It’s Signing Week

This is the week when high school tennis players (and all high school athletes for that matter) can first sign on the proverbial dotted line to commit to playing their sport at the collegiate level.  There are press conferences, lots of picture-taking, and lots of hype surrounding the top players – TennisRecruiting devotes a ton of bandwidth to Signing Week and where the Blue Chips and 5-Stars are headed next Fall.  It’s a pretty big deal!

We are still two years away from Signing Week in our house, thank goodness.  And, I know to my son that seems like an eternity.  But for me, I’m realizing that it’s right around the corner.  Two years can pass in the blink of an eye.

I’m trying to urge him – nudge him gently – to start taking bolder steps in his college recruiting journey.  I forward him the articles on TennisRecruiting that address the essential parts of the process.  I casually mention tips I’ve heard from coaches and consultants that might help him.  I post videos on his Facebook wall showing college teams in action in hopes of inspiring him to take action.

Ultimately, I have to let him drive the bus.  This has to be his thing.  I can’t do it for him, as much as I might want to.  It’s tough for me to sit back and twiddle my thumbs – that’s not really my personality at all – while I wait for him to act, but I’m going to do it.  I’m going to let this come from him because it has to come from him.  I will guide.  I will support.  But I will not do.

And, in two years, when Signing Week has a direct impact on my family, I am confident that I will have some good news to report.  My son has worked hard.  He will continue to work hard.  He will do what he needs to do to reach his goal of playing college tennis.  Because that’s how we’ve raised him.  And that’s the expectation he has of himself.  And he wants to sign on that dotted line.

Oh, The Sacrifices We Make!

My oldest daughter, Emma, didn’t come by the acting bug by accident.  Oh, no!  She inherited that vital gene directly from her momma.  And, believe me, it’s a STRONG one.  In my LBT (Life Before Tennis), I owned a fitness business and spent many, many hours promoting it as an “expert” on the radio, the Web, tv, and in front of live audiences.  I never passed up an opportunity to be on camera (or on mic), even when it meant schlepping my infant son across the country on an 8-city promo tour with an athletic shoe company.

So, last week, when I was given a lead for a new reality television show about Tennis Moms (a la Dance Moms), I jumped on it.  I called the producer and spoke with her at length about my experiences in the Junior Tennis World as well as with the media, thinking I would be the perfect candidate for her.  The thought of being on tv again excited me.  I was already trying to figure out how I would squeeze in more workout sessions before the show taped so I would be at my fittest and strongest on camera and how in the world I was going to afford new clothes.

And then my son came home.

And I told him about the tv show.

And he begged me not to pursue it.

And this is one more tiny little sacrifice I will make for one of my kids.  Because that’s what we parents do – we sometimes put aside our own wants (and even needs) for our kids.  In this case, it was an easy decision.  My son has worked too long and too hard for me to risk jeopardizing his efforts because of my own narcissistic tendencies.  He’s right – by being part of a show that will magnify the already-huge personalities of some extreme tennis parents, I would be putting him in an awkward (at best!) position with his tennis peers, their parents, and the governing body.

I honored my son’s wishes and stepped away from the tv project.  I figure that just frees me up when the Tennis Channel comes calling!

Tennis Etiquette

I saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine over the weekend whose two elementary-school-age sons have recently taken up tennis.  They were playing in their first USTA Junior Team Tennis match, and the mom was rudely informed by another parent that cheering was NOT allowed.  These two brothers also play baseball – where parental cheering is not only allowed but often gets way out of hand – so Mom just assumed she could vocally encourage her boys during their tennis match in the same way.

In the interest of helping other Tennis Parents avoid any untoward (ha!) behavior during their children’s tennis matches, here are some tips:

League Tennis Matches

  • No coaching of any kind is allowed; saying, “Move your feet” or “Hit to her backhand” is considered coaching; so are hand signals!
  • No cheering is allowed other than polite clapping after a good point
  • Do not clap after an opponent’s error such as a double-fault or easy miss
  • Parents/coaches are not allowed on the court during a match
  • Parents are not allowed to speak to their child during a match, not even to ask if they need something to drink
  • Players must bring their own drinks and snacks onto the court – they are not allowed to ask their parent to bring them a drink or snack during the match though they may ask another parent or their team’s captain to do so
  • If there is a dispute between the players regarding a line call or the correct score, the players must settle the dispute themselves; parents are not allowed to intervene (in extreme cases, a team captain may intervene)
  • Refer to the league’s website for rules specific to that league

