Advocating for Your Child

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

We parents are our children’s best and most important advocates.  That applies to school.  That applies to doctors.  And that applies to tennis.

Every now and then, you and your junior tennis player will come up against a rule – or an official’s interpretation of a rule – that doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of the child.  The rule may pertain to rest time between matches or to alternative scoring or to suspension points.

Two years ago, my son was playing in a Bullfrog (designated) tournament out of state.  It was the first really hot weekend of the year, and my son was scheduled to play 3 backdraw matches that day with an hour rest between matches.  After the first match, which lasted 2 1/2 hours and went 3 sets, I asked the tournament official if my son could have some extra time so he could refuel and rehydrate before his next match.  The official gave him 15 minutes on top of the one-hour mandated rest period.  I made my son a peanut butter sandwich to eat right away and gave him a cold PowerAde as well.  He went out and played – and won – the second match, also in 3 sets, but then had only 1 hour before his 3rd match of the day.  Once again, I asked the official for extra time so my son could have a proper meal and time to digest it before hitting the court again.  Again, the official gave him only 15 extra minutes.  We rushed to a nearby sub shop and picked up a turkey sandwich, no mayo (!), which my son gobbled down quickly.  He went back on the court to play and began to look a little “off” pretty early into the match.  In fact, one of the roving officials came over to find me and suggested my son go ahead and retire the match due to heat illness.  I tried to get my son to quit, but he wouldn’t – he said he felt okay to continue.  Finally, in the 2nd set, the official insisted that he come off the court and retire, which he did, thankfully.

It turned out that every single boy who had to play 3 matches that day either lost or retired during their 3rd match.  It was just too much tennis in that heat!

Once we got back home, I wrote to the head of Junior Competition for my section and shared our experience with him.  He advised me that, next time, I could use his name and insist on at least as much rest time as the length of the previous match.  He told me that I needed to be my son’s advocate and make sure he wasn’t put into a situation that would jeopardize his health or well-being.

Why are we parents so afraid to question the rules or the officials, especially when our children are involved?  When you think about, it’s really pretty ridiculous.  We need to insist that our children’s health is taken into account, first and foremost.  We need to speak with our section’s leadership to suggest rule changes to ensure our children’s safety, and then we need to hold the leadership accountable for making those changes.  We need to be the voice of reason when, oftentimes, there is no good reason behind the rules or policies.  A tennis match is just a tennis match.  Our children are depending on us.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . .

For the past several days, the outside temperature has moved into triple digits here in Atlanta, so I figured I’d write a little about how to help our junior players stay healthy in the extreme heat.

What is heat-induced cramping?  According to Dr. Scott Riewald, USTA’s Administrator of Sport Science, heat cramps come from dehydration and electrolyte loss that result from sweating.  There are other factors (e.g. anxiety, psychological stresses) that can contribute to heat cramps as well.  The end result is there is a change in the way the nerves communicate with the muscles – the nerves send inappropriate electrical signals to the muscles that cause them to contract or spasm.  The cramps often begin as subtle “twitches” in one or more voluntary muscles and, unless treated quickly, can rapidly progress to widespread debilitating muscle spasms that leave the afflicted player on the court writhing in pain.  If you’ve never experienced this type of cramping yourself or never seen your child go through it, let me just say it’s frightening.  It can cause even the toughest player to scream out in agony.  And, just when one muscle cramp subsides, another can burst onto the scene in a completely different area of the body.

It goes without saying that being fit and well-hydrated are the first steps in preventing heat exhaustion and heat-induced cramping.  But, oftentimes, drinking plain water isn’t sufficient.  According to several scientific articles I’ve read, the real culprit behind cramping is sodium loss, and the only way to prevent it is to take in more sodium than you sweat out.

One case study from March 1996 looked at a 17-year-old, nationally ranked, male tennis player who had been suffering from heat cramps during match play. His medical history and previous physical exams were normal, and his blood work showed normal levels of all minerals and nutrients.  On-court evaluation and an analysis of a 3-day food journal showed that his sweat rate was extensive and that his potential daily on-court sweat sodium losses could easily overtake his average daily intake of sodium. The combined effects of excessive and repeated fluid and sodium losses predisposed him to heat cramps during his matches.  The good news is that he was ultimately able to eliminate heat cramps during competition and training by increasing his daily dietary intake of sodium.

Another study from 2003 shows that “although a variety of other mineral deficiencies and physiological conditions are purported to cause muscle cramps, evidence suggests that, when a tennis player cramps in warm to hot weather, extensive and repeated sweating during the current and previous matches and a consequent sodium deficit are usually the primary contributing factors.”

Contrary to popular belief (even by the pros), bananas are NOT the cure for cramping.  Yes, bananas are high in potassium, but they are not high in sodium which is the mineral responsible for keeping heat cramps at bay.  Therefore, sports nutritionists agree that taking a salty snack – such as pretzels – on court to eat IN MODERATION during changeovers is a great preventive tactic.

Also, drinking a sports beverage high in sodium and other electrolytes – such as Gatorade, PowerAde, or Pedialyte – can help replenish sodium as it’s sweated out of the body.  The key is to drink enough fluids (minimum 2 ounces every 15 minutes during practices and/or at changeovers) to prevent excessive salt and fluid loss.  The best way to gauge fluid intake and loss is to weigh yourself immediately before stepping foot on the court then again immediately after play – any change in weight will be due to fluid loss and should be replenished immediately at the rate of 16 ounces of fluids for each pound lost.

According to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, the prevention and the cure for heat cramps is salt plus fluids.  Please note that Pedialyte contains almost twice the amount of sodium as Gatorade which contains almost twice the amount of sodium as PowerAde, so to increase the sodium content of either Gatorade or PowerAde, just add 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of regular table salt per 8 ounces to ensure adequate sodium intake.

If your child has taken the proper precautions and still cramps either during or after a match, move him to a cooler environment and get him to drink at least 8 ounces of a high-sodium sports beverage right away.  Usually heat-related cramps go away on their own once the athlete has cooled down and taken in enough fluids and salt.  But, if the cramps become worse or if your child begins vomiting or develops dizziness and shortness of breath, get him immediate medical treatment.

If you or your child have ever experience cramping, please share your experience and the steps you’ve taken to prevent a recurrence in the Comments box below.