School At Home?

It was in October of his 7th grade year that my son came home from school and announced that he would like to be homeschooled instead of attending our local public middle school.  I thought he was kidding.  He was not.

Like many tennis academies in the Atlanta area, my son’s offered a homeschool program where he would do his schoolwork in the early mornings then hit the courts for 4+ hours in the afternoons.  I wasn’t even close to convinced that this was a good idea.  So, I called the principal of his middle school and scheduled a conference.  Much to my dismay, she told me that, if my son was that committed to his tennis, now was the perfect time to try homeschooling.  WHAT?????  That’s NOT what I expected to hear from a public school principal!

I went to Google to find out what my options were.  I absolutely could not teach him myself.  First of all, I don’t have the necessary depth of knowledge.  Second of all, I don’t have a teaching background.  Third of all, I have the patience of  . . . well, let’s just say it’s not even in the same universe as Job’s.

I found a great program called K12 that had contracted with our state board of education to offer free homeschool education to state residents.  The local version of K12 followed the Georgia Curriculum Standards, so it was the perfect option for us given that my biggest concern was making sure my son could jump right back into his public school on a moment’s notice if necessary.  Also, I wanted to be sure that he had direct access to real, live teachers, either via email or online, to guide his learning on a daily basis.

Once I convinced my husband that this was, if not a good idea, at least not a bad one, I got to work composing the Homeschooling Contract, to be signed by my son and me.  Included were things like minimum GPA and learning how to string his own racquets.  In hindsight, I should have included CONSEQUENCES.  We ended up developing consequences on the fly, as needed, but it probably would have been better to incorporate them up front, just so we were all on the same page from Day One.

A few weeks before we were to start the homeschooling, my son had a complete and total emotional meltdown on the way home from drills.  “What happens if I spend all this time training but I’m still not good enough?  All I ever wanted to be is a tennis player!  What if I’m just not good enough?”  What a heart-breaking thing to hear from a 13-year-old boy!  I assured him that, at 13, he wasn’t making life decisions here.  He was simply taking a chance on something that was important to him.  If it didn’t work out, he had plenty of other options – his brains and outgoing personality would take him wherever he wanted to go.  That seemed to calm him down for the time being.  The uncertainty reared its ugly head from time to time over the next 18 months, but, overall, things went pretty smoothly, and my son’s tennis skills did continue to improve.

I homeschooled my son throughout 7th grade and 8th grade with the understanding that he would return to traditional school for high school.  That’s where we are now.  9th grade.  The transition has been tricky.  My son had to re-learn that deadlines are deadlines – you don’t turn in the paper on time, you get a zero.  Period.  He had to re-learn that if you miss school for a tennis tournament, you alone are responsible for getting any missed assignments done and turned in the day you return, no matter how tired you are from playing 7 matches in 3 days.  He had to re-learn how to speak up in class, ask for help when he needs it, advocate for himself with his teachers and counselor.

I won’t lie.  This first semester back in the Real World has been rough.  On both of us.  But, I’m glad we gave the homeschooling thing a shot.  It’s not for everyone, for sure, but I am very grateful for the Together Time it gave my son and me.  After already watching two of my kids go off to college, I realize how precious that time can be.

NOTE:  Before committing to a homeschool program, do your due diligence and make sure it’s certified and recognized by the university system.  I have recently heard three (3) horror stories of college freshmen being denied playing status on the tennis team because they had to remediate their high school coursework.  Don’t let this happen to your child!

What Sport Parents Can Learn from The Penn State Tragedy

I am honored to welcome another guest blogger today, David Benzel

The recent events at Penn State University have caused many to reflect on the relationships between young athletes and coaches, parents and coaches, and most importantly the communication between children and their parents.  The question racing through the minds of thousands of parents today is “How can we insure the safety of our children as they encounter the coaches of youth sports whom we don’t really know?”

Often the relationship between parent & coach and/or coach & athlete begins with a certain level of credibility based on the coach’s experience. When you coach for Penn State, for instance, there’s an assumption that you are knowledgeable and trustworthy.  Jerry Sandusky took advantage of his credibility, something a coach must never do at any level.

Three Critical Questions for Sport Parents to Ask…

1)  Can I trust this person?

