Upon graduating high school, I was under the naive impression that I would enjoy athletics at a collegiate level. And certainly I do; Division III athletics has lent me a confidence and an on-court ability I simply didn’t before possess. This is only to say that were I ever to claim the moments of steep, on-court competition as the outright highlight of my career, you’d be able to call me out as the world’s greatest liar.
The communal aspect of sports itself easily rivals on-court performance. Crowded van rides provide athletes with one of the world’s easiest avenues for laughter and for growth. I’m convinced that the only way one can enjoy late-night conversations without Judy’s warm cafeteria introduction is having your entire team sprawled out in a hotel room. Bonus points go to anyone who can’t name the city you’re staying in.
On the court, I’m learning how to take the ball on the rise. Off the court, I’m learning to do the same with my life. A tennis team proves as effective a catalyst as any for discovering the intricacies of authentic masculinity.
Welcome to one of the premiere avenues for social interaction, networking, even evangelization, courtesy of a brotherhood (or sisterhood) united by common practice.
Jarek likes the hotel room freezing cold. Connor orders his sour cream on the side. And I’m convinced that Jack’s ideal world has him consuming ever-increasing quantities of Quaker Dinosaur Eggs Oatmeal.
But my proximity to authentic men over the course of the past four years has taught me more than Walter’s clothing preference (sweatpants), Jake’s football preference (San Francisco) or Aiden’s entree preference (wings hotter than the rest of humanity can stand). I’ve found myself to be the willing student of a living curriculum; when you start out studying the game of tennis, sooner or later, you find yourself taking notes on life itself.
I am reminded of the definition of real sacrifice when I witness a coach and father of eight consistently leave his family to further the athletic and spiritual development of 12 twenty-somethings. And thanks to his sacrifice, though we couldn’t possibly understand what it means to leave a family, we know exactly how it feels to belong to one.
I’ve learned how to tolerate others’ opinions, how to speak my mind respectfully and how to express my gratitude as much through my actions as through my words. I’ve learned how to laugh, not only at the countless hysterical contributions from teammates, but at myself.
I’ve learned how to introduce Christ into a conversation in the 20 seconds it takes me and my opponent-to-be to walk from one court to another. I’ve learned that determination off the court looks a lot like determination on the court. The same applies to the concept of courage. I’ve learned to represent my faith with a racket in my hand without “FRANCISCAN” across my jersey.
Nothing against the crosscourt backhand I’ve fallen in love with over the course of the past four years, but I play for a coach and for a God who understands athletics not as an end, but as an avenue for authentic masculinity. Above all, I’ve been taught a single, identifying precept, by definition a determining characteristic for on-court performance and off-court ministry. I must never forget the team for which I play.