Bold Ideas in Cook County
Daniel Borgertpoepping | March 14, 2019
Parents and kids in the Northern section face more challenges in staying active than most of the rest of the country. It’s nothing new, but a lot of the time, tennis falls by the wayside in the winter months due to a lack of access to indoor courts.
Enter Charley Darley, a 72-year-old pro in Cook County who is seeing success in his winter programming at the Cook County Community YMCA in Grand Marais. While the typical image of tennis training is on a court with the sun beating down, Darley emphasizes skills that can be used across activities.
“In general, when we teach, we really stress athletic skills and movement skills. There’s a lot of emphasis on footwork, balance, quickness. We train racquet work as well but we work a lot on those movement skills that apply across the board in sports,” Darley said.ADVERTISEMENT
Teaching a broad range of ages requires numerous creative approaches to keep classes engaging. For the youngest burgeoning tennis players, Darley swaps balls out for balloons and works on the basics of catching and throwing, kicking and running.
“I’ve done this for a long time, using balloons or big balls. Balloons are great, the kids can hit them around at that age,” Darley said.
But part of the continued success of the program is having parents buy in and emphasizing the true purpose of the class remains a focus.
“It includes working with parents to just get across the idea that they’re there to serve the kid and not coach them to be superstars. Make it your kid’s activity. It’s theirs, not yours.”
As kids get older, they run more movement-specific drills with equipment like hurdles made out of PVC pipes, forcing the players to lift their knees and kick their heels, developing a more efficient stride.
From one-year-olds with balloons, to young players building athletic skills for use in tennis and other activities, or to adults getting interested in wall practice sessions to build control and get exercise while having Darley there to guide them, the programming in Cook County has something for everyone.
USTA Northern Director of Community Impact Naomi Sadighi credits Darley's creativity with building a good model for overcoming adversity and keeping programming fresh year-round.
"Charley really understands that passion for the game and for being active in general comes from environments like this. It's a bottom-up approach that's healthy and sustainable year over year," Sadighi said. "He's an asset to his community but even beyond that, the more people exercise their creativity in getting kids and parents involved and keeping them involved, the better off the game and its players will be all around our section."
While Darley has seen progress in the summer in the couple years since he arrived, he acknowledged there is a long way to go to build an extremely strong program and retain the momentum through the winter.
Making Strides In Outreach
Along with all the success outdoors in the summer and the growing impact at the YMCA in the winter, Darley is forging a new path through his outreach to the Oshki Ogimaag Charter School in Grand Portage. It started as a one-hour class on a single Saturday with 18 kids from the school across three pickleball courts. The class went well, Darley said, and served as a good introduction to the game.
It was popular with the kids too.
This coming school year, Darley intends to travel to the school once a week, going up for PE periods for grades 1-3 and 4-6.
“The kids we worked with in the one-time class will be the ones we’re working with for the PE periods. We’ll be helping to supply them with equipment too,” Darley said.
In Darley’s eyes, benefits of building this particular bridge go far beyond the sport itself.
“Making these connections is how we help the kids connect with each other and have a good experience when they’re young. Working with disadvantaged or low-income communities is a big emphasis for our program.”
Developing these opportunities takes time and resources so the more hands on deck, the better. USTA Northern Tennis Service Representative Mya Smith-Dennis will be heading to Cook County to provide Net Generation instruction for grade school and high school PE teachers so tennis can reach more kids in school.
"When we talk about growing the game, sometimes that's a little abstract. Obviously it's about getting racquets into more hands but where do we find the future players to grow the game? This is how we do it," Sadighi said. "We have these conversations, we try new thiings with new people. Charley's doing that and the results are already there."
All of the effort points to a continuation of a tradition of tennis in the region.
“There were a lot of families who played tennis and had kids who played and did real well at the state level and then there’s been a bit of a drop off,” Darley said. “I came up a couple years ago and got things rolling again. We’re starting with the youngest kids to build that new wave. There’s a great tradition up here, we’re just looking to rev it up again.”
To find out more about the Cook County Tennis Association’s efforts, visit their website at playtenniscookcounty.org.