‘Character first’ on the court

LINDEN HILLS — Under an overcast July sky that threatened to cut short their practice, about 20 boys and girls raced around the Linden Hills Park tennis courts clutching rackets and swatting at tennis balls.

The rambunctious game of King of the Court looked like a little bit of chaos and a lot of fun. And not much like your typical tennis drill.

Coach Mikis Kostouros said those drills came earlier in the four-hour lesson. Three hours in, it was time for some fun.

“We’ll try and keep it up-tempo, so the kids have something to do all the time,” Kostouros explained.

Still, InnerCity Tennis aims to do more than teach good tennis form in a fun atmosphere. Exective Director Richard Boyer said the nonprofit emphasizes character development through athletics, passing along lessons about respect, teamwork and responsibility.

“We like to teach character first,” Boyer said.

Research indicates the program may be working.

InnerCity Tennis President Eric McNulty said the program partnered with the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis-based Search Institute to create a system for measuring student development. It’s a bit of a “sweet science,” McNulty acknowledged, but feedback from coaches shows the character lessons stick with kids who stick with the program.

“The children that stay with us through the program, that improvement is compounded annually,” McNulty said.

Not that the youngsters at Linden Hills Park really noticed. For most of them, the daily session was a way to build tennis skills while having fun.

Paul Bromelkamp, 11, said when he wants to play tennis at home, he often ends up just hitting a ball against the garage door. Bromelkamp’s mornings at InnerCity Tennis offered a rare chance to play with friends like Nick Stastny, also 11, on the court.

Stastny said the morning tennis lessons are kept fun with a variety of group activities. “You’re playing games that improve your skills,” he said.

The roots of InnerCity Tennis go back to the 1950s, when a group of Minneapolis tennis enthusiasts wanted to expand the interest in what was then a sport for the country club set. Today, the population InnerCity Tennis serves is more than 70 percent minority youth, primarily black, Hispanic and American Indian children.

InnerCity Tennis’ daily summer program is low-cost compared to most tennis lessons, at only $35. Scholarships are provided to families that can’t afford the fee. Winter lessons are free.

Kostouros, who joined InnerCity Tennis at 10 years old, said the accessibility of the program has given it a broad impact. He estimated that most of his peers who played tennis at a Minneapolis high school tried the program for at least a year.

“I loved it,” he said.