Make time for one-on-one conversations with your child’s coach. Show interest in their role in your child’s athletic development, and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. If you have any behavioral or social concerns go to the head of the athletic department immediately.

2) Does he/she care about the welfare of my child?  

Through conversations with the coach, other parents and your child you will be able to determine something about the motives of your child’s coach. Look for instruction, inspiration and discipline. If for any reason you have concern based on a conversation with a parent or even your child, sit in on a few practices to observe the coach in action.

3) Is he/she competent as a coach?

After practice be sure to ask your child athlete what he/she is learning. This is a great way to gauge the effectiveness of your children’s coach’s teaching strategy.   Remember that open and honest communication with your child is above all the most important component. Keep the lines of communication open with your child by asking questions, showing interest, and creating an environment where communication is comfortable and nonjudgmental.

A Parent’s Game Plan

In a case where a coach is acting or speaking inappropriately your child may not always be mature enough to discern the truth.  Unfortunately it’s easy to be deceived. Parents need to have a game plan of their own and the best one is a “Check-Out and Check-In” approach.

Check-Out

  • Do your homework. Find out where your child’s coach went to school and where he has worked in the past. Does he/she have experience? What is his/her background?
  • Ask around. Check in with people you trust. Talk to other sport parents and past coaches that you and your child respect.
  • Show up. Go to practices occasionally, as well as competitions or games to observe the behavior and reactions of a coach.  Get to know a coach through appropriate opportunities for parent interactions like formal and informal meetings.  If a coach does not welcome parent interactions, consider this a red flag.

Check-In

  • Establish a routine. Have regular conversations with your child about the coaching he or she is receiving, but keep in mind that checking-in with your child does not mean interfering with the coaching.
  • Verify that your child is being treated with respect. Make sure that your child athlete is being held accountable for team standards, and comfortable with his/her relationship with their coach.  Your child may be uncomfortable with the workouts or the changes required for skill development, but he or she should have a sense that the coach is sincerely and appropriately interested in personal and physical development.
  • Share. Ask your child to share information about how the coach talks to the athletes and how they are treated during the informal moments around practice and competitions.

It is completely appropriate to make your children aware that coaches come in a variety of styles, shapes, colors, and competencies. Help your children understand that every coach can teach them something of value for their development.  However, also make your child aware that every coach has a responsibility to treat every athlete with respect – intellectually, emotionally, and physically – and that you’d like to know about any incident in which that is not the case.

When you take the time to ask yourself the right questions, Check-Out, and Check-In you are allowing your children to enjoy the best possible youth sport experience.

President and Founder of Growing Champions for Life (www.GrowingChampionsForLife.com), David Benzel, is a sought-after speaker for organizations nationwide. He brings an athlete’s discipline, a coach’s inspiration, and a parent’s practical experience to teach parents and coaches skills for succeeding in the athletic arena. Most known for his seminars, inspiration programs and informational products, David is committed to creating a healthy sport environment for parents, coaches and most importantly athletes. Contact David at david@growingchampionsforlife.com. Or join the conversation online. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DavidBenzel.GrowingChampionsforLife Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/DavidBenzel

From Generation to Generation

My favorite part of the bar or bat mitzvah service is when the Torah is handed from grandparent to parent to child, signifying the passing down of religious tradition from generation to generation.  The Hebrew name for this ritual is l’dor v’dor.

In our family, tennis is one of those traditions that has been passed down from generation to generation, beginning with my dad who played for Tulane in the late 50s.  My brothers and I all grew up playing tennis, too, at our neighborhood tennis club.  My middle brother, Gary, and I did the junior tennis thing until high school.  My youngest brother, Jeffrey, ended up playing at Washington University.  And, now, my son plays, and has developed quite a nice little rivalry with his Uncle Jeffrey.  Much to my son’s chagrin, Jeffrey always wins.

My parents and Jeffrey and his wife spent Thanksgiving with us this year.  Of course, Jeffrey brought his tennis gear.  Of course, he and my son took to the courts.  This time, though, my son won.  For the first time.  Ever.

And my dad and I were court-side to watch.  My dad predicted that this was going to be the day that my son won and his son lost.  I wasn’t so sure.  My brother is a grinder.  So is my son.  The points were long and tough.  But, my son beat my dad’s son.

