Thirty-year tennis instructor: A love-love relationship

  • Published
  • By D.P. Heard
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs

Fitness comes in many forms. For some, it is a solo endeavor like weightlifting, or a team activity like football, but for others the passion comes from the one-on-one excitement associated with a sport such as tennis.   

Larry Copeland, U.S. Strategic Command contractor, fits the latter bill.  

When Copeland was 11, his mother’s fiancée taught him and his siblings the game of tennis. While his younger brother and older sister hated it, he enjoyed it and continued practicing.

He continues to play to this day, but, more importantly, for more than thirty years he has passed his love of the game on to countless players through coaching. Getting to this point hasn’t always been easy and he has had more than enough reasons to quit.

Two years after his mom’s fiancé gave him his first lesson, his mother passed away and his father assumed custody of the him and his siblings.

His father was struggling to put food on the table, so the cost of high school tennis, new shoes, uniform, grips and restring, were luxuries that they couldn’t afford. So Copeland adapted to his situation and began playing daily at the local park.

His opponents were adult neighbors, most of them known drug and alcohol users.

“They were some of my best mentors and they were surprisingly good tennis players,” Copeland said.

When he joined the Air Force in 1980, tennis came with him. He continued to play several times a week and even won a base championship. He also participated in local tournaments, losing more than he won, but it wasn’t a deterrence.

Eventually, in 1987 while stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, he made the move into coaching. He was asked to give lessons to his maintenance superintendent’s son who wanted to try out for the high school tennis team.  It was then that he discovered his passion for teaching.

Copeland began spending time outside the court learning about the craft. He read books, watched TV and DVDs, and talked to local coaches at tennis clubs. One thing rapidly clear - coaching was completely different from playing the game and he was ready to take on the challenge.

Today, Copeland works with a range of students and adults teaching them aspects such as stroke mechanics, footwork sequences, tactics and even discussing the mental aspects of tennis.

Caroline and Georgia, daughters of retired Col. Dave Berg, former 55th Wing vice commander, are two of his current trainees.  

"I have really enjoyed learning tennis with Mr. Larry,” Caroline said. “He makes it fun, but he pushes us as well.  I've definitely improved since I started, and I know he has prepared me well for competition in high school."

Her sister agrees.

"With competition season around the corner, I never thought I would be ready in time,” Georgia said. “But through the great coaching techniques of Mr. Larry, I have grown strong and skilled.  I really enjoy being his student."

Copeland takes great joy in watching his students’ progress, but his proudest moments are when they start to love the game as much as he does.

Although he has a full-time day job, coaching is much more than something he does on the side.

“It’s an integral part of my life,” Copeland said.