Advice to Parents of Young Players

advice

Here is another article written by Andy Brandi for the USTA Player Development website and reprinted here with his permission. Coach Brandi served as a partner of the Harold Solomon Tennis Institute since 2007 before joining the USTA staff in August 2010. From 2001-06, Brandi was Director of Tennis for IMG at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, and from 1984-2001, he was the head coach of the University of Florida women’s team. During his career, Brandi has worked with top professionals, including Elena Dementieva, Shahar Peer, Maria Kirilenko, Lisa Raymond, Ryan Sweeting and Jesse Levine. While at the University of Florida, he led the Gators to three NCAA Division I Team titles, coached four NCAA women’s singles champions and four NCAA doubles champions. Brandi will be returning to college tennis as the Head Coach of the LSU men’s team this Fall.

Consistency in coaching is essential. Avoiding going from one coach to another keeps the process and development going. There has to be trust amongst the team – player, coach and parent all have to be on the same page. Changing coaches is like restarting the process. Coaches have different styles, systems and philosophies. Your job is to find one that best fits your child.

Try any program for about a week before you commit to that program. Do research! Be sure there is a plan when you start. A developmental plan, two areas of focus and a tournament schedule is essential in the planning. The two areas of focus are to be evaluated every two months and then replaced if they have been achieved.

Be supportive and patient with the coach. If you have issues with him or her, discuss them without the child present. Understand where the coach is coming from and why he is doing things a certain way. Give the coach a chance.

Parents who are the coaches need to be patient and should not get so consumed that the child only lives, sleeps and eats tennis. Seek help in areas where you might feel you are weak in your knowledge or expertise. I coached my son until he was 15. At 15, I wanted to be his father and not his coach. My role was to give him advice and support when he was training under a new coach. His job was to learn to make decisions and be responsible and accountable for his tennis. Good tennis players are independent thinkers. He now asks, “Why did you not make me do this or that?” My answer is, “I gave you choices; you made the decisions.”

Tennis has to be left at the club or courts, not brought home every day. At home, let them have a normal life. They need friends. They need to develop their social skills. They need to build good character. They need to be good students in school. Provide a balance of tennis, a social life and academics. Remember, 99 percent of all players go to COLLEGE!!!! In the process, be sure you do not try to skip steps or cut corners. There are no shortcuts!!!! It takes time! It takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice and dedication by you and them. Set goals and keep the training fresh to keep them engaged and to prevent burnout.

A few things to keep in mind:

Kids do not always need to practice with someone better. They do not always need to play up in age groups. The ratio of practice should be 25-50-25, meaning 25 percent with weaker players, 50 percent with players of their own ability and 25 percent with players better than them. Does Roger Federer practice with someone better than him all the time? No! He practices with young pros, juniors or college players!!!!!! And 50 percent of the time, they need to experience the pressure of playing with and against their own peers.

When choosing to play up, they need to have a 65 percent winning record or better in their age group to justify it. Keeping track of match counts is very important. We do not want them playing 130 matches a year at 12, 13 or 14! It is not the number of tournaments but the match count that matters! Burnout and injuries will occur if you overplay them.

One area that we tend to neglect in their training is off-season breaks. Pros take 4-6 weeks at the end of each year to set a fitness base and improve on specific areas. They will follow up with a couple of weeks off before the clay season and a couple of weeks off after Wimbledon. They build in regeneration, fitness, cleaning their games out to be sharp, fit and healthy. In the junior schedule, we could build this in after Winter Nationals, after Easter Bowl and finally after Hard Courts.

The pros in the off season at the end of the year do not touch their racquets for a couple of weeks. They focus on physical fitness and mental conditioning. Then comes the tennis. Our ‘99s recently did a six-week-off season where they did not play tennis for two weeks. Jez Green, who was Andy Murray’s fitness coach, supervised the six weeks. His comment was that our juniors are 16-18 months behind in fitness than the Europeans. Why? Because we do not do this! We have to play, play, play! We are very short-minded and short-sighted!

Give them responsibility and accountability in their game and preparation. Let them get their tennis bag organized. Let them get their own water, bars and snacks. Let them carry their own tennis bag! We want to facilitate, not incapacitate. Remember, they have to be able to be independent thinkers. They have to be able to take care of themselves out there. They have to learn to survive in the heat of battle. They have to learn to compete and love it. Doing minor tasks builds their confidence and self-esteem.

Lastly, be supportive. We tend to forget that they are the ones competing. We forget what it is like to compete. It is the team that gets them prepared, and they are the ones who are playing and competing. We are not playing! We are part of their support group.

