How coaches build extraordinary humans from the inside out

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D. | October 06, 2021

The story of tennis as a tremendous asset in youth development is easy to see, whether the goal is competition or plain, old fun. The real headline lies in the extraordinary understory – the unfolding narrative inside the developing brain and body of the human being while fully engaged in the learning journey of becoming a player, and the star of this story is you. What you are about to read is meant to give a great deal of information so that you can see how deep the understory can go. So, please, do not let it overwhelm you. Instead, let it be a starting point for professional development opportunities.


More than just a game, tennis is a powerful vehicle for multi-dimensional holistic human development. Our dynamic, “open skill” sport can uniquely embed the behaviors, skills and mindsets shown by research to matter most across life during an exquisitely malleable chapter in youth development, when the brain and body are more open to new learning and long-term habit formation than at any other time. 


Picture this: a skilled and caring coach leads a group of juniors through organized drills, focused on technical and tactical skill building, followed by play. The energy is infectious. They are having fun while running around, batting balls back and forth, laughing, grimacing at a carelessly-missed shot, followed by shaking it off and recalibrating, and finally, socializing and processing while picking up balls. Time passes quickly, and soon, it is time for homework and dinner. Players leave happy after fun with friends and their parents are grateful for a healthy after-school activity (without a screen!)


But, what we see with the naked eye is just the tip of the developmental iceberg.

The understory of tennis is a much richer, more nuanced, and profoundly impactful narrative of lifespan development, with its colorful threads woven into every element of the mind-body tapestry of the human being. Each on-court experience is simply one stop on a long-term learning journey; while the coach is a powerful whole child educator, a coach of character, whose classroom just happens to be the multi-modal experiential learning lab of the court, and the sport of tennis itself a life coach of epic proportions.


With skill, science and soul, the whole child coach leverages tennis to embed habits and mindsets that foster preventive health behavior, creativity-fueling brain chemistry, character strengths, social-emotional learning, stress management strategies and meaning-making that fortifies resilience. In short, through the secret sauce of the coach-athlete relationship, the endlessly complex, challenging and joyful journey of developing into a player builds healthy, adaptive, purposeful, connected, caring and engaged human beings. In the words of the great Billie Jean King, “It’s not failure, it’s feedback!”


While these major developmental assets can be learned and strengthened across life, they are embedded most seamlessly during childhood and adolescence. We humans are a 24/7, 365-day-a-year work-in-process, with nurture—the environments we are exposed to—shaping nature—our DNA and biochemistry—every moment of every day.


Relative to positive youth development, the optimistic science story is clear: when we design learning contexts that are emotionally warm, engaging, individualized, multi-sensory, appropriately challenging and characterized by high-quality developmental relationships with safe, trusted and supportive adults, magic can and does happen.

Learning happens everywhere, and while school is essential for every child, well-designed athletic contexts with coaches who approach the sport experience as educators are, in many ways, more closely aligned with the science of learning and development. This is particularly relative to cultivating and fortifying the foundational skills that help us navigate life. Sport’s synergistic combination of intellectual, physical and emotional experiences is “stickier” in the brain, wiring more deeply into the integrated mind-body system through many modalities and offering a rich holistic developmental context few schools are equipped to provide.


While not every young person gravitates to sport, athletics is the #1 place they go after school. Given the 22 percent surge in new players as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the opportunity to tell a new tennis story and live our way into it by investing in our coaches.


The first-place trophy in this story has little to do with winning or losing. Rather, tennis is a rich experiential learning context that complements classroom time. It is one that promotes flourishing in the areas that matter most across life; health, relationships, career, purpose and fulfillment. When a young person falls in love with tennis early in life because it is fun, it all starts with you: the whole child coach. For young people, fun is the name of the game. Without it, it’s the top reason they drop out, and with it, the top reason they come back for more!

Today’s story is the first in a three-part series written by a former junior coach, current tennis parent and competitive player whose happy place is still the tennis court. Next time, we’ll dive deeper into the science of the understory: the molecular-level “why” of the power of whole child coaching, and how you are giving the young person on your court, the one who looks at you with reverence, respect and inspiration and calls you "coach," an inner superpower to live their way into the life they choose and deserve.


Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D., is a behavioral geneticist whose research centers on how nurture (environment) shapes nature (DNA), and how we can create contexts in sport and school settings that optimize positive development and unlock the potential of our youth. A former professional tennis player, Walker translates scientific findings to equip athletic and academic educators with knowledge and skills that help young people build mindsets and habits that promote wellness and healthy whole human development across life. Learn more at her website by clicking here.

Skip Advertisement


Related Articles

  • Tennis provides many benefits to physical, social and mental health. Discover the benefits of playing tennis from the USTA and develop your skills today! Read More
  • Tennis can provide opportunities for children to make lifelong friends, and their passion and motivation for the sport can be nurtured by creating a sense of fun. Read More
  • Visit the Beat the heat page
    Beat the heat
    August 15, 2022
    Dehydration can affect a tennis player’s performance in less than an hour, even sooner if the athlete comes into the practice session or match dehydrated. Read More