Chrissie McGaffigan on High 5 Tennis and the Power of a Good Attitude

 Chrissie McGaffigan smiles while standing on a tennis court holding a tennis racket.
 

Chrissie McGaffigan teaches people of all ages and backgrounds about tennis through lessons at her very own High 5 Tennis. After meeting her, I quickly realized she had valuable teachings to share, not only with tennis players and athletes, but every human trying to make it through everyday life.

She’s an exemplar tennis player and all-around exemplary human being. I promise, I’m not being biased just because she showed up to our interview with flowers in hand for Laura and me. Though she’s an accomplished tennis player boasting an impressive resume, she is humble and kind. She hardly spoke of her accomplishments, but focused our conversation on the work ethic and life lessons which paved her way to where she is today.

Interview by Sandra Okot-Kotber. Photography by Laura Kinney.

How did you get into tennis?

I have played tennis ever since I can remember. My parents actually met playing tennis in college, and I have three older sisters that all play, so of course, whatever they were doing, I always followed.They were my role models growing up. If they were on the tennis court playing a match, I would try and find a racket and do the exact thing they were doing. It’s really cool because it’s something that’s just been a part of my life, something that me and my family really enjoy doing together. Still to this day, when we get together, we always bring our rackets so we can get out to the tennis courts. It’s kind of fun now because my sisters have little ones, and we have fun getting them started in the game that brought us so much joy. So hopefully we’ll be able to pass that on.

What is your favorite thing about the game?

So many things. I think that tennis has so many life lessons that have taught me so many things, just about always having a positive attitude, always trying your hardest, being resilient, and more than that… I’ve had the opportunity to have so many amazing experiences and meet so many wonderful people. Just thinking back to my time in college: Some of my teammates are my best friends still to this day. Overall, it’s a wonderful lifelong sport. It’s something I can still go out and play and have fun doing. Just a way to move your body.

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Depending on who you ask, you’re going to get a different answer. For some people, it’s just a fun way to exercise. For some people, it’s a stress reliever. My favorite part of playing is getting some of that competitiveness out. But on the other side of that, my favorite part of teaching is watching people see themselves improve and gain confidence; seeing them generate a love for the game and become passionate about it.

Can you give us a little history on your tennis career?

As soon as I could pick up a racket, I was swinging it around. My three older sisters all played competitively, and I would go to tournaments with them. Since I was already going, my mom would throw me in those tournaments. I would get beat pretty bad, but it gave me really good experience. I think it made me stronger and want to get better because I didn’t want to get crushed every match. I continued down that track and I did Juniors, and then I earned a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame. My sisters all played within the Big Ten. My oldest sister played at the University of Illinois; my second oldest played at the University of Wisconsin; and the sister closest to me played at the University of Indiana, so I decided to go to the University of Notre Dame. I had the absolute time of my life.


I think that tennis has so many life lessons.


Tennis is a pretty individual sport in the Juniors, so being able to join a team was absolutely incredible. Everything you did together… You went to practice together; you would go eat together; you would go do weights and training and conditioning together. Even if you won your match but the team lost, you lost as a whole. You always had them backing you. It was really, really fun. The best year that we had, we made the final four of the NCAA tournament, so that was pretty exciting. It’s kind of seeing all of your hard work paying off at that one moment.

What made you want to become an instructor and turn your tennis background into a business?

It’s something I enjoy so much. Through my own experiences, I’m so grateful for the opportunities tennis has given me and so grateful for the experiences I’ve been able to have through the sport that I wanted to give that opportunity to other people. I wanted to pass it along. I did [instruct tennis] full time when I was living in [my hometown of] Philadelphia. As I started doing that, I thought, “I love this so much, and there is a demand for it,” so I decided, “Well, I have eight more months here. I’m going to do what I love,” and it’s really neat that I can actually make a business out of it. That was a lot of fun. I had so much fun doing that that I didn’t want to stop, so when we moved to Cincinnati, I wanted to keep it up. Also, for me, it’s been a way to meet so many wonderful, different types of people. I’ve had a 6-year-old all the way up to a 76-year-old [as students]. So all different ages, all different ethnicities. People who are coming out to try something new, to play competitively, to play pro – just for so many different things.

