by Eric Proctor (Catawba College News Service)
Lime green visor. White tennis skirt. Polo shirt with Wimbledon-worthy crossed racquets emblem. When Annabel Barr steps onto the court, she looks like a professional.
But, at age five, she still has a long way to go. Barr, of Salisbury, is getting a head start on her competition through the Catawba College Tennis Camps, headed by Catawba Tennis Head Coach Jeff Childress. Her mother, Gwin Barr, knows firsthand about the importance of starting early.
"I started when I was five," Gwin Barr recollects. "I think you should start [children] whenever they have the desire, but never push."
While Annabel may not have her eyes set on Wimbledon — or be able to even spell it — some of the children are hoping to make careers out of the skills they are learning at camp.
"If I start at a young age, maybe I'll be better when I'm older," Allie Billings, 11, of Salisbury aspires. "Maybe someday, I'll try to be a professional." Until then, she is competing on a smaller stage as a member of Salisbury Academy's tennis team.
Billings' teammate, 11-year-old Sally Fowler of Salisbury, is also attending the camp. She agrees that you have to hit the court early if you want to be the next Maria Sharapova.
"If you were 18 and you were like ‘Oh, I want to play tennis,' and you wanted to be pro," Fowler speculates, "You couldn't just pick it up automatically. You have to pick a goal for yourself. And so you have to start early."
Not all of the campers will choose to pursue tennis beyond the scope of the camp. They have a wide range of other athletic interests, including soccer, basketball, swimming, cycling, and horseback riding. But, Jeff Childress believes the camps will benefit the children both on and off the court.
"Our tennis clinics are very good for the kids," says Childress. "They develop skills for tennis, and those same skills will help them in many of the other sports they may take up."
James Stancliff, who brings his son Jay from Advance, brings up another benefit: "The coaches have been great, and give children good self-esteem."
"We also help them with tennis rules, sportsmanship, and conditioning," Childress adds.
For part of this conditioning, racquets are replaced with resistance belts. Children take turns holding the belts, creating resistance for a partner trying to run through a footwork ladder. This builds endurance, as well as teamwork.
Allie Billings feels like this conditioning really helped her game.
"My favorite part was doing ladders and the resistance belt, and doing drills to improve my backhand," she remarks. "It will help my footwork and my running to balls, and it'll help my endurance with the resistance because it's like you're carrying weight."
While the children are certainly benefiting from the program, it is just as rewarding for Jeff Childress.
"I enjoy watching the kids and parents having fun at our tennis events," smiles Childress. "It is also rewarding to have the kids making new friends and wanting to come back for each clinic or camp."
Sam Lewis, 13, of Salisbury, is one of these kids. He is on his fifth Catawba Tennis Camp, and plans to attend at least one more this summer.
Already this summer, Lewis has attended two of the three types of camps the program offers. This week, he has enjoyed swimming and eating lunch in the cafeteria, which, in addition to tennis, is part of the full-day camp. Last week, he brought his clubs along for the first ever Catawba golf and tennis camp, which was held at the Crescent Golf Club.
Lewis is looking forward to next week's half-day camp, with tennis being taught from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. At the end of each week, campers take home a Catawba tennis shirt, Catawba College cup, and a camp picture.
Lewis explains his regular attendance. "I want to get better at my serves and ground strokes and overheads."
He also enjoys playing the many games offered throughout the week. His favorite is "Wild Turkey," in which balls fly everywhere as children practice each of the main tennis shots in a head-to-head doubles format.
"Our staff does a great job of keeping the tennis fun as well as challenging," says Childress.
Gwin Barr believes that her daughter Annabel has benefited greatly from Childress' instruction.
"We love Coach Jeff," she says. "I think it's an excellent program. I think Jeff is doing a wonderful job, on top of his charisma and charm and love for these kids."
Gwin Barr waves to Annabel as she leaves her for the day. On several occasions, Annabel is not ready to leave when her ride arrives.
As the coach's son, things are a bit different for Michael Childress. He is not dropped off or picked up. His father is always there, feeding balls and leading him and his friends in games.
"It's fun because you're always around someone that you know," Michael Childress remarks. "It's part of your family. And it's really fun to be with your friends."
At age six, Michael is the second youngest camper, just one year older than Annabel Barr. But, he believes that he is gaining valuable experience by hitting with the older players.
"I think the other players help me a little because we all work together," he says.
Michael, like Annabel, has a long wait before stepping onto the grounds at Wimbledon. In the meantime, however, Catawba offers two more weeks of half-day camps this summer (July 10-13 and July 31-August 3). Other clinics taught by Childress and members of the Catawba Tennis Team are scheduled for the fall, including a new junior doubles night.
For more information, contact Coach Jeff Childress at (704) 637-4265 or email@example.com. To view the camp brochure, go to www.gocatawbaindians.com, and click Camps.
Why Tennis? Why Me? by Eric Proctor
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Eric Proctor of Salisbury is a rising senior and student athlete at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. He is employed this summer assisting Catawba College Tennis Coach Jeff Childress with tennis camps on campus and is also completing a writing internship in the Catawba College Public Relations Office.