(Photo by Brittany Barbato)
“I got it.”
Whether she’s on the tennis court, in the classroom or at home, all 17-year-old Miyah Davis needs to do is remember those three little words and she’s ready to smash whatever life serves her.
She didn’t always think that way, though. Growing up in a single-parent home in a high-crime neighborhood, Davis says she used to “never want to do anything.” According to the Women’s Sport Foundation (founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King), she wasn’t alone: One in three girls in America is sedentary. And because her basketball-star brother was considered the “athletic one,” Davis questioned why she would bother since the focus was “always on boys, boys, boys” anyway.
In 2010, a teacher suggested Davis try the in-school tennis program offered by Team Up Philly, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls to achieve their full potential through participation in athletics, character development, nutrition education, leadership training and academic support. Figuring tennis was an “easy” option, she agreed.
“I thought to myself, ‘You hit a ball with a racket. How hard could it be?’” she said.
Needless to say, it wasn’t an easy ace as Davis quickly realized there was more to the program than just tennis. Important conversations about values — such as respect, goal-setting, patience, positive communication, teamwork and grit — happen before and after a session, and fitness drills and fundamentals are based on a nationally recognized, girl-empowering curriculum called GoGirlGo!
With encouragement from her coaches, Davis stuck with the program though and noticed a change in herself.
“Coach Jae [Williams] and Coach Marian [Fischer Pearlman] would say, ‘You got it. Don’t give up. Keep going,’” Davis said during a recent tennis practice. “And, look, now I’m eating healthier and feeling good about myself. I’m strictly positive. I got it!”
Mentorship is another key component of the Team Up Philly experience where girls are exposed to positive role models through the staff.
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Growing up in New York during a time when Venus and Serena Williams were rapidly rising to the top, Team Up Philly Coach Jennifer “Jae” Williams (no relation) says tennis was her first love, just like Davis. She learned how to play at the Harlem Junior Tennis League and earned a summer job as a junior coach at the Pyramid Tennis Association. There, she modeled herself after its founder (and United States Tennis Association Eastern hall-of-famer) Arvelia Myers.
Today, Williams considers it an honor to give back to a program so similar to the ones she enjoyed as a child: “Programs like these are so important because they provide role models for younger kids,” she said.
An active member of the LGBTQ community, she also shared how exciting it is to see increasing inclusivity in sports.
“I remember what it felt like growing up; it’s so different now,” she said. “I feel privileged to be part of offering a safe, supportive space for youth to play, learn and grow.”
Williams remembers the moment when Davis told her, “I’m going to be just like you, Coach.” And, sure enough, Davis has been following in her footsteps ever since. She attended Team Up Philly tennis and leadership summer camps. She joined their Girls Leadership Project, an ongoing Team Up Philly leadership training specifically for girls who have excelled in their programs and want to stay on a positive path. And, last year, Davis became the first-ever junior coach hired at Team Up Philly.
Like learning tennis though, navigating her new leadership role was difficult at first. The transition meant many of her peers were now her pupils.
“I think she hid in the bathroom for the first week,” Fischer Pearlman teased at a recent practice. “But we helped her work through her fears and challenges. Leadership development isn’t just about leading others — it’s also about finding your own voice.”
Fischer Pearlman believes sports can be a conduit for girls to both learn and lead together.
“Sports are unique in that they require individual effort along with teamwork and cooperation,” she said. “These characteristics are increasingly important in higher education and in the workforce, so girls who know how to work together without sacrificing their own worth or goals are at a big advantage. Through Team Up Philly, girls have a place to practice developing their own strength while supporting others to do the same.”
A senior at Central High School this year, Davis has already heard from eight of the 13 colleges she’s applied for — all acceptance letters. When she shared the good news with Williams and Fischer Pearlman before a practice, they cheered and hugged in celebration.
Whatever happens next, Davis knows she will continue to play and coach.
“Whether or not I play tennis for school,” she said. “I’m always going to play and I’ll always come back to help out Team Up Philly because what they do is really, really good.”
Sounds like she’s got it.-30-
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