“It just happened”
Coach Rich Green decided to do something he had wanted to do for a long time, something he had never done before. He never knew anyone with intellectual disabilities, yet he was motivated to bring tennis to them.
About 12 years ago, Rich began volunteering for Special Olympics and started helping with state level tennis tournaments. He had experience playing college tennis and captaining USTA teams so organizing tennis for special athletes was a natural transition. At this time, Orange County did not have a team, so he started the process to form one.
“At first, some people did not think tennis was exercise,” he recalled. He invited players out to an event, and they loved it. Athletes and families kept coming. He recruited many volunteers and even got his teenage children to come help.
Rich is now on the Special Olympics North Carolina Tennis Sports Development Team and helps organize tennis. He received training from Abilities Tennis founder Kirstie Marx as well as Special Olympics and now coaches the Chapel Hill Abilities Tennis clinics out of the Chapel Hill Tennis Club.
“The athletes get so much out of it and parents see the wonderous advancements their children have,” he observed. Some players “weren’t communicative or were afraid to participate,” he continued. “Then they start progressing, socializing, and communicating.”
Recently, Rich had the unique experience of competing at the 2019 National Unified Doubles Tennis Championship in Orlando, FL at the USTA National Tennis Center. Unified Doubles is a doubles tennis partnership made up of one player with intellectual disabilities and one typical player. This partnership can be played at all skill levels on both Short and Full courts.
Rich and his partner, Kevin Olin, secured their spot at the National tournament by winning the most games at the Qualifying Tournament held in Raleigh. Playing with Kevin was an incredibly positive experience for Rich. “Kevin is very funny. We had some great laughs.” Rich especially likes how “he uses food items to express his frustrations.”
He shared that, along with having an amazing time, he learned so much from his experience at the tournament. “Mostly your job is to support your partner’s success and make sure everyone is enjoying themselves. At first, I thought that meant I should be hitting most of the balls to the athlete, letting them get to do most of the playing so they could have the most fun.” What he discovered is that can put a lot of stress on the athlete because, like all of us, they will eventually miss.
“Winning, doing well, it’s very important to these athletes. They feel the pressure in competition like anyone else,” he explained. “Some athletes will get upset or break down, even a Unified partner can feel the pressure.” Rich learned his job was to vary the play between athlete and Unified partner, keep the ball in play, focus on the fun, and relieve any stress as much as he could.
“Kevin was also good about reading the atmosphere. If we saw our opponents were having a tough time, we both focused on keeping the rally going. In one match, without even discussing it, Kevin and I played some points just to help our opponents feel encouraged and get mentally back into it.”
“Kevin is amazing and sensitive that way,” said Rich about his partner.
Playing Unified Doubles “reminds you how enjoyable tennis is,” continued Rich. It is “wonderful for everyone involved. Families get to play together; college students get involved. If you play tennis, then you have what it takes to play unified.”
Many of our coaches, families, and volunteers observe the positive benefits tennis brings to the athletes. Rich observed how much it helped his own tennis game. “Your patience in the point improves, your positivity improves…your job is to keep the point going and support your athlete. You are NOT trying to win the point. It’s wonderful!”
If you’re thinking you’d like to play Unified Doubles, Rich recommends just coming out and trying it. “Anyone can do it,” Rich emphasized and added that volunteering at clinics is a great place to start. After warm-up, instruction, and drills, the athletes and volunteers do some form of Unified play.
Unified Doubles is “wonderful for everyone involved. You can find your own commitment level,” he said. Most Unified partners play at the clinics or in our tournaments and special Play Days. There are opportunities for all levels of play on the Full Court or the Short Court. Everyone can find a court where they are comfortable and there are always coaches, volunteers, and family members there to help you and your athlete.
Rich consistently has a large group of athletes in his Chapel Hill clinics and takes them to many of the Abilities Tennis tournaments and Special Olympics competitions. “This is a transient area, but I have some athletes who have been with us from the start.” He encourages everyone to come out and play. “I can’t imagine what would keep you from playing with our athletes!”
We encourage you to join Coach Rich in Chapel Hill or your local Abilities Tennis program as a player or volunteer. Go to “Clinics/Practice” and find a location near you.