Ball Boys

trophiesMy friend Khim works with the US Open tennis tournament and she invited us to come watch a match.  I like tennis, but I’m not a huge fan nor am I very good at playing tennis.  When I was a kid, my mom’s best friend started dating a guy who owned a tennis camp and I got to go for free, but I never really got the bug; I still can’t remember whether my big honor was getting to rally with Pancho Gonzalez, Pancho Segura or Pancho Villa.

And so it was with only mild interest that I made my way to UCLA and found myself watching the moonrise like part of a tennis ball over the court—sitting in front row center.  As my older son said, “these are the best seats we’ve ever seen anything from.”  It was a good match, and the stars were really good at tennis, but one of my favorite parts of the evening was watching the ball boys and girls—especially because several of them were kids I watched grow up since kindergarten.  These kids, to a kid, were adorable:  very serious and yet smiling young-adolescents hustling like crazy to get the missed shots and then being statue-still between shots so as not to disturb the super-stars.  There was s certain changing-of-the-guards solemnity as they rotated positions at the break times between play, and it was nice to see them taking their jobs on with a sense of both responsibility and good cheer.

After the main attraction, there was a “legends match.”  Most of the crowd left, and everyone was invited to come and sit closer.  Now these guys, Courier and Chang, used to be the stars, but now that they were over thirty-five, in the world of pro-sports anyway, they were ancient and thus of diminished interest.  And this made something better than stardom possible:  fun.  Mike and Jim just played tennis.  They played hard sometimes, and they played really well sometimes.  But they also joked around, interacted with the crowd and created a feeling of community.  

These guys had won many more matches than the up-and-coming stars, and yet they treated the ball boys and girls with humanity and respect.  These kids expected to be ignored and to dash after balls with the always-hanging threat that some fussy bad sport might get all MacEnroe on their behinds.  But at one point Courier, after a shot he felt mock-embarrassed and self-effacing-upset about, invited one of the ball boys to play for him.  That kid stepped up and, in front of a thin crowd but a crowd nonetheless, did as he was asked:  he played his best.  While Chang, equalling Courier’s gentlemanly grace, managed to appear to try and still lose two points to the kid.  The crowd went nuts!  It was the most fun I’d ever had at a a sports event.

It was almost a mid-summer midnight as we walked to the car, my kids were all abuzz about how fun the second match was, and how great it was that the players treated the ball boys (some of whom were their own friends) with respect, instead of, “just chucking a sweaty towel at a kid without saying thank you or even making eye-contact.”  They also wondered how one gets to be a ball boy (and while it helps to have friends who work in the tennis world, it also is essential to realize that one even wants to be a ball boy).  Like that archetypal American icon, Tom Sawyer who knew how to make fence-painting look fun, the ball boys and girls had woven their magic with their good attitudes.

And this is the ultimate point of today’s blog:  “Modeling.”  If we “ball boys and girls” (i.e. us parents, as after all, isn’t parenting quite a lot like being a ball boy?), act with good cheer and still take our tasks seriously, our kids may grow up wanting to do a good job at their tasks and responsibilities and also may manage to have fun doing it.  This underscores the importance of honesty, integrity, kindness, manners, good sportsmanship, work ethic and an ability to laugh at ourselves—to blaze the trail to good lives by way of our example.

And my younger kid asked me if we could play tennis today.  So that’s where I’m heading.  Thanks Khim!

Namaste, Bruce



2 Responses to “Ball Boys”

  1. Jen Says:

    As always, Bruce, you remind me of the importance of self-awareness and the myriad opportunities to teach our children. Thank you. I’m wondering about the image of those trophies. Where are they bound? Are they recyclable? And, most importantly what do these trophies really mean to our children, especially when they get so many if they enjoy participating in athletic activities from an early age?

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I was thinking about how little kids need trophies to make their achievements concrete; it’s us adults who need to learn to get beyond the trophies. Not sure if the trophies are recyclable, but it made me wonder how six-year-olds would feel about getting second-hand trophies? I think ultimately they are like teddy-bears in the self-esteem realm; comfort objects become obsolete as we internalize a sense of comfort and security; trophies become just so much marble and gilded plastic once a can-do attitude gets internalized. In this way our kids lead us toward process over product; the playing of the game over winning (but not many coaches are on board with that, which is why I have liked to watch Phil Jackson coach, and the success that mindfulness and authenticity have brought).

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