USTA Sanctioned Tournament Matches

  • The League Tennis tips apply here as well
  • If there are tournament officials (referees and/or umpires) available, one or both players (NOT parents!) may ask for an official to help resolve disputed line calls or scores; the official’s decision is binding though it may be later appealed to the main Tournament Umpire or further up the chain to the Section’s Head of Junior Competition
  • USTA rules of behavior are enforced by tournament staff and officials; violations may be penalized with warnings and/or point penalties and/or suspension points; poor behavior BY THE PARENTS may result in the PLAYER receiving a point penalty or suspension point; 10 suspension points within one calendar year equal a 3-month suspension from all sanctioned tournament play
  • It is in your and your child’s best interest to be respectful and friendly toward all tournament staff, including the on-court officials; believe me, I speak from personal experience!

High School Tennis Matches

  • Cheering is allowed and encouraged though parents and fans are advised to keep the cheering polite and friendly
  • Coaching is allowed BY THE TEAM’S COACH at the side changes and at the end of each set
  • During the regular season, officials are not typically present, so players must resolve their own disputes
  • During playoffs, officials may be present; therefore, USTA rules of behavior may be enforced, including assigning suspension points for poor behavior and/or rule violations
  • Refer to your state high school athletic association’s website for rules specific to your state

College Tennis Matches

  • Cheering is allowed and encouraged though parents and other fans are advised to keep the cheering polite and friendly; fans have been evicted from matches for heckling!
  • Service lets are playable – if a serve hits the net, it is considered in play if it lands within the service box
  • Coaching is allowed BY THE TEAM’S COACHING STAFF at any time during the match though not during a point
  • During the regular season, officials are not typically present, so players must resolve their own disputes
  • During tournaments including the National Tournament at the end of the season, officials are usually on each court and may over-rule line calls and help settle other disputes
  • Refer to the NCAA and ITA websites for more rules

At all levels of play, it is absolutely appropriate for you, the parent, to congratulate your child’s opponent (and the parents) on a match well-played.  However, even if you feel that the match wasn’t played with the utmost sporting behavior from the opponent, it is NEVER okay to confront another parent or child, either verbally or of course physically; take your complaints to the tournament officials if you feel they are warranted.  Just keep in mind how you would like the opponent’s parents to treat YOUR child and, by all means, BE FAIR!

For more information (and this should be required reading for every tennis player and parent!), click here to download and read the 2012 version of USTA’s Friend At Court.

Dealing with Disappointment

I know.  You saw the title and expected to read about how to deal with your child’s disappointment after a loss . . . or something along those lines.  But, this piece is about dealing with your own disappointment when something doesn’t go quite right in your child’s tennis-centric world.

A fellow tennis parent wrote me last week, telling me about her child’s recent tournament schedule.  He has some important tournaments coming up and so decided to play a low-level local tourney just to build some confidence.  The child figured he could get a couple of easy wins and feel ready for next weekend, which will be a much tougher tournament.

Well, as I am sure you can guess, it didn’t go as planned and the child played the worst tennis of his life.  This was odd because the coach had just gotten done telling the parents and the player that he’s playing the best he’s (the coach) ever seen him play. Now he goes out and loses to a kid who is (according to the mom) awful, who he beat 0 & 1 a year ago, who has no serve, no strokes, and probably very few tennis lessons.  The mom wrote, “He was supposed to play a second match and I did something I’ve never done before.  We took him out of the tournament because given his mental state, all he would have done was go out and lose to another player he shouldn’t lose to.”

Mom went on to say, “I don’t usually get upset by these things but this whole thing has been really bothersome.  First of all, how could he actually lose to this boy? Second, how does a ranking recover from such an awful loss — does it? And third, why is this bothering me so much?”

The #3 part is what really got to me!  We tennis parents invest so much energy, emotion, time, and, yes, money in our kids that I think it’s perfectly normal to take their results personally.  The important thing is the face we present to THEM, the words we use when discussing their results with them.  But, again, I think it’s perfectly normal to FEEL disappointment when our child doesn’t live up to our (or their own) expectations.

My advice to the parent who wrote me was that it’s okay to feel the disappointment and even to vocalize it every now and then if you feel your kid isn’t putting in the necessary effort.  But, at some point, we have to let go and let our kids own their tennis.  In this particular case, the mom reported that her son did a very healthy, mature thing – he shrugged off the loss as “having a bad day” and then proceeded to let it go, going back to work on the courts the next morning.  The takeaway from these types of experiences should be something along the lines of:  I have taught my kid well, he has been a willing student, I have to trust him with his tennis.