When they play, we tend to get too emotionally involved. Stay calm and control your emotions. I got too nervous watching my son. My wife was the one who went to tournaments with him. As I used to tell my wife, figure it out. I can sit through a Grand Slam final and not get nervous but cannot stay calm watching him! They will react to you and how you react! They will feel your emotions and nervousness. Stay level-headed and even keel! Show them support, winning or losing.

It is easy to criticize from outside. Things are crystal clear when you are outside the ropes. Being in the heat of battle clouds your reasoning and how you perceive things. After matches, give them time to settle down, and yourself, too, before you start discussing the match. Ask questions. Point out things that they did well and things that they need to work on in future matches. Do not be just negative! Give them positive feedback! Let them give you their perspective of what happened out there. They have to be aware of what happened and how they can control that the next time. Win or lose, love them for who they are – your child!

Like building a house, we need a good foundation. You build the outside of the house, followed by the inside. It takes time to build a house. It takes a long time to develop a tennis player. Good luck with the journey!

Sweet Spot of Sport Parent Involvement

CLICK ON THE PLAYER BELOW TO LISTEN TO THE PODCAST:

Coach John O’Sullivan of Changing the Game Project discusses transactional vs. transformational coaching (read more here) and why we parents need to seek out coaches who are truly invested in the development of the whole child, not just the tennis player. We also talk about the “sweet spot of involvement” for parents and how we parents need to adjust constantly throughout our child’s junior development. Lastly, we touch on the challenges of coaching your own child and how best to separate “coach” versus “parent” on and off the court.

You can find John’s podcast here – I encourage you to check it out! Coaches may be interested in the Way of Champions conference coming this summer to New Jersey. You can find out more here. To listen to John’s TED Talk, click here.

How I Stopped Dealing With Parents

I first came across the article below on Coach John O’Sullivan’s Changing the Game Project website. Coach John originally saw it here, on the Breakthrough Basketball site. Yes, it was written by a basketball coach, Nate Sanderson, and aimed at the parents of young female basketball players, but I think you’ll agree that Coach Sanderson’s approach to working with parents cuts across all sports and all genders.

The article is a bit longer that what you may be used to reading here, but I encourage you to stick with it to the end. Tennis Coaches and Tennis Parents, please take note – we all have a lot to learn!

For the past 14 years I have begun every basketball season by conducting a parent meeting.  Every one of those meetings had one goal in mind – to insulate myself from parent complaints. I’ve used all the standard approaches to communicate our policies and expectations verbally and in writing for players and parents prior to the season.

Our 33-page player manual includes information on our coaching philosophy, coaching backgrounds, game day expectations, eligibility policy, “Who Starts and Who Plays,” how we make team assignments, lettering requirements, travel expectations, practice rules, charts with off-season hours and shots taken, and more.  The purpose of every single item in our manual is to communicate as much information up front as possible so that we will not have to deal with the parents once the season begins.

Interestingly, this is how the parent-coach dynamic is always described.  Attend a clinic on the parent-coach relationship, take a coaching class, or have a conversation with coaches from any sport, and the phrase is always the same.  It’s assumed that if you want to get into coaching, you’re going to have to deal with the parents, plain and simple.

Going into this season I started thinking a lot about that phrase, dealing with parents.  Generally speaking, we never have to “deal with” things we like.  In fact, the very notion of dealing with something invokes feelings of negativity, suspicion, and even dread.  We usually deal with things that are unpleasant.  We deal with problems.  We deal with difficult people.  With all those negative connotations, it’s safe to say, nobody ever looks forward to having to deal with anything.

That likely describes how most coaches approach the parent-coach relationship.  Rooted in fear of conflict and confrontation, we negotiate parent interactions like tiptoeing through a mine field hoping to spend as little time as possible desperately trying to avoid an explosion.  At the end of the day, we signed up to coach a sport, not to deal with parents.

In thinking about this, I began to wonder how much this approach to the parent-coach dynamic prevented me from forming positive, constructive relationships with the people who influence our players as much as anyone.  I would never walk into a practice thinking, “Today I have to deal with these players again.” Rather, we strive to appreciate, love, and encourage our players every day.  That’s our focus going into every practice. What if we approached the parents the same way?

What if we chose to stop dealing with parents, and tried to coach them instead?

This year we decided to do something completely different during our parent meeting. We still took a few minutes to address important issues such as “Who Starts and Who Plays,” but we spent the vast majority of our time doing something far more important.

We invited the parents to participate in our culture. 

Our basketball program culture is built on three basic principles:

Play Hard – Love Each Other – Do What We Do

This phrase defines everything we want to be about as a team.  It is our identity.  Over the years, we have become increasingly deliberate in teaching our players specific behaviors that demonstrate these values.  This year, we decided to do the same for the parents by giving them specific things they can do to participate in our culture.

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We felt it was important to not only invite our parents to participate in our culture, but to coach them in how to do so just as we do our athletes.

