Jane Kim – Tennis, Expanded

As a child, I played racket sports. I have memories of badminton battles amongst fall foliage in suburban NC, church tennis tournaments in the summer, and epic ping pong matches. In the winter, my sister and I would don puffer jackets and head to the garage – each of us swinging with a bit more intensity, in case the extra layers would impact our precision game. Racket sports were a year-round all-season competition – and it became a part of not only my identity but my childhood. As I grew older, tennis became the preferred racket sport, somewhat by default. Ping pong tables and badminton nets were less available – and when the tables and nets were there, there was rarely a full set of accouterments. Tennis became familiar and comforting, like a favorite sweatshirt or movie. 


I assumed any kids I had would play tennis. When my son, T, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at 3 years old, I had no desire to play. There were too many demands on my energy and mental and emotional health, and I blindly accepted that tennis no longer made sense in my life. For several years, my racket remained in the closet, the strings growing brittle, and less flexible and resilient.  


The uncertainty of the future and behavioral stress of ASD was a lot to handle. Anxiety became my dominant personality trait. I treated ASD like something that should be overcome and defeated, rather than something that should be considered and understood. I got lost in the wrong marching orders, in a frantic race against time. Everything was falling apart, including my marriage.


After I separated, one of the first things I did was sign up for a tennis lesson. I had lost all muscle tone, and my clothes hung off me like a hanger. It had been years since I played last and I thought some guidance and instruction from a pro would be best. But stepping onto the hard court for the first time, the feel of the ball in my hands, and the symmetry of the court made me relax. Something familiar stirred inside me. The pro, Steve, focused on my ground strokes and foot placement and observed something interesting about my backhand. Apparently, after all these years playing, no one had noticed the positioning of my hands on my two-handed backhand: my right hand overlapping my left, putting undue pressure on the right side of my body. Steve encouraged me to join a 2.5 USTA league to regain confidence and consistency on the court. I credit joining the 2.5 USTA league (and subsequently the 3.0 league and CUP D tennis) as one of the steps that helped reconnect me with my identity.


The first time on the tennis court with T and my partner, Mark, was frustrating. T had learned to ride a scooter and bike easily, so I didn’t anticipate the challenges with motor planning, hand-eye coordination, and ball tracking. Balls whizzed by him repeatedly, and we left the court stressed, silent, and sweaty. We tried a couple more times and then abruptly stopped. There was no enjoyment or progress – so what was the point? But as a person who loved playing tennis, it didn’t sit right.


Several years later, a mom from T’s social skills class told me about ACEing Autism. Every class has the same structure so the kids know what to expect: stretching, hand-eye coordination exercises such as bouncing the ball back and forth with a volunteer or kid, practicing one of the basic tennis strokes, and a group huddle. To my surprise, T asked when he was going back next. I knew then, that they were providing something he hadn’t experienced with tennis before: connection and community.


For the last class, they distributed certificates of completion, and medals, and celebrated with a pizza party. In the excitement of the closing ceremony, T left his racket behind. On autopilot, I quickly emailed the local ACEing Autism office. Within five minutes I got a response: Yes, we noticed the extra racket and you can pick it up at the pro shop. 


To me, the real danger of being a parent to an autistic child is that it can rob you of your parenting instinct. Often, there isn’t much energy left for teachable moments, conversations that matter, and lessons in accountability. Caregiving can trump parenting, and I’ve been doing my best to combat this for about a decade. But when there is downtime, my mind is more open to processing things from a parent’s lens. In 60 minutes, ACEing Autism’s lesson allows me to take a breath and transition from the reactive to the present. I’m remembering to be a parent first and foremost. 


So an hour after I emailed the office and had confirmed they had his racket, T left a message and told them he left his racket there. It’s irrelevant that his racket had already been found: He is accountable and can learn to take responsibility for his actions.  


A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought the program was a success, as T and I can’t rally back and forth consistently. But ACEing Autism did something I couldn’t: they instilled an eagerness for him to show up, make connections, and continue to learn the basics. One hour of judgment-free time amongst other kids and volunteers, and he looked forward to showing up week after week. 


My lived experience of tennis has since expanded. Tennis isn’t just about physical activity, the technique, or the final score. Tennis is about community, building blocks, food, and fun. Tennis can be one-on-one, and can also be about togetherness. When you’re on the court and the sun is shining, it’s an unbelievable feeling. I want more of that – I think we all do.

Share this post

Related stories