I’m going through something similar with my son right now, but it has to do with his academic performance rather than his performance on a tennis court.  Having two older children for whom school came pretty willingly and naturally, I really don’t know how to parent a kid who only wants to play tennis and who hasn’t yet realized the importance of balancing that with a good education.  Every time he brings home a grade that I consider less than stellar, I feel let down, like I’ve somehow failed him as a parent.  Should I have read to him more as a baby?  Was homeschooling him for part of  middle school a huge mistake?  Should I move him to a small private school for the remainder of his high school career so he gets more personal attention?  How did he miss getting the I-Love-To-Learn gene?  What did I do wrong???

And, then, I take a deep breath (okay, maybe 100 deep breaths!) and realize that my son is now at the age where he HAS to take responsibility for his dreams and goals.  I can’t – and shouldn’t – do it for him.  If he wants to have a shot at playing tennis at his dream schools, then HE has to buckle down, study better, and get the grades necessary to be a desirable recruit.  Grades do matter.  SAT/ACT scores do matter.  He heard that from the horses’ mouths this past weekend in Athens.  Now, it’s up to him.

That doesn’t mean I won’t feel disappointed if he doesn’t figure this school thing out.  That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t feel disappointed if he doesn’t figure it out.  And, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to my disappointment or that I should down-play it as unimportant – my disappointment matters, too!

But, as disappointed as I might feel when he bombs a test or loses an easy match, I know it’s nothing compared to how he’s feeling inside.  The on-going challenge for me is putting my own disappointment aside and being his firm support when he most needs me.  So far, I haven’t been all that successful in that department – I’ve let my own feelings show way too much.  But, I’m working on it and will continue to work on it, both for my own sake and for my son’s, so I don’t disappoint either of us.

Student of the Sport

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a USTA College Information Session for high school players and their parents held during the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia.

The panel, led by USTA’s Senior Manager of Junior and Collegiate Competition, Erica Perkins Jasper, included the following heavy-hitters from the tennis world:

  • Bobby Bayliss – Head Men’s Coach at Notre Dame University
  • Christine Bader – Head Women’s Coach at Ball State University
  • Maria Cercone – junior coach in Florida whose daughter plays #3 doubles and #5 singles for the University of Florida
  • Rick Davison – Director of Competition at USTA Georgia
  • Steve Johnson, Sr. – Father of top-ranked D1 player, Steve Johnson, of USC and top junior coach in Southern California
  • Colette Lewis – Creator of and renowned junior/college tennis journalist

Here’s what I learned . . .

Before your child even starts thinking about which colleges he might be interested in, have his tennis skills evaluated by – as Steve Johnson put it – “someone you’re not writing a check to” in order to get an honest opinion of which college programs might be a good fit.  The panelists repeatedly told us that there is a program for everyone; sometimes you have to do a little more digging to find the right one(s), but it IS out there.  You and your child need to be honest about his level of play, though, and make sure you are looking at schools that have open spots in their lineups that match your child’s skill set.

During the college recruiting process – which, by the way, your player should begin thinking about as early as the summer following his freshman year of high school – it is crucial for both the player and the parents to ask a lot of questions.  Ask the coaches.  Ask the current team members.  Ask people familiar with the program.  Just ask . . . a lot!  What questions should you ask?  Well, that depends on what type of college tennis experience your child seeks.  But, all of the panelists agreed that coaches would rather you ask the tough questions up front so your player can cross off the schools that don’t have what he’s looking for and so the coaches don’t waste precious time and resources recruiting if your kid is dead set against their program.  It is important that each player find his fit, and be assured that there is a right fit for everyone out there, whether it be D1, D2, D3, or a Junior College program.

To the players, it is important to start visiting the various colleges as early as you can.  Yes, you can email the coaches, but it’s just not as personal as a face-to-face visit.  You’re allowed as many unofficial visits (i.e. visits that you arrange and pay for yourself) as you would like to take.  On those visits, meet the coaches, meet the players, ask if you can attend the team practice and workout, and get a feel for the team environment.  If possible, go look at the dorms and see where the players live and eat.  Take advantage of your junior tournament travel and visit colleges in the cities and towns where you’re playing.  Figure out if you have a preference in terms of school size (big or small) and location (urban campus or college town) – that will help you narrow down your list of target colleges once you’re ready to start the official recruiting and application process at the end of your junior year.

Familiarize yourself with the NCAA Division 1 recruiting rules as early as possible so your child doesn’t risk his eligibility.  The D1 rules are the strictest, so, even if your child is looking at D2, D3, or Junior Colleges, following the D1 rules is your safest bet.  Then, before the end of your child’s junior year, make sure he registers with the NCAA Eligibility Center so all his ducks are in a row before the official recruiting begins.

After coming up with a list of potential colleges, have your child write down the 5 most important reasons he wants to attend each school.  Some examples might be playing tennis, a high level of academics, a particular academic major, the tennis coach, or scholarship availability.  He should ask himself, “What happens if one of those things disappears?”  For instance, what if he gets injured and can no longer play tennis or what if the coach retires or goes to another school or what if he fails to earn the necessary grades to keep his scholarship – will he still be happy at that school?  If the answer is NO, then cross it off the list.

Once your child does start communicating with coaches via email, make sure he includes a link to his bio (which he should first make sure is up to date!), his high school graduation year, and his upcoming tournament schedule.  Your child should not be afraid to ask coaches if they’re even interested in him as a potential team member – no need to waste anyone’s time here!  Also, he should ask how many scholarships (if it’s a D1 or D2 program) and roster spots are available and if there’s an opportunity for an official visit during his senior year.

Also (please forgive me, High-Tech Tennis, but I’m just sharing what the panelists told us!), before you spend money having a fancy recruiting video made for your child, make sure your child asks the coaches if they would even like a video and what they want included on it.  In most cases, a 10-minute home-made video, uploaded to YouTube, of some match play will suffice.  The coaches are busy.  They don’t have time to sift through the fluff.  So, keep to the basics – forehands, backhands, serves, volleys, overheads, and footwork.  And, by all means, make sure you only show your child’s best behavior on the video!  [One panelist confessed that several of the coaches have compiled a Top 10 Worst Recruiting Videos list on YouTube!]

During his senior year of high school, your child will probably begin taking official (i.e. paid for by the university) visits to one or more colleges.  This is the time to ask the more pointed questions such as whether or not he can walk on the team if no scholarships are available and whether walk-ons ever get to play in the lineup.  He can also ask about the coach’s influence with the admissions department in case his academics are borderline.  In many cases, the tennis coach does have some pull and will be willing to use it if your child is a desirable candidate for the team.  And, your child should absolutely let the coach know if he doesn’t NEED scholarship money from the Athletics Department – either because he has other scholarship money coming from academic or other resources OR because you have stockpiled money to pay for his college education yourself – it’s a definite plus to coaches to know that they can use their limited funds elsewhere.

I know this is a bit long-winded, but USTA really did share a ton of great info with us!  If you have a chance to attend one of these sessions, I highly encourage you to do so.  Even though my son sort-of fought me about going (it required waking up pretty early on a Sunday morning to make the drive to Athens), I think he got a lot out of it and now has a clearer picture of the work he needs to do.  Besides which, a perk of the program was that we got to watch an incredible day of tennis at the NCAA Championships afterward!

Breaking the Streak

My son went into this past weekend’s tournament on a 7-match losing streak.  He had been “rounded” in singles in the past two tourneys plus had lost his final high school match of the season in the semis of the state playoffs, and his confidence was lower than I had seen it in a long time.

This tournament was a state level 3 tournament, located about a half hour from our house, meaning that it really wasn’t going to draw the top top players, but it was a good opportunity for my kid to play up in the 18s, build some confidence, and get more of a jump-start on his 18s ranking.  The draw was only 16 players, so, at most, he was going to play 4 matches (or 5 if he moved into the back draw) over the two days.

When the draws were posted on Friday, it turned out that my son was playing a boy he had played on 3 prior occasions – my son was 1 and 2 against him, his one win coming in their last meeting in the Fall.  Given my son’s lagging confidence – plus another mom’s helpful (NOT!) statement that this other boy had recently switched academies and was playing really well – I have to admit that I wasn’t feeling too good about my son’s chances.  I chose to sit well away from the match court – close enough to see clearly but not close enough to hear any negative mutterings that might come out of my kid’s mouth.  My son ended up playing a really strong match, beating the other boy 6-1, 6-1, putting a solid end to the losing streak.  Whew!

Next up was the top seed in the tourney, an 18-year-old who is heading to play tennis at LSU (a big D1 program) in the Fall.  My son was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to play this kid just to see how his game would stack up.  He didn’t necessarily have high hopes of winning the match though he did go into it feeling strong and ready to do battle.  Turns out my son held his own out there, forcing the other player into several errors at the net as well as on his serve.  My son lost the match 6-4, 6-2, but the other boy came off the court and proceeded to tell my husband and me how impressed he was with our son’s game – just what every tennis parent loves to hear!

