In July, we introduced you to the life and times of Martina Navratilova, whose personal and professional accomplishments can help us teach the importance of determination, pride, and sportsmanship.
This month, let’s take a closer look at another barrier-breaking tennis champion: Althea Gibson. As we explore her story, we’ll identify three other key characteristics that can help us educate, motivate, and inspire youth tennis players.
Althea Gibson: Her Story
Althea Gibson isn’t just one of the most influential tennis players who ever lived—she’s one of the most influential athletes of all time. The first African American tennis player (male or female) to play at Wimbledon (1950) and the U.S. National Championships (1951), Gibson broke the race barrier in tennis not once but twice. (And did you know she accomplished the same game-changing accomplishment in golf, as well?)
In her career, Gibson won singles or doubles championships at the French Open (1957), Wimbledon (1957 and 1958), U.S. Championships (1957 and 1958), and Australian Championships (1957). All in all, the tennis great won a total of 56 singles and doubles championships before she even turned pro in 1959.
Related: Althea Gibson Biography
More than twenty years before Martina Navratilova ever picked up a tennis racket, Althea Gibson was setting the stage for tennis players around the world. Though she was born in South Carolina, Gibson moved with her family to Harlem, a borough in New York City, where the family struggled through poverty and Gibson dismissed academics for athletics. Despite the move, her family’s financial problems, and a negative response to her formal education, Gibson was able to recognize her true potential.
At 13, the soon-to-be tennis sensation was “discovered” and started playing competitive tennis at local tournaments. One year later, Gibson entered and won a tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association, the nation’s oldest African American sports organization. For the next decade or so (1947 to 1956), Gibson would go on to win 10 straight tennis championships.
Why is Gibson’s success so impressive? Because tennis was inherently prejudiced against both women and African Americans. While Gibson was permitted to compete in some tournaments, institutionalized racism was limiting her potential to grow. Fortunately for Gibson, tennis, and society as a whole, fellow female tennis champion Alice Marble challenged the sport’s status quo, speaking out against its racial injustices in American Lawn Tennis magazine. From that point on, Gibson was propelled to greatness.
Here are some other facts about Althea Gibson that might resonate with today’s junior tennis player, parents, or coaches. Althea Gibson
- Was tall and strong for her age: 5’11”
- Relied on a booming serve and precise volleys
- Attended Florida A&M University on a sports scholarship
- Almost left sports to join the U.S. Army
- Shared valued friendships with people from different backgrounds
What can we learn from Althea Gibson? Here are three characteristics she has embodied that you can use as talking points when encouraging your junior tennis players.
If you love the sport—if you’re truly passionate about playing the game, no matter what it is—you must play, play, and play some more. Are you constantly drawn to the game? Is it the first thing you think about when you wake up and the last thing you think about when you got to bed? In order to be a champion, you must have an unbridled passion to master your craft.
If you learn how to leverage your strengths to compensate for your weaknesses, you can compete with anyone. Are there flaws in your game? What are they? Are you willing to admit where you are weak? How about your best attributes? What can you do better than anyone else? Nobody is perfect, but when we pair our capabilities against our potential—that’s when we perform to the best of our ability. It isn’t always about winning or losing; it’s about learning from our strengths and weaknesses, and then using that knowledge to better ourselves.
If you can’t open yourself up to criticism, advice, or input from your friends, family, or coaches, you will never grow as an individual, let alone as an athlete. First, make sure you surround yourself with good-hearted, trustworthy people who have proven that they only want the best for you. When you’ve established a safe and healthy inner circle, heed their advice with an open heart and an open mind. Use their words to fuel your fire.
For more good ways to help your young athlete stay engaged in the sport they love, check out our some of our other blogs!