Tennis is our Guide to Life
Personal Essay from Karl Lee
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month (AAPI). To celebrate, this month USTA Mid-Atlantic is uplifting voices from the AAPI communities who contribute to our region’s vibrant tennis family both on and off the court.
From a young age, Karl Lee fell in love with tennis. Tennis created community and well-being for Karl and that is why he continued to gravitate to the sport. From becoming a consistent player to a teaching pro in Maryland, tennis has been a staple in his life.
Today, he continues to serve his community through Adaptive Tennis US, a non-profit dedicated to providing accessible adaptive tennis programming.
“I knew tennis could be a way for adaptive players to find a new identity, a new confidence and a new pathway for healing,” Lee said.
USTA Mid-Atlantic had a chance to connect with Karl Lee on how his journey with tennis has impacted his life. This week we are featuring a first-person essay from Lee that accounts his journey.
I was born in San Francisco and am third generation Chinese-American. My father was a chemist working for the Navy, and my mother, who was from Akron, Ohio, worked in the computer section on the local naval base.
I fell in love with tennis at a young age, but I began my career on a very different path, graduating from Tufts School of Dental Medicine in 1982. I thought I would always be a dentist, but my future proclaimed otherwise.
At the suggestion of my tennis pro, and due to my keen interest in the sport, I obtained my USPTA certification in 2006 and became a teaching pro, while still maintaining my dental practice. Currently, I’m a teaching pro at the Chevy Chase Club in Chevy Chase, Md., where I teach junior, adult and small group lessons.
One day a patient of mine came in wearing a T-shirt that said “Gerry Hattricks.” The play on words was actually the emblem of a veteran support organization for hockey. Neither my patient nor I could think of a similar foundation for tennis. So I decided to create one.
In 2018, Wounded Warrior Tennis was born, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching the game to those needing a pathway for healing. As the scope of the possible participants increased to include those of social, emotional and cognitive impairment, Wounded Warrior Tennis became Adaptive Tennis US.
To further assist those adaptive players, in 2018 I also became a Certified Tennis Performance Specialist through the International Tennis Performance Association (iTPA), learning the biomechanics basis of fundamental movement in tennis. Additionally, I became a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association in 2019, then obtained the Corrective Exercise Specialist certificate from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) in 2020. All of this education has been for the purpose of being able to deliver an individualized methodology of tennis training to adaptive tennis players.
In 2020, I joined the USTA National Adaptive Tennis Committee, and I quickly realized there is a threefold problem when it comes to adaptive tennis. First, the general public has no clear understanding of the “adaptive tennis player.” Currently, the USTA defines adaptive players in three categories: physical/rehabilitation, cognitive/developmental and social/emotional. Most people tend to group “Special Olympics” players with adaptive players, not realizing the broad range of conditions.
Second, the tennis teaching community has no idea how to teach this new category of players, as there is no set manual for teaching this group.
Third, adaptive players tend to view themselves as limited in function, since they constantly receive negative external reinforcement concerning their limitations.
I knew tennis could be a way for adaptive players to find a new identity, a new confidence and a new pathway for healing. On the National Adaptive Tennis Committee, I’m the co-chair of the marketing and outreach subcommittee and am also on the training and education subcommittee. Recently, I traveled to the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona to work on the Level 2 manual for teaching adaptive tennis. In our research, we’ve discovered that the adaptive tennis market represents a huge, untapped financial opportunity, with more than a million potential players who can be a tremendous market for tennis teaching, equipment sales and court time. But, more importantly, tennis represents a pathway for these individuals to discover themselves, to feel a part of a community and to realize that the only limits they have are those they set for themselves.
As an Asian-American, there have been times when I’ve felt apart from mainstream society. Perhaps this is why I feel so passionate regarding the mission of Adaptive Tennis US, to give the “outsiders” a voice, a chance to compete and a way of finding themselves. Tennis is our guide in life.
Lee continues to make an impact on and off the tennis court. He uses his platform and influence to inspire players who may feel like “outsiders” to gain confidence with tennis.
Year after year, Karl’s impact goes far beyond the net. He is changing lives through tennis and ensuring ALL players have a chance to experience the everlasting benefits of the sport. Karl is growing the Mid-Atlantic tennis community through adaptive tennis programming.
By prioritizing accessible programming and utilizing resources like the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section Grow the Game Grant in 2021, which supported programs that helped bring all people together to play tennis, more players are being welcomed to the sport.
To learn more about Adaptive Tennis US visit: adaptivetennisus.com. Plus, make sure to explore ways you can get involved with Adaptive tennis through USTA by starting your own program.
USTA Mid-Atlantic is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to promoting tennis and its physical, social, and emotional health benefits. Learn about our impact in the Section and how USTA Mid-Atlantic creates community, character, and well-being.
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