And, even though he lost that second match, it turned out to be a real confidence booster for him.  He had pushed a college-bound guy – one who probably had at least 50 pounds and 4 inches on him – to play outside his comfort zone.  He had broken the guy’s massive serve twice.  He had kept the guy guessing and forced him to go for better shots than he would normally have done.

Really, that was the goal of the weekend . . . to overcome the bad juju, to play some quality tennis, and to prove to himself that he belonged out there with the Big Boys.  Mission accomplished.

Tennis Parent Problems!

Today’s guest post is from the mom who tweets under the pseudonym of  Tennis Parent Probs.  She has become my go-to when I need a giggle or a quick pick-me-up after a particularly tough day in the Junior Tennis World.  One of my favs:  “Signing up for another medieval torture session — I mean tournament.”  Please be sure to follow her on Twitter – she is usually tweeting what the rest of us are thinking!  Enjoy!

My daughter started taking tennis lesson at about six years old, but it wasn’t until sometime in middle school that she decided that she was really serious about it.  You might think that middle school seems like the appropriate time to commit fully to a sport, and at the time I did too.  But in the years since, I have learned that in tennis years she was already way behind.  Thus ensued an odyssey that can only be described as very expensive, in time as well as in money.

When my daughter first started competing, I had no idea what was lurking beyond our nice little local tournaments.  I had no idea that there were multiple levels of tournaments with completely different players participating.  I thought that the number one seed in our daughter’s tournaments was a “top player.”  My husband and I used to watch those girls and hope that someday our daughter could be as good as they were.

Looking back, I now see how little I knew.

Here’s the thing that many tennis parents embarking on this journey don’t realize.  A lot of kids who are very good players at 10 or 11 or 12 don’t make it through to the end of high school.  Sometimes they become interested in other things that don’t mesh with 15 hours a week on the tennis court and days spent traveling to tournaments.  Debate.  The school newspaper.  Boys.  Sometimes they aren’t distracted or interested in anything else at all.  They’re burnt out and they just quit.

This is why I am always leery of the mothers of young players who proclaim (loudly) their child’s unending commitment to the sport.

“There is nothing my daughter would rather do than play tennis.  That’s why she’s playing six days a week and playing in 25 tournaments a year.”

All I can say is that I hope it all works out for you.

And that’s it in a nutshell.  Kids are fickle and we sometimes forget that.  Junior tennis is just that, junior.  It’s for kids, and kids change as the years pass.  I have watched too many parents become so involved that they might as well be down there on the court hitting the ball.  It’s no longer “My daughter is playing Susie Jones.”  It becomes “We’re playing Susie Jones.”  I’ve been watching my daughter play junior tennis for a long time.  As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to observe tennis parents in their natural habitat – courtside.  Needless to say, there are as many varieties of tennis parents as there are kinds of protein bars, but a few stand out.

There’s the parent as coach.  We have several of these parents in our section.  These are the parents who coach the kid at home and bring their act on the road.  They usually travel with their own hopper full of balls and book warm up courts weeks in advance for at least two hours before each match.  These parents know the ins and outs of every other player’s game and aren’t shy about touting their own kid’s superiority.  We don’t like these parents.

The anti-rooter thinks that if their kid isn’t winning, then no one else should either.  These parents spend the tournament sitting at the sidelines rooting against anyone who has ever beaten their kid.  Or won a set off their kid.  Sometimes they’re quiet about it, but more often they are loud and obnoxious, clapping at unforced errors and double faults.  We don’t like these parents either.

The parent as groupie is one of my personal favorites.  These parents are blessed with kids that win – a lot.  They view their role as being in charge of everything but hitting the ball.  At tournaments, they carry the cooler and the bag, and they create a “quiet space” in which their kid can “focus.”  They are often, with the guidance of a team of professionals, responsible for making sure all (pre-approved) snacks and beverages are in place.  They feel honored to be part of the inner circle of such greatness.  We find these parents amusing.

The absent parent is a lot of fun too.  This is the parent who drops and drives.  This parent often has multiple tennis-playing kids and spends tournament weekends shuttling between venues.  An offshoot of the absent parent is the hidden parent.  These are parents who can’t bear to watch so they sit outside in the parking lot while their kid is playing.  In venues with bars, sometimes they hide out there.  We sympathize with these parents.

I think parent as facilitator best describes me.  I drive and I pay.  I make sure my daughter gets where she needs to be, and I pay for everything.  I offer praise, win or lose, and try to stay out of the line of fire after particularly disappointing losses.  I do not try to coach, nor do I care to.  I facilitate.

I always love when people ask me if my daughter took up tennis because I am a tennis player.  Nope.  She came to this all on her own.  At least she can’t blame me for that.