“An unfinished season is disappointing, but we will continue to be victors, not victims.”

After a tennis season ended by COVID-19, a coach shares lessons for the court, and for life.

It’s amazing to see how many “problems” seem to go away when we are faced with situations like the one that has beset the world right now. Yet at the heart of the UC San Diego athletics program, and in particular, the men’s tennis program that I coach, there is a comprehensive approach that fosters perseverance among our scholar-athletes and builds our players up to overcome this kind of setback. 

One could never truly be prepared for the cancellation of our season, along with almost any other sport across the country. Our men’s tennis team had to hit the reset button and appreciate what is truly most important: the lives of others, and the health of family. As disappointed as our coaches and athletes are that we won’t get to see this season through, we truly have an opportunity to learn and appreciate the challenges ahead.

In school, you get a lesson, then a test. But in the reality of our situation, we’ve received a test, and that is our lesson. And we have learned, as a team, that our priorities are solid—in order to properly serve our campus, our community, and our country, our priorities are and will remain: 1.) Family 2.) Academics and 3.) Tennis.

This season that ended so abruptly has allowed coaches and players to re-evaluate life in general. At one of our team meetings, we discussed how to use this time to fortify ourselves in as many ways as possible: physically, emotionally, and intellectually. This is much in line with our typical meetings and practices, where lessons often go beyond the court—we build players’ confidence; we discuss “situational awareness” to the point that the team is probably tired of hearing me say it. But now it’s become all the more relevant, as our situation is one of a true possible tragedy that has, and will continue to, affect the lives of many.

But our athletes train to be self-reliant in all aspects of life, so that we are able to meet this moment with an accumulation of training and practice from the coaching staff, our engaged alumni, and leadership from people outside our team and sport, all offering lessons that enrich an athlete’s character and integrity. 

Take, for example, a seemingly simple task we require of any incoming player. Every first-year athlete is required to fill and set up the water jugs on the court. This is hardly a form of hazing, or something to separate and show a hierarchy. It is meant as a lesson, a common ground — because as tedious as the task is, all players have done it. We want all our team members to be self-reliant and understand that once you carry your own water, you will learn the value of every drop.

An unfinished season is disappointing, but we will continue to be victors, not victims. Our guys have taken the approach to “control their controllables,” and our team is taking on this challenge just as they will take on any challenge in the future: head on.

This is why I coach. The sport of tennis is the vehicle, but not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to build men that are resilient and that I am proud of. And today, I am extremely proud.

Timmer Willing has served as the head coach of the UC San Diego men’s tennis coach for eight years, helping the Tritons to an 84-70 record during that time. The upcoming season marks Willing’s 20th season on the UC San Diego staff after serving as an assistant coach for 11 years prior to taking over the head men’s position.

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