I watched my son effortlessly dribble and make basket after basket. There were no other kids around for him to play with, so I decided to try to shoot some hoops with him even though basketball is not my forte. After my son stole the ball from me approximately 95 times in a row, I collapsed in laughter and let him take it. “Don’t ever give up, Mom!” he admonished me. “Even if it seems like you’ll never win.”
He didn’t learn that from me. He learned it from playing sports.
I was, to put it mildly, not good at sports as a kid. I was definitely picked last in gym class. I did gymnastics, but never really played team sports. When I tried to play baseball, I was so stunned when I hit the ball once that I ran the wrong way, to third base. As an adult, I’ve been to yoga classes but have never participated in organized sports.
But my son is somehow a natural athlete. He’s good at soccer, baseball, basketball, football — basically, every sport. His father and I are, frankly, mystified as to where our kid’s natural athleticism comes from. I’ve become that mom who goes to all my kid’s games and frequents places like Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy baseball bats that must adhere to very specific criteria.
And then tennis came into my son’s life — and mine, too, helped along by the pandemic. The first summer after COVID-19 hit, we found a local tennis camp that promised to adhere to COVID-safe protocols, and experts were saying tennis was a pretty safe activity. So we signed our kid up for tennis camp — and he loved it. He wanted to practice the game, even when he wasn’t at camp.
I managed to find an old tennis racket in our garage and went to our local public tennis courts with him. At first, I did it merely to keep him occupied and off screens. I figured I could at least toss a ball to him. But he coached me on improving my form (he really did pick up a lot at tennis camp!) and, to my surprise, I started to really enjoy playing.
A lot of my son’s friends, and their parents, played tennis as well. I began spending more time playing tennis on purpose. Sometimes I played tennis with my kid, or he'd play with a friend and I’d play with their parent.
Eventually, my husband and son got me a better racket, one that wasn’t actually older than my kid. I signed up for a series of tennis lessons through my town’s recreation center. Somehow, the tennis instructor (who reminded me of a gym coach from the 1980s) didn’t make me feel like an idiot. He was patient and had a way of explaining things in a way that made sense to me.
Because of tennis, I was getting out of the house, getting fresh air, exercising, and socializing all at once. I even made a new friend while taking tennis lessons, a woman who had just moved to my town, grew up in the same place I did, and had a daughter in my son’s class. Since all our school meetings had gone virtual, I would never have met her and forged a real connection if it wasn’t for tennis. I had to admit that physically, I felt better than I had in months, maybe even years. Let's be honest — you’ll pretty much never get worse at something by doing it repeatedly.
I couldn’t believe it. People were right about exercise and sports being good for you?! What the hell?!
“You’ve actually improved,” one of my friends said as we played tennis one day. “Maybe you have some athletic potential.”
That’s as close as I’ve ever come to being called athletic. I might never become the next Venus or Serena Williams, but I just signed up for another series of rec center tennis lessons and I can’t wait to get back into playing tennis this spring.
In tennis (and other sports), it helps if you keep your eye on the ball, but more importantly, you’ve got to keep your heart in the right place. So if you don’t think you have any athletic potential, I’m here to tell you what my son told me: Don’t ever give up, even if it seems like you’ll never win.
Janine Annett is the author of the humor book I Am "Why Do I Need Venmo?" Years Old. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Real Simple, Parents, and many other places. She lives in New York with her husband, son, and dog.