Confessions of a Tennis Parent

Today’s guest post is presented by Dr. Allen Fox, noted sports psychologist and author.  He wrote this article a few years ago after watching his younger son – who now plays club tennis in college – compete in a junior tournament.  Thank you, Dr. Fox, for sharing your own tennis parent experiences!

By Allen Fox, Ph.D., c  2004 all rights reserved

There is a public image of the “bad” tennis parent – hyperemotional, excessively driven, overly involved in their kid’s tennis, and most damning of all, “living through their kids.” There is undoubtedly much truth in this description, but I was always bothered by the “living through their kids” part. My problem was that I couldn’t figure out exactly what that meant. Now, as a parent myself who has two kids engrossed in tournament tennis, I still don’t know what it means, but I have, at least, gained greater perspective about the process of tennis parenting.

The involved tennis parent, bad or good, does make a vast investment of time, energy, money, and emotion in his or her child’s tennis. I have found, from personal experience, that the commitment is enormously consuming. Almost daily, I spend hours on the court with my kids, teaching them proper techniques and practicing with them. For variety, I spend substantial sums of money sending them to tennis clinics at local clubs as well as, occasionally, to distant tennis academies. They love the game so much and are so determined to improve that it makes me feel good to give them every opportunity.

As a parent I like their deep involvement in tennis because of the life-lessons they learn as a by-product. I haven’t the slightest hope or thought that they are going to become professionals and make a living winning big tournaments and endorsing products. The probabilities against this are astronomical. (They have a better chance of winning the lottery or being discovered by a movie producer and winning an Oscar.) The real importance of the game is that it graphically teaches them things that they can not learn other than through personal experience.

One example is that they see with their own eyes the direct correlation between hard work over a long period of time and skill development. Kids admire the phenomenal skills of professional athletes. They may even fantasize about being touched with the genius to do these amazing things themselves. But after spending years sweating on a hot practice court developing their forehands and backhands, they acquire a deep understanding of exactly how pro athletes get to be pro athletes. They now know that they do it the old fashioned way – they earn it with years of sweat and backbreaking effort. In addition, they find out that emotional control and mental discipline help you win. And they learn to cope with failures, to deal with pressure, and to stay practical in pursuit of their goals.

So after my kids and I have put in all this effort on the practice courts the payoff comes when they play in tournaments, and we travel to one every couple of weeks. Of course it doesn’t really matter, in any practical sense, whether they win or lose a junior tennis tournament. But their results do measure their degree of skill development, and affect their rankings and status relative to their tennis peers. Since this is terrifically important to the boys, it becomes terrifically important to my wife and me.

We sit on the sidelines, biting our nails as our boys battle it out against an unending supply of talented Southern California juniors. The competition is tough and each victory is a nerve-wracking experience, and each loss is agonizing. Kids tend to be short sighted and we fear that a painful loss may make them doubt that all the effort is really worthwhile. Maybe the loss will make them doubt my claims that hard work and discipline will eventually pay off. Maybe the kids will get discouraged and quit. At the least, a loss will make them upset and unhappy, and no parent likes to see their kids unhappy.

So of course my wife and I are on the edge of our seats during tournament matches and suffering over each and every error our kid makes. We know how fragile confidence can be. We apply body-English during the points, somehow feeling that the power of our mental effort on the sidelines can affect the outcome. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t and our kids take their share of losses.

At times, inexperience, tournament nerves, pressure by opponents that are simply too good, etc. cause our kids to make errors. Here they miss easy shots, fail to take advantage of many obvious (at least to me) opponent deficiencies, employ poor strategies, and appear blind and unresponsive to plays their opponents make over and over that seem to catch them unawares. It is like watching a disturbing horror show. You sit there helpless as the evil figure, knife in hand, sneaks up on the hero. You want to scream out, “Turn around. He’s hiding behind the curtains! ” but don’t. The characters on the screen can’t hear you anyway. And so your kids walk off the court having taken losses that might have been avoidable. You were powerless to intercede.

THIS IS THE TURNING POINT WHERE THE GOOD TENNIS PARENT MAY BECOME THE BAD TENNIS PARENT. It is here that the emotional balance of the parent is tested. Having just sat through hours of emotional turmoil and frustration, you, as a tennis parent, have suffered mightily. And the cause of all your suffering is now walking off the court towards you – your kid. The tennis parent who lacks perspective and emotional control is, at this juncture, tempted to point out to their kid his or her many failings. (In actuality, the temptation is to attack the kid for frustrating and torturing the parent; for forcing the parent to sit by, silent and ineffectual, while the kid screws up the match.) This kind of parent may, under the guise of educating the child, harshly offer hurtful tidbits like, “After your opponent lobbed over your head for the tenth time in a row, didn’t it occur to you to play a little further back from the net?” Or, “You missed a dozen serve returns by not watching the ball!” Or the classic, “What’s the use of all the lessons where you learn to hit your serve properly, when you change it in a tournament and double fault all the time?” And the chastised and miserable kids hang their heads, feeling that they had the criticism coming.

The good tennis parents, at this point in time, take a different approach. They realize that their kids have done the best they can under the circumstances. They double faulted, failed to make strategic adjustments, or just played badly because they are fallible beings and simply couldn’t help it. These parents realize that tennis is just a game and that their kids are showing a great deal of courage and character in just getting out and playing tournaments. They realize that losing itself is painful and that their kids have already suffered as much pain as they need for one day. Recognizing that it is best for their kids to enjoy the competitive experience, they compliment their children for the many good things they did in the court. They make comments like, “That was a great forehand you hit on game point at 2 – all in the first set.” Or, “You held your head high and never quit, even though the match was not going your way.” Or simply, “I’m proud of you, son! Great effort.” And follow it with a hug. Later, if there are strategic lessons to be learned, the good tennis parent passes these along gently, mixed thoroughly with positive reinforcements for things done well.

8 thoughts on “Confessions of a Tennis Parent”

  1. Dr. Fox GETS it. Unfortunately, we see way, way more of these parents: “How could you lose to HER?!?!?” or “I hate the way you let that kid push you around on the court!” or “I spend way too much *+#! money for you to play like that!!!” but we love the parent who takes this approach: “Tough match. Where do you want to eat?

  2. VERY GOOD ARTICLE. I always try to remind myself that I AM NOT JUST TEACHIN TENNIS…I’M TEACHIN ENGLISH-SCIENCE-HISTORY…AND ABOVE ALL ELSE LIFE! And sometimes I’m teachin the parents. And there are the toughest ones to teach.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience Dr, exactly my experience as my two boys are playing tennis. Wish every parent could learn to be a ‘good tennis parent’.

  4. Excellent article. Unfortunately not all parents are as enlightened. I am not going to claim to be the perfect tennis parent because I wasn’t, but I have learned over the years how to do it better. The best advise I ever recieved was from my son when he told me “mom, you don’t need to say anything, I know when I play like crap.”

    Let’s be realistic, the chance of our kids ever going pro are very slim, and most D1 college scholarships go to people from outside the country. So ask yourself what are you really trying to get out of the game of tennis. I don’t know about you, but for us it is the life lessons, physical fitness and a life long love for the game.

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