At the end of our college practices and before each match at NJIT, I assemble the group in a circle, we put our hands in, and on three we roar: “Team First!”
Tennis is typically known as an individual sport, but most of my long-time involvement has been with the team or group aspect, from being a high school and college player, running camps for juniors, coaching Eastern Section Zonals, Maccabi Games coaching, and coaching college for over 25 years. At our first team meeting each fall, I talk about the beauty of sharing this sport as a team:
“Your great times will be that much better. Your down times will be easier to handle. During both you will have teammates to share it with.”
What exactly does Team First mean?
I see it as a guide for how to act. Whenever you’re with your team, whether it’s practice, a match, a team meal, before doing or saying something, have in mind what is best for the team. It’s not always easy to put team first, and it can be especially difficult for freshmen, but the journey together is learning these lessons and becoming better teammates, which often leads to becoming better people.
It’s always fascinating to see the progress players make from freshmen to senior year, from team member to team leader. It really is priceless. They learn that if an administrator asks the team to complete a task and one person doesn’t get it done, it reflects poorly on the whole team, so get it done.
They learn that if they’re heading to practice and suddenly get an important text, they don’t stop to answer it because the team needs to start on time.
They learn that if they’re feeling sluggish during a live-ball drill, they have to step it up regardless because their teammate on the other side needs their best.
They learn that they can be down and out in a match with nothing working and if they were out there by themselves the match might be over. But not with teammates cheering them on, not with the whole dual match riding on their efforts. They dig deep and find levels of effort they never thought possible.
They learn that if they have a problem with a teammate they don’t talk trash about him or her to someone else on the team because they risk group alienation and factions. They bite the bullet and hash it out directly with their teammate.
They learn that there is a greater good, a greater purpose beyond individual accomplishments and that team success is about as good as it gets.
They learn that they have teammates for life and many of them will be there in the same way after the four seasons as they were during those third-set battles or those late night talks after a rough patch with a significant other.
I remember coaching an Eastern Section Zonal 16s team and first meeting the players after we landed in St. Louis. Before our first match I asked them to design a team cheer. Together they came up with a great one, one executed each day with noise and vigor, bonding quickly even though we only had a few days together. After we won the gold, the first thing they did was their cheer.
I remember coaching the U.S. Junior Team at the Pan American Maccabi Games in Mexico City. I can’t say there has been a bigger tennis thrill than entering a stadium full of cheering people during the opening ceremonies knowing that “USA” was emblazoned on the backs of our warm-up suits.
I remember just this past February playing a home dual match that came down to the last flight, the last set to see which team won 4-3. The entire men’s and women’s tennis teams were watching our sixth singles player trying to close out the final set. He got down 0-4 and began experiencing severe leg cramps. I offered him advice, Gatorade and even the option to stop if the pain was too intense. He battled on, his movement hampered, making an incredible percentage of first serves, grinding balls deep and high down the middle, stepping in to go for it when he had the chance, pulling out the match 7-6 in the tiebreaker. He collapsed on the court, swarmed by his teammates and friends, the feeling of elation that much more intense, no less than it would have been if we had just won the conference championship.
So enjoy this gift that the group aspect of tennis provides, especially in these difficult days ahead, days that make us realize that our community, our workplace and our country are one big team. And once all this gets settled and we return to normal, I encourage juniors to play high school tennis and then college tennis, and suggest others to play USTA leagues.
Everyone should take the time to partake in whatever options are available to you in order to share the joy, to be part of a greater good and to experience the ultimate intensity that comes with being
Ira Miller is the head men's tennis coach at NJIT and Director of CourtSense Tennis Training Center's summer camp at Ramapo College. At three different universities, he has won a total of 17 Conference Championships and 16 Conference Coach of the Year Awards. In 2012 he was selected as an ITA Regional Coach of the Year. Miller is in the Athletics Hall of Fame as a coach at both Drew and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities.