By David Mullins, www.davemullinstennis.com
Before I get started, let me just say that I hit the lottery when it comes to parents. They gave me every opportunity in life to be happy, and to lead a productive life. They sacrificed, encouraged and took the time to discipline me and love me. As a parent of two children myself, I now have an obvious appreciation as to how challenging it can be to navigate the parenting process which is fraught with missteps. Fortunately, I had two great role models in my parents, and view my role as a parent as the most important task I will be ever faced with during my short time on this planet.
Like many parents trying to help their children pursue their passions and dreams, my parents had no education, experience or background in the hobby I wanted to pursue at a high level, which for me was tennis. Despite all the things they got right, they got just as many wrong. This is not meant to be an indictment on my parents, quite the opposite in fact. This is simply an objective view of the process I went through as a high performing young athlete, and what I believe impacted me positively and negatively as a tennis player. I have learned a great deal from them as to the things I should do, and not do, as I try to encourage and support my children in the interests they want to pursue. I write this in the hope that it can have some tiny influence on tennis parents, and the actions they take to help support their children.
SOME THINGS THEY THEY GOT RIGHT
INDEPENDENCE: my parents were strict but had very few rules. They held me to high standards and trusted me to make sound decisions which in turn allowed me to fail and figure things out for myself. When I started to get very serious about tennis at the age of 11/12 it was on me to get myself to a lot of my practices and matches. I would take the bus, train, walk, run, bike. When they did drop me off to practices they did not hang around to watch every move I made, critique the coach or give feedback on the process. This was my time for myself to pursue what I wanted, they did not make these situations about them in anyway. They had a life away from my tennis and would come to my matches when it was convenient to them. I never questioned their love for me because they did not attend every match or practice.
DISCIPLINE: I always had jobs to do around the house or in the garden. I learned at a young age how to work hard at menial tasks. I never wanted to do these jobs, but I was not given a choice! Learning this discipline at an early age helped me in my pursuit of high performance tennis and continues to serve me well to this day.
ROLE MODELS: they not only taught me the meaning of hard work, they worked hard themselves and held themselves to a high standard. They were not sitting back while I was working hard. They were paving the way and modelling the actions I should be taking. They explored a lot of interests themselves and supported my passion in a number of different ways whether they knew it or not.
SOME THINGS THEY GOT WRONG
WINNING ABOVE DEVELOPMENT: my parents did not understand the need to focus on long term tennis development over short-term wins. When I first started to receive some private coaching, the first thing the coach changed was my serving grip, from a western (frying pan grip) to a continental grip. In competition this would lead to a lot of double faults. My mother would encourage me to just to tap it in (Happy Gilmore style), “just tap it in, just tap it in…”. She did not understand that for me to develop as a tennis player I would have to suffer through a lot of double faults and some losses as I learned a new technique and grip. This is a simple example, but it leads to confusion and stagnation as I was torn between making the necessary improvements for the long term, versus winning NOW to please my parents.
PARENTS: There should not be any confusion for a young tennis player about whether they should put winning ahead of long term tennis development. Players have to be allowed and encouraged to pursue the development process, and that losing tennis matches to those you expect them to beat will be part of this process. Players need to be able to test out their technical changes in tournament play without concern of how mistakes or a loss will impact their parents emotional state.
VISIBLE REACTIONS: there is nothing worse as a young tennis player to catch a glance of your parents shaking their heads in disgust after you miss an “easy” shot or lose an important point. Tennis is a very difficult sport and you see the best players in the world miss “easy” shots, lose commanding leads and lack composure at times. To have some expectation that your child should not fall into the same categories is in my opinion, ludicrous! Like I mentioned earlier, my parents did not come to all my matches but when they did their reactions to these scenarios did not help me in anyway, and only led to me questioning my own decision making on the court and become even more outcome focused. This thinking would then lead to me playing a more conservative game style or maybe even tanking/making excuses to protect my ego and their ego in the process. It is much easier to say that I lost because I did not try, or I was sick/hurt then to say the other player was actually better than me!
PARENTS: If you are watching your child play tennis, remain stoic at all times. I hear parents say sometimes that it is harder to watch than play! I assure you, it isn’t. Don’t justify your actions by saying that you are just as nervous or that you just want them to do well. No, you want them to win, and maybe even win at all costs. You may ignore some bad behavior, cheating, or some other questionable actions so that they get over the finish line in first place. You may even think that the world is against yourself and your child if the referee or umpire makes a decision you don’t agree with, but would you have agreed with their decision if it had happened to the opponent? I am familiar with this “lack of control” feeling as a parent and a college coach, but at the end of the day we are the adults, with the life experience to know better. If your “nerves” can’t handle the moment, then you need to question why you are feeling this strongly about this particular event. There will be more tennis matches and there will be far more important trials and tribulations your children will endure. If you can’t remain stoic, then walk away and let your child play for themselves and not to please you.
THREATS: If I lost a match to someone I supposedly should not have lost to, or behaved poorly on the court, I would quickly be reminded of the financial costs or sacrifices made for my tennis. I think my parents believed they were motivating me in some way, but I did not need motivation, I was very self-motivated. I simply lost a match or acted my age in a situation because I did not have the mental skills to deal with it in any other way. Being reminded of these sacrifices led to feelings of guilt and the questioning of my own abilities. I worried about what opportunities or securities I was costing my family and if it was all worth it. Obviously, my parents did not understand the negative impacts this was having on me and would not have done so if they did understand how it would affect my thinking.
PARENTS: If you are supporting your kid’s tennis do not expect anything in return. Don’t expect your child to love you more or say thank you all the time or win more tennis matches because of the sacrifices YOU are CHOOSING to make. Do it because you want to do it regardless of the short or long-term outcomes. If you need to remind your children of everything you are doing for them, and what you are giving up, so they can pursue their tennis, then stop supporting them in these ways. If it is putting a burden on your finances or more importantly your relationship with your children, then it is not worth it. Go back to the drawing board and see how you can make it work without everyone in the family feeling a huge amount of pressure. Your children will still love you regardless of how many tennis rackets they own or what tournament they could not go play. They may not understand it in the moment, but they will eventually, especially if it is communicated to them in a rational, loving way.
MIXED SIGNALS: I can’t be the greatest thing since slice bread when I win a tournament and then the worst person in the world when I don’t. My mother loved to tell everyone how great I was at tennis, how I was going to be a future star etc. Firstly, this obviously is extremely embarrassing for a teenage boy, but secondly it puts undue pressure on a child. This can lead to a feeling of having to be perfect at all times, and trying to live up to the tennis player my mother is telling everyone that I am. Yes, in her world I was a superstar tennis player but internationally I was just another good little tennis player that loved to play tennis. I was far from a child Phenom!!
PARENTS: People will take you far more seriously if you are aware of your child’s strengths and weaknesses as a person and as a tennis player. Telling family, friends, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker about how good your child is at tennis, in front of them, does nothing to help them. Maybe you feel like it is improving their self-esteem or some other misguided assumption, but in most cases, it is only increasing the pressure they already feel on their young shoulders. It is not exactly preparing them for the real world, unless they have the mental skills and work ethic behind them to utilize that praise in a productive manner. Plus, the guy packing your groceries could care less about your child’s latest medal winning performance! Be consistent with your praise and criticism, focus on a few core values that you would like to instil in your child, and don’t let wins or losses influence the life lessons you hope your children will learn through their athletic endeavors.
As parents, we need to understand what we do not know. Just because we competed in high school sports or play some tennis at the local club does not mean we know what is best. There is so much information out there as to what the best practices are to helping raise a high performing young athlete, yet I still see parents making the same mistakes over and over and over again. We are all constantly making mistakes as parents but many of these mistakes can be avoided. As your children go on this journey, I encourage you to learn as much as you can about which parenting skills are most effective for helping high performance tennis players. This is effortful and will take some time and work on your behalf, but I assure you it will go a really long way to helping your child develop in all the ways you hope they will.