The next day, my dad and brother went to watch my son play a practice match.  He got lots of kudos from his grandfather and uncle that afternoon.  My son asked their opinion.  They gave it.  Over the course of the weekend, the three guys continued to talk tennis.  They talked about playing in college.  About work ethic.  About nagging injuries.  About love of the game.

Before my parents left for the airport on Sunday, my dad had one last opportunity to talk to my son.  My dad told my son that he needs to have fun out there, that the winning will come.  He gave my son a game-plan for reaching his goal of playing college tennis then turning pro.  He told my son that he will play D1 tennis.  He told my son that he believes in him 100%.

L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

Happy Turkey Day!

For my readers who are spending the holiday at a tournament with their kid, remember to make some time to give thanks for the opportunity to be with one you love.  You can always eat a turkey dinner when the tourney is over!

We will be celebrating at home this year, with 2 of our 3 kids and a set of grandparents and an aunt and uncle – we are counting our blessings, for sure!  And, although I know I’ll be exhausted by the end of the weekend, I’m looking very forward to eating some good food, watching some good tennis (both on tv and, hopefully, live as my son and his uncle continue their on-going rivalry), and spending time with family.

Happy Thanksgiving!  See y’all next week!

Tennis Parent 201 – Home Life

I asked my son to read yesterday’s post, especially the part about what kids want from their parents, and he told me I need to write a separate piece about the home life of a player and his Tennis Parent, so here goes.

Being the control-freak, Type A person that I am, this is a tough issue for me.  I have a hard time letting things go, even when I know intellectually that it’s for the best.  I talk a really good game, but the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and, well, truth be told, I could use a lot of work in this department.  And, I do work on it – I go to yoga at least twice a week and work really hard on staying present and wiping all the negative stuff off my mat.  And, I think I’m getting better.  I mean, I’M GETTING BETTER (positive affirmations lead to positive changes, right?).

As I’ve mentioned before, my tennis player is my last kid at home – his sisters are living in Beverly Hills and Athens – so he gets my full attention almost all the time.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.  It means that, even though he’s perfectly capable of doing things like fixing his own breakfast or remembering to take his daily allergy medication, I butt in with <gasp> reminders or <gasp, gasp> actually cooking breakfast for him every morning.

He has told me several times that I need to back off.

I know I need to back off.

I’m having a really hard time backing off.

Here’s the scene:  Monday morning.  6am.  My alarm goes off.  Son’s alarm goes off loud enough to wake the entire neighborhood.  I get out of bed and head downstairs.  Son’s alarm continues going off.  I pour a cup of coffee then start making breakfast.  Son’s alarm continues to go off.  I finish making said breakfast.  No sign of son.  Son’s alarm continues going off.  I yell up the stairs for him to come down to eat, but he can’t hear me because of 8000 decibel alarm.  Breakfast gets cold.  I get pissed.  I yell upstairs again.  Son finally turns off alarm and comes down, eats breakfast, showers, gets dressed, packs up bookbag, and walks out the door right on time.

Lesson I should be learning here?  My kid is perfectly capable of getting himself up, dressed, fed, and out the door in time to get to school WITHOUT me getting all worked up.  I should save my energy.  I should trust my 15 year old to do the things he knows he needs to do.

And this isn’t just limited to getting up in the mornings.  It’s also related to his tennis.  In the past few weeks, I’ve been trying really hard to stay in the background as far as his tennis is concerned.  He has asked me to let him decide which tournaments he wants to play (though he still wants me to be the one to go online and do the actual signing-up part).  At his request, I’ve been letting him arrange warm-up partners during the tournaments and arrange match play on non-tournament weekends.  He wants to be the one to check the tournament draws, first match times, and rankings, so I’ve backed off there, too.

He’s also had some recent injury and health issues, and I’m really trying to let him manage those things as well.  I’m trying NOT to ask him if he’s done his physical therapy exercises or given himself his allergy shot.  I’m trying NOT to ask him if he stretched before and after practice.  I’m trying NOT to ask him what time he went to bed the night before.

Because I know I need to back off.

But I’m having a really hard time backing off.

 

Tennis Parent 101

What does the perfect tennis parent look like?  Is there a such thing?  I started pondering this question a few years ago when I would hear coaches and tournament officials complaining about what a pain in the neck we parents can be.  I don’t disagree with that assessment because I’m sure that sometimes we CAN be a pain, especially when it comes to our precious children.  But, what are coaches looking for from us???  And what are our tennis-playing children looking for from us???