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Did anything scare you in that choice to teach full time?

Yes! Lots. Lots of fears! It was really scary quitting my full time job just because I thought there was a demand for it. “What if all of a sudden no one wants lessons? What if I’m a bad coach? What if my students don’t like me?” I think that was my biggest fear, because looking at the coaches in my life, they had such a big impact on me, and they’re people who have been my role models and people I have so much respect for and strive to be like. I wanted to be like that, so I think I had that fear of not meeting that expectation.

What steps did you take to overcome those fears?

My dad was my coach throughout my childhood, so he’s always been a terrific role model for me. More than just the fundamentals and the techniques and the strategy of tennis… More kind of the life lessons of always having a positive attitude, and how it’s not about being the best but being your best – you being the best you can be. I think that even plays a part in why I loved tennis so much. Just trying to take in everything I’ve learned over the last however many years – 20 years? – of playing tennis. Taking all of those teachings and lessons and then using that to teach my own students.

Our society has these norms for boys and girls; boys are supposed to be tough and sporty and girls are supposed to be dainty and into makeup and shopping. For you growing up or even today, do you get any sort of negative feedback? Criticisms for being too into sports?

I don’t think so. The school that I grew up in always supported girls’ sports. I’m not sure if it was the high school that I went to, but we always had a lot of support from the school and teachers, coaches, and even the boys; they would come out to our games, which I thought was cool. When you were saying that, I automatically went back to my childhood. You know, you think a lot of girls – if they are “good girls” – they are referred to as sweet and polite and caring and sharing. It’s funny: I think of my dad, and when he would describe me, he would describe me as powerful and strong. I think I heard that so many times from him that it was just ingrained in my mind, and that’s how I viewed myself, which I’m really grateful to him for.

What’s a piece of advice you think is important for athletes to know?

There’s always an opportunity for improvement. Even if you’re Serena Williams, you can always improve.

And I think – what’s the word I’m looking for? Cherish. Enjoy the moment. Enjoy that you have this hour to be out there, to just play. Thinking back to people who have practice or something. They don’t think, “I get to go to practice.” It’s “I have to go to practice,” and I truly think your outlook on whatever you’re doing has a huge impact on your attitude. So if you get to go to practice today, you’re excited to go, and you’re going to enjoy it more, and you’re going to get more out of it.

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What advice would you offer someone who wants to start a business or be their own boss?

A lot. I think choosing something that you’re passionate about and something that you truly enjoy is probably the most important. For me, like I said when my dad coached me, it’s more than just the tennis fundamentals and strategy. It’s about truly caring about that person and what’s best for that person when they’re out on the court. It’s catering to their needs and getting to know them as a person. That’s what I think. I don’t know if you can apply that to other types of businesses, but just kind of inwardly looking at myself, I think that’s advice I would have given myself when I was first starting.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from playing tennis?

To never give up. The coolest thing about tennis is that you can be down 6-0, 5-0, forty love, and you can always come back. Just like anything else, if something great doesn’t happen, you can always come back and make it better. The other part to that is, I think, there’s always room for improvement. You can always get better. That’s applicable to your everyday life.

You have a very upbeat energy. How do you maintain that?

That’s a good question. I feel like I surround myself with really positive people. My husband, he is just the most positive person I’ve ever met, so I feel like that rubs off on me. I do feel that I take time to reflect on the things that I’m fortunate to have and the things I’m grateful for. I think that it’s hard to be in a bad mood when you recognize all that you have and all that you’re grateful for and the amazing people that you have in your life. Also, exercising and moving. If you’re stressed about something before exercising, afterwards it’s not as big of a deal. You just feel so much better. There’s something to that.

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Who’s the most influential woman in your life?

My grandmother. She was in a Japanese internment camp and she went on after that to go to college and graduate with honors, and not for a second will you ever hear her complain or feel sorry for herself or look back at that past in a negative manner. I just have so much respect for her.


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