Ask anyone what they think is the most important thing in life, and they’ll usually give the same answer: health. So I was not surprised by my conversation with tennis player and coach Roy Gessford at a community meeting where we discussed spirituality and healthy lifestyles. What he said showed that the development of qualities of the inner self were not only more important than his daily work, but that these inner qualities were quite significant in determining the quality of everyday life experiences. What got my attention was the importance he placed on this healthy inner self. As easily as he discussed how to improve the forehand, Roy shared how important a good foundation was to the development of this healthy inner self – referencing the Bible, religious writers and health researchers, such as Henry Drummond, Mary Baker Eddy, and leaders like President Dwight D. Eisenhower and renowned coach John Wooden.
Tennis isn’t my game, but Roy was accepting and open. It was easy to share my interest in lifestyles that supported good health practices, and I realized that without mentioning health he was describing his work in terms of all the qualities that are so important to health – qualities such as balanced living, purposeful activities, organization, the importance of the inner self, and how these qualities affected his tennis game both as a coach and player. He described instances where he was able to learn from the previous situations and build on these principles – and he always focused on helping the individual. What I learned from Roy fell into four areas: know the game, be a good communicator, have a service orientation, and never stop learning.
To know the game is not just about training, rules, and style, but how to provide the learner with inner support to make needed changes. And how does understanding and proficiency in these areas of support affect health? Progress in these areas help students to be relaxed, balanced, and flexible. These qualities are not only good for quality tennis, but also for the player’s health, according to health researchers who have noted that athletes perform better when they take time to relax and restore.
A successful communicator doesn’t just know the facts, he also captures the interest of his listener through real-life stories. One of Roy’s most heartwarming stories is about “Buttons” (who in real life is Ryan Batterman). Buttons could wear down the best of players and ended up winning many games through this strategy. But he also had a compassionate side. At one point he faced an opponent who had twisted a knee trying to keep up with Buttons’s strategic placement of volleys. For all practical purposes the game was Button’s. However, he refused to take advantage of his injured opponent and ended up losing this very important match. Roy never forgot the lesson he learned from Buttons’s health-giving compassionate side.
The service attitude, or serving others, is also an important component of tennis as well as health. Roy describes this well when he states in his book, A High School Tennis Coach’s Handbook: “When I look back at the coaches I most enjoyed coaching against and whose team members enjoyed playing for them the most, I see very few former professional or even collegiate level tennis players. Instead, I see schoolteachers, basketball coaches, dentists, and a city manager. These coaches all genuinely cared about their players and were students of the game and the profession.”
Roy finds it’s important to adapt tennis skills to individual needs – and this talent makes Roy unique. In the “Final Thoughts” of his book, Roy explains, “Receiving appreciation from a parent or player long ago graduated about how they are still applying the life lessons learned on the tennis team to their current experience is incredibly rewarding. Even without the commendations, the fulfillment that comes from knowing you chose to dedicate your afternoons for three months in order to help a group of youths towards a common goal is one that uplifts society and inevitably continues your growth as well.”
Talking with Roy was refreshing. He radiated in our conversation the importance of individual growth in temperament and skill. Roger Dahl, California State University faculty member, summed Roy up well: “He not only can play the game of tennis, but he knows the game inside out – length, width, and depth. Probably most importantly, he knows people and how to work with them to maximize their potential. Ultimately, this is… [not] about how to coach tennis, but rather tennis is a metaphor on how to live your life.” (Review of A High School Tennis Coach’s Handbook)
Roy’s tennis advice closely mirrors current health advice: be compassionate, serve others, improve by completing manageable goals, and express happiness while doing what you believe is right. And just like in tennis, it’s never too late to take up these health-giving qualities and put them into practice in the game of life.
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