I hear from coaches all the time that they wish we parents would drop off our kids at drills/lessons then LEAVE.  Don’t hang out court-side, don’t interject commentary, and for goodness sake, don’t help pick up balls.  Why?  Because that’s often the time the coach uses to have a one-on-one chat with the player, getting some insight about what’s working and what’s not, and if we’re on the court, too, well, it interferes with what the coach is trying to accomplish.  Who knew???  I always thought I was being so helpful by picking up balls!  Turns out, I’m actually doing my kid a DISservice!

And, if you’re lucky enough to have a coach who watches your child play at tournaments?  Yep, be quiet.  Don’t chat them up.  Let the coach do his/her job and focus on your kid.  After the match, let the coach talk to your kid . . . alone.  Keep your distance.  Let the process work.

Another thing coaches want us to know is that tennis is a fluid process, not an overnight task.  It takes time – remember that 10,000 hour thing? – to develop a tennis player.  Results in the 10s, 12s, and even 14s don’t really matter.  What matters is whether or not the player has a strong work ethic, whether he or she shows up each day with a positive attitude, and whether he or she is willing to stick with this game for the long-haul in order to fully develop as an accomplished player.  A big part of the player’s overall attitude comes from us parents.  Don’t ask the coach why Little Suzy or Little Mikie is playing a certain tournament or winning more matches and why your little angel is not.  Trust that the coach has a plan for your child.  And, if you’re not confident in that trust, then ASK.

Several coaches have also told me that they can’t stand to see parents who are living their own failed dreams through their kids.  More often than not, these are the parents who are always hanging around the courts, trying to be the coach even though they’re paying lots of money to someone else to do that job, berating their child when things aren’t going well on the court.

A universal complaint I’ve heard from coaches is about parents who DO for their kids instead of letting the kids DO for themselves.  It’s our kids’ tennis life, and, for better or worse, we have to let them live it.  We can start by letting our child carry his or her own tennis bag, cooler, and other gear, even when the bag is bigger than the child.  As the child gets older, certainly by about age 13, we have to let them book their own practice time, re-grip their rackets, get their own water and drinks, choose the correct food at restaurants, get a warmup partner, enter tournaments, etc.  Yes, we parents get nervous and just want to help, but most of us don’t realize that this does NOT help our child.

And, what do our kids want from us?  They want us to be their PARENT, not their coach.  They want to be able to rely on us for unconditional love, win or lose.  High-performance coach Bunny Bruning told me that the job of the parent is the most difficult in that we have the most emotional connection to our child yet we have to leave the emotions on the sidelines a lot.

Our kids want us to ask, “How did you play today?” not “Did you win?”  When they’re playing a match, they want us there, but they don’t want us cringing or gasping or shaking our heads.  And they certainly don’t want a lecture right after they walk off the court, especially after a tough match – they want us to give them some time to calm down, to process what just happened, and to have some emotional time alone to recover.  We can use that time to get our child to rest, shower, eat, drink, and prepare for his or her next match.

We have to leave the tennis-related criticism to the coach.  Sport-family coach David Benzel explains, “If you’ve wondered why your child seems defensive and argumentative in response to your comments after a game or practice, here’s the reason. While you may only mean it as constructive help, they hear the message as ‘You fell short of my expectations; you let me down.'”  He goes on to say that the opinion that matters most to our children is what THEY think WE think of them.

Just like our children, we tennis parents are works in progress.  I would love to read about your tennis parenting experiences in the Comments box below – I know I still have a lot to learn!

How Might Being Cheated Be Good For Your Child?

I asked registered sport psychologist, Anthony Ross, of SportParentSupport.com to comment on my cheating post from earlier this week.  Here is his response:

Your child is playing an important match against a sectional rival. As the match nears its conclusion a big point arrives. Your child battles long and hard in this point and then it happens… he gets blatantly cheated and it costs him the match. As your emotions rise you feel helpless and angry. You want to jump onto the court and throttle the opponent’s neck as thoughts of missed ranking points and potential missed future opportunities for your child flood your mind. You think of all the time and effort and money you have put into being at the tournament only for your child to be robbed. You know your child is about to come off the court in complete despair, and you don’t know what to do to help.

