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Veterans develop skills, confidence on court

VeteransTennis_610x
November 10, 2015 04:27 PM
 
 

 

Shawn Lawson never played tennis before. He didn’t know what to expect when he finally did. Now, the 35-year-old Denver resident doesn’t want to leave the court.

“I first started kind of like, ‘OK, it’s something new. I’ll try it out and give it a fair shot.’ Shoot, I fell in love with it,” Lawson said. “At first, though, it wiped me out. I hit the ball and it would just fly out of the court. After all summer long with the tennis clinic I really learned that I’m not an expert by any means, but I really learned a lot about tennis.”

Lawson, who served in the US Army from 1997-2009, was one of many veterans who participated in the Denver Veterans Administration Tennis Clinics, free to the veterans, thanks to a collaborative effort from the USTA Colorado, Denver VA, City Park Racquet Club in Denver, Denver Tennis Club and the Wounded Warrior Project in Colorado Springs, which provided the funding to pay for program director Mark Martinez Luna and the minimal tennis court fees. Racquets for All provided racquets for the players, and members of the Denver Tennis Club and Greenwood Tennis Club donated racquets, shoes and clothing. Most of the eight volunteers came from the Denver Tennis Club.

 

THE PURPOSE OF PROGRAM

“The purpose is to teach the veterans, initially, how to play holding the racquet, (teach) drills, how to hit a forehand, how to hit a backhand, overhead, how to serve,” said Debbie Yoder, former president of City Park Racquet Club and currently the club’s tournament director. “There are those who are more advanced and play a few more games. We play a game with them as if they’re playing a tournament so they know how to score and how to win a match. Most of them now are getting really familiar on how to play tennis and they want to hit more and more.”

Luna, who is a teaching pro at the Denver Tennis Club and formerly a senior teaching pro at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, said he’s found that veterans are latching onto the game of tennis. 

“What I’m finding out working with these vets is that a lot of their training and what they’ve gone through connects to the game of tennis, and it’s been a privilege and an honor to be part of the program,” Luna said.

 

SPECIAL FEELING

Luna said it’s special to see the veterans’ reaction when they hit the ball on the sweet spot of the racquet.

“I think it goes back to their training discipline. You get this beautiful feeling of hearing the sweet spot and the sound of the ball and having it go over the net and into the court,” Luna said. “I think they enjoy the challenge. It’s good medicine. They’re having to deal with these issues that we as a society never think about. Tennis is a sport where you have to completely focus and concentrate 100 percent on making the moment happen, and it takes away from all the other physical pain, mental pain and spiritual pain that they’re dealing with every day and every moment.”

Yoder said some of the veterans are self sufficient and live on their own, and some are still recuperating from their medical conditions. She said the program is a wonderful thing.

“I see their eyes light up when they have a good hit, and I really see the glow in their eyes. It’s one way of saying thank you for their service,” Yoder said. “I know that they probably haven’t been appreciated for all the services that they’ve done for their country. This is one way for them to get them incorporated into the community. This is a venue where they can come out and learn about tennis. It’s another way of getting tennis out there.”

 

MONTHLY CLINICS

From May through September on the second Wednesday of every month anywhere from 16 veterans participated in the clinic for 1½ to 2 hours at Lindsley Park in Denver, across from the Denver VA Medical Center. Being able to exercise and learn the sport of tennis is huge for veterans who have to deal with PTSD or other issues from their time of service.

Lawson and some of his fellow veterans also attended the Wounded Warrior Tennis Camp in San Diego in May.

The clinics at Lindsley Park were so successful and well received by the veterans that the plan is to hold them twice a month in 2016.

“For me it’s very beneficial. It gets me out of the house and gets me physically active and doing something,” Lawson said. “I could easily be a hermit, which is not good for me.”

Lawson had such a positive experience at the clinics that he’s looking online to play at tennis clubs in Denver.

Stephen Schutzler, recreation therapist for the Denver Veterans Administration Medical Center, said the age ranges of the veterans who participated in the clinics were from 25 to 85, men and women included.

“The veterans coming to the program allows them to work on improving their physical activity level as well as their emotion regulation, just another possible coping skill that they can use when dealing with stressors and other challenges that they have in their life,” Schutzler said. “They can actually enjoy a leisure activity that they might have never tried if we hadn’t had this clinic offered, which was really cool.”

