independent

Friday 18 April 2014

FAIR GAME: the ace of nixers

Donal Lynch received neither child benefit nor tax relief: he had neither skills nor accreditation. So how was he to lay his hands on some extra cash?

'There's something very 'now' and 'zeitgeisty' about doing a little enjoyable nixer for some extra cash," I told myself in a very positive voice. "It's your patriotic duty to survive this recession and keep the mortgage wheel turning." But mainly, if I'm honest, it was about the spending money. I don't get child benefit. Or 'relief' from tax. Or any other relief. So I have to provide my own. It's up to me and my bucket and spade. The only question was what exactly I would do. Anything involving a hairnet and an apron was out – been there, done that, in the old Bewley's on Westmoreland Street circa 1998. Same went for anything involving 'skills' or 'accreditation' – don't have any. Then I hit on it: tennis coaching.

My reasoning was that it was one of those interesting, Eighties gigolo-ish jobs that would be both outdoorsy and flirty – a stunning contrast to my usual work, which involves sitting in a room on my own with a laptop. Secondly, the sport's well-heeled crowd was probably a little more recession-proof than other sports – witness all those Rolex ads during Wimbledon.

My 'qualifications' were that I had coached kids while I was in college, watched a lot of classic tennis on YouTube and had the tyrant-father streak that tends to produce grand slam champions and/or total burnout.

In my mind's eye, it would be like being paid to keep fit and work on my tan, with the outside possibility that a millionaire celebrity might look to me for forehand advice. (While coaching in New York, I once saw Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen hacking around on an adjoining court). I wasn't going to let something like lack of training stand in my way. If journalism taught me anything, it's how to fake it until you make it.

The first and on-the-face-of-it fatal obstacle I faced was lack of access to a court. For various legal reasons, no club or public courts will let you coach on them unless you have all manner of certificates and insurance. But who is to say if you're 'coaching' or simply playing with someone and giving them gratis tips? Certainly not the rotund and surly public court attendant who glared at me through narrowed eyes as my mini-business venture took off. This is what we coaching grifters would call a loophole. Nobody was going to nix my nixer that easily.

Lining up 'students' was easy – it all happened either through word-of-mouth or online, through craigslist.org and a few other tennis-related websites (loveatfirstserve.com and tennisopolis.com to name but two). I charged below normal rates for a coach (about €40-50 per hour in Dublin). As time went by I began to rethink this. First, it seemed as if people would gladly pay more for what is about as much of a life necessity as a private jet. Secondly, it seemed as if I should get more money for what was, after all, physical labour. I only coached people one-on-one, and this made it more intensive and harder work. On hot summer days I could wring my shirt and felt in serious need of a kool pop. I raised the rates after a few months and there wasn't so much as a squeak of protest.

My students were more patient with me than I was with them. Tennis is a relatively difficult game to learn – the strokes are longer than all other racquet sports, the court is bigger and it often takes months before beginners are able to sustain rallies. With kids, you can sometimes have problems like them not knowing whether they're right- or left-handed. When an eight-year old spaces out on you, they're gone.

With adults, I found the problems are more to do with bad habits, irritating conversation ("My horoscope said what?") and the evidence that their whole nervous system and body was not built for any kind of sport. Muscle memory is important and when someone's service motion looks like an octopus falling out of a tree it's very hard for them to 'unlearn' that.

The different characters made things interesting. My favourites were the girls who came decked head to toe in Stella McCartney tennis couture and the latest racquet, but were unable to hit the ball at all. They were the kind of raw material I could work with.

One thing they never suffered from was burnout. I, on the other hand, felt my love of running around after other people's miss-hits waning by the day. The cash was okay but what about the human cost? There would be no tan or Grand Slam champions.

And while I wasn't quite laying railway track, it was exhausting.

At the end of an afternoon's coaching, I was very grateful to be sitting back in my chair with hands paused in claw-like pose above my laptop – just as nature intended.

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