Does this experience sound similar to any of your tennis parenting experiences? If so, welcome to the club… Tennis parenting can naturally evoke incredibly strong difficult internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, and urges) for most parents, and being cheated is the situation many parents report as the most difficult. But if we step back from the natural reactions of the moment, is it possible to reflect on this situation from a different perspective and ask the question- In what circumstances might the unfairness of being cheated both help your child’s psychological development and increase their chance of becoming more successful as a tennis player in the long term?

The Vaccine Example…

Most of us have received vaccines to boost our immune defenses. Vaccines act like small doses of adversity for our immune system leading to this system becoming stronger in fighting off disease. Your child’s difficult and unfair tennis experiences, such as being cheated, also provide the necessary vaccines that can help him or her develop resilience to face future life challenges. Let’s look at two crucial ways that you can support this process.

Exposure to ‘Positive Normal Stress’

It’s first critical to encourage your child’s exposure to difficulties, setbacks, and unfairness common in tennis. When you do this you provide him or her with the required opportunities for development, growth and resilience building. It turns out the moderate stress that they encounter in these situations is a requirement for appropriate brain development, just like exercise is for physical and brain development, and health challenge is for immune development.

How Does the Brain Respond to Moderate Stress?

When we experience stress in small doses, like those faced in difficult sport situations, neurons, which are the brain’s basic building blocks, break down but then rebuild more strongly making the brain more resilient to face future demands. Neuroscientists call this phenomenon ‘stress inoculation’. Assuming it’s not too severe or prolonged (such as more traumatic life experiences that may occur throughout development), our brains become stronger as a result of stress making it a necessity for growth.  And so if you can encourage your child’s exposure to sport stresses you are helping to build his or her brain’s ability to overcome adversity and develop resilience.

The problem with overprotection

But this is not easy to do. It’s natural for you to have a strong inclination to be very protective of your child, and sport evokes internal experiences that can make victory in the moment seem especially important. But when parents are overprotective regarding difficult sport experiences, crucial opportunities to develop resilience can be missed. I see tennis as the perfect place to intentionally promote the moderate, short-term stressful experiences that will allow your child to function better in the future even though he, and you, will likely feel worse during the adverse experience.

Responding to your child’s stress effectively

Also, while exposing your child to sport stress is important, just as important is how you then respond to his or her stressful experience. In response to being cheated, it is important to express empathy for you child’s experience and encourage her when ready to discuss her own internal experiences regarding the experience (these communications will help your child develop a sense of importance and emotional intelligence). But here I will focus on another vital aspect in your post-cheating communication- it is vital to encourage your child’s perception of having personal control over outcomes. This means encouraging your child to focus on controllable factors internal to him or her such as hard work, persistence, and discipline in overcoming difficulties rather than focusing on external factors such as being cheated.

If you can view perceived unfairness and difficulties such as being cheated or being left out of a desired team as an opportunity to grow, and successfully communicate that your child’s actions will determine his long term fate, not factors external to them, he will receive the message that he can affect future outcomes in his life.

The problem with focusing on external factors

If, however, you communicate in a way that promotes a victim mentality, your child will likely internalize the message that she does not control life outcomes. This encourages ‘helplessness’ which is an innate human response that arises when we believe that we don’t have control over life outcomes.

The Resilience Equation…

By encouraging your child’s exposure to ‘sport stress’, and communicating personal control in response, you are effectively vaccinating her to the challenges she will face throughout life. This is a vital attribute to success in tennis that can only be developed through exposure to adversity supported by successful parental communications surrounding these experiences. From this perspective ‘the cheaters’ provide the first part of the equation, and if you are able to meet the incredible challenge of stepping back from the extreme emotion of this situation and consider the big picture in choosing how to communicate to your child you can provide the vital second part:

Exposure to ‘Sporting Growth Opportunities’ + Parental Ability to Communicate a Personal Control Perspective = Increased Long Term Psychological Well-Being and Psychological Skills Required for Future Success in Tennis.

The original post, 99% Out is Still 100% In, also generated a lot of discussion on Facebook.  I have copied-and-pasted some of that discussion to the ParentingAces Facebook page if you want to take a look.  As always, please feel free to share your experiences and/or leave your comments below.