At 10:30 this morning, on a cloudy day, I headed over to the tennis courts adjoining the local elementary school to practice my serve. The courts were empty, and filled with puddles that still hadn't dried from the morning's rain. Nevertheless, I served by myself for a half an hour, determined to sharpen the direction and depth of my serve for the singles semifinal I had in a week, against an opponent who had excellent ground strokes and good service returns.
And as I struggled to find the right rhythm, I thought of all the lonely moments I had spent as an athlete and a parent trying to perfect my skills or those of my children
Like the times I went to the little park near my apartment building at Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 AM, practicing layups, set shots and hook shots before the big kids arrived for the day's pickup games. I did this religiously from the time I was 8 till the time I was 12
Or the times I took my daughter Sara, when she began training for junior tournaments, to courts where you needed your own net, on 7 AM on spring and fall weekends so we could practice uninterrupted for 2 hours, something impossible on public courts where you needed a permit, or impossibly expensive at private courts. To one of those courts, on McDonald Avenue and Avenue S, I needed a broom to sweep away discarded bagels, broken glass and occasionally dead pigeons. That was the only way I could keep Sara competitive with the suburban kids who had public courts everywhere or the rich Manhattan kids who could afford lots of private coaching
And when my son became a serious baseball player, who needed to excel as a hitter as well as a pitcher, I would take him at 7 AM to Prospect Park where I put him in front of the pitchers mound to hit hundreds of tennis balls I threw to him into the backstop, teaching him how to make contact with two strikes by shortening up his swing, and training him to the ball to the opposite field on outside pitches.
This is the unseen work that made all three of us into college athletes, going from the schoolyards and parks of Brooklyn into the fierce and glorious world of Division One College Sports.
Some may call this a form of sacrifice, but I see it as the heart and soul of the athletic experience, the place where the courage and persistence of champions is forged.