 

FEELING INDEPENDENT

Schutzler said one of the things for recreation therapy at the Denver VA is getting the veterans independent into the community whether it’s through leisure activities, navigating public transportation or taking back control of their lives.

“It was kind of cool because USTA Colorado offered all the veterans tennis racquets, so we were able to give them tennis racquets and tennis balls,” Schutzler said. “Whatever neighborhood they’re in, they can go to a tennis court in their area, especially after we gave them a skill of this is how the game works.”

USTA Colorado’s involvement came about as a result of the successful tennis clinic it held with the Colorado Wheelchair Tennis Foundation on Veteran’s Day in 2014 at the Jewish Community Center in Denver.

Kristy Harris, Community Development Director for USTA Colorado, recalls how special it was to hear the stories of the veterans who attended that first play day last November.

“One had fought in the Korean War and was quite a tennis player in his day,” Harris said. “Once he started hitting the ball, I could see his anxiety level decrease and even a few smiles.”

Harris said another veteran brought his teenage son to the clinic and she watched father and son connect through the shared experience at the tennis clinic.

“They talked about continuing to learn and play together,” Harris said. “After the initial tennis clinic, it made sense to connect the Denver VA to a nearby community tennis association that would welcome the veterans and get them involved in tennis programs nearby. Since City Park Racquet Club was right down the street, it seemed natural to reach out to them.”

 

GIVING BACK TO VETERANS

Harris said Yoder didn’t hesitate to jump in and make it happen.

“She’s been an amazing connector between the Denver VA and the local tennis community and volunteers,” Harris said of Yoder. “As more people become involved, the overall program becomes more consistent and sustainable.”

Yoder said she’s learned a lot from seeing the veterans play, which also included two in-patient clinics at the Denver VA Medical Center.

“Giving back is just a little part of what I’ve learned,” said Yoder, a USTA Colorado board member. “To let them feel how to hold the racquet or hit the ball, it was so wonderful to see them happy and laughing, although they’re probably in pain. After a while they get involved and they’re happy. That’s the payback that we get from this.”

Luna said the veterans always tell him how much they enjoy being outside.

“They don’t have to get in the car and drive to the mountains. Some of them walk to the court, and it’s a positive moment,” Luna said. “It’s a be-here-now type of attitude. To take some of the frustrations of hitting the ball and having no negative consequences, that’s what I’m noticing. I’m very honored to be the catalyst to give them a tool that maybe makes their life more pleasant.”

Schutzler said he sat down with Harris and Yoder to hammer out a program that they thought would serve the veterans well.

“This was kind of our pilot year seeing what we needed to do and what we thought would work best for the veterans,” Schutzler said. “This year’s program was pretty amazing.”

 

MAKING AN IMPACT

Schutzler noticed improvement in the veterans’ play on the court from the start of the clinics to the end.

“Definitely. There was some definite improvement going on along with skill development,” Schutzler said. “It’s very nice to see them getting out there and doing it and enjoying something that you can do on your own as well. It helps with staying in shape, which obviously keeps us healthier and all kinds of good stuff.”

Harris said that tennis can make a huge impact in the life of a veteran who is trying to re-integrate into the community.

“It evens the playing field and no matter where people are coming from, the tennis court can be a safe place to exercise, laugh, learn, compete and make new friends,” Harris said. “This was certainly evident at each of the clinics this past year as relationships developed between the participants and Coach Luna, Debbie and the other volunteers who helped. These veterans sacrificed a lot for us and, upon their return home, it can be incredibly challenging for them individually and for their families. It’s so cool to see the eagerness of the veterans to participate and the positive response from the tennis volunteers who want to give back to those who have served us.” 

Nicole Alberico, the public affairs officer at the Denver VA Medical Center, said the tennis clinics are great opportunities for veterans.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Alberico, an Army veteran of 5½ years. “Anytime you can get a veteran out and active and focus on something else, it’s a part of taking care of our veterans.”

Luna said the veterans are very appreciative of what is being offered them.

“They’re very courteous in regards to their language and their behavior,” Luna said. “If I asked them to pick up balls compared to me doing my junior programs and sometimes adult programs, it’s simple, beautiful, instinctive things that they learn being in the service. That’s something I appreciate and they deserve it. The ultimate goal is to have a lot of people playing the game of tennis. My motto is Tennis Is For Everyone. For me to teach our veterans of America how to play this beautiful sport is fantastic and the crux of my career.”

 

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