the way to be in life.
I’m coming from a different country [Finland], where nothing is given to you. You earn it. You don’t get a trophy just to show up. And what we try to do here is stick to those core principles: working hard, no excuses. You have to earn what you get. No whining and crying. Yes, it is a shock to some kids. We deal with it with patience. Patience is the difference. That’s another thing in this society we don’t have enough of. Everything has to be ready by Friday. We have these kids from 8 to 18. Ten years is [long] in this country. It’s a battle with society, with parents, with young coaches who are eager to produce champions, get their names in the limelight.
We are teachers, not tennis coaches. I only hire people with a teacher mentality. If tennis players are the most selfish people on the earth, then tennis coaches are likely the second most selfish. Think about it: When you are a coach who was a player, you are still about yourself. You were taught to be. You have to turn 180 degrees to coach. You were a taker, and now you have to give. You were arrogant, now you have to be humble. Not a lot of former great players can make that mental turn. I only hire people who want to teach, who want to give.
I feel like there’s starting to be a balance here: We are creating great players — don’t get it wrong; we are very competitive — but more important, we are creating really good people. One of the few things that gets me irritated when people don’t value what we’re doing: They only want to produce tennis players. They don’t get that your tennis career is going to be a short period, but you have the rest of your life to be a good human being.