 

Then we did something crazy.  We asked the parents what they think.

Never in my career have I asked a parent what they thought about our basketball program, or what they want their daughter’s experience to be like.  I just wanted to avoid the minefield, remember?

The more I thought about the sports parent experience, the more I realized, I have no idea what the parents want their experience to be like.  So, we created an exercise to find out.  Here’s what we did.

Each parent was asked to put their name on three different note cards.  They would answer a different question on each one, then leave the cards for us to read after the meeting.  Then I walked them through each question.

 

Card 1 (front) – Write at least one reasonable, measurable goal you have for your daughter this season.

Card 1 (back) – Write at least one reasonable, measurable goal you have for our team this season.

The purpose of these questions is to determine the parents’ expectations for the team, and for their daughter.  If we found something that was clearly outrageous, we knew to address those in a non-threatening way sooner rather than later.  The vast majority of the conflict we experience with players and parents is the result of unrealistic expectations.  This was a way to identify those so that we could disarm them before the season even started.

Note – it’s important that these goals are measurable, performance-related goals.  It is not possible to measure hard work, happiness, or getting along with others.  We wanted specific outcomes such as being a starter, winning more games than we lose, qualifying for the state tournament, averaging a certain number of points per game, etc.

Then we asked the most important question that nobody ever asks: 

What do you want if you can’t have what you want?

 

Card 2 – What do you want your daughter’s experience to be like if she CAN’T accomplish any of the goals you wrote for her, or for the team, on the first card?

This question is one of the most significant questions that parents and players should explore.  Essentially, we are asking them to consider what will make the basketball experience valuable even if they do not accomplish their goals. What will make basketball meaningful regardless of outcome?

Here are some things that parents wrote in response to this question:

  • I want my daughter to grow inside.  I want her to care, really care, about others.  I want her to be less self-absorbed and more others-focused.  A true team player… with heart.  One who always does her best and NEVER gives up.  I want her to be accepted and feel she belongs.
  • I want her to continue to give 100% and understand that when you don’t succeed right away you just don’t give up.  It is okay she’s not the star, there are other important roles on a team.
  • Have fun.
  • To walk away from your season filled with memories, friendships, and walk always learning and improving at the game.  Take away some life lessons.  Learn how to be happy and work through things.
  • To grow as a team – to play as a team – to have fun!
  • I want her to be happy with herself and to know she gave it her all.  To be a positive teammate!
  • To have a fun experience and build great memories, memories that she will remember as fondly as a state title.
  • To become a positive teammate.  To become a good leader.  To be as coachable as possible.
  • I want to see her have fun and be looking forward to playing again next year.
  • To grow as an individual, working as a team.  To have fun.
  • I want them to crate memories that will last a lifetime, friendships that will continue into old age, and life lessons they will take with them after basketball.
  • Have fun and be a role model for the next group.
  • Just want her to feel satisfaction that she knows she’s done her best, and confidence of being a great teammate and player.
  • I want her to learn, have fun, get better, and be part of a well-respected program

Before we moved to the final card, we showed them what the players wrote in response to this question when we did this activity with them last summer.

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The best feedback I heard in response to this question after the meeting was a parent who said, “The second question really made you think about outcomes.”

We are the defending state champions, but we want our season to be about much more than winning another state title, and this question helped parents think about what they really want for their daughter to gain from her basketball experience.

 

Card 3 (front) – What do you want your experience to be like as a sports parent?

In many ways, the purpose of this question is to validate the parent experience.  It acknowledges that parents will have a unique experience in the stands, and provides them an opportunity to think about what they want that to be like.

Few parents were comfortable sharing their answer to this question in front of others during the meeting, so afterwards I compiled their responses and sent them an email. Here’s what they wrote:

  • I would like to enjoy the game whether we are winning or losing.  This is easier when everyone is cheering for the team and not criticizing the players.
  • I would like to feel part of the group, accepted and liked by coaches, parents, and teammates like family.
  • To enjoy the game without negativity from the coaches / players / fans when things aren’t going as planned.
  • To have fun watching the girls play.
  • I want to get to know other parents as the season progresses, and would like it to feel like family.
  • Growing together as a community of parents – creating our own memories.  Be a place where everyone wants to be.
  • Relaxing & enjoyable to watch games.  Positive comments toward players, coaches, refs, etc.
  • To be able to ride along with the experience.  Enjoy the ride.
  • Fun, memorable, positive.

Interestingly, many of the parents wanted a similar experience as the players.  They want to have fun.  They want to belong.  They want to be in a positive environment.  It was important to let them create a vision for what they want to their experience to be like together.

Then we asked them how to do it.

 

Card 3 (back – left half) – What can you do to help create that experience for other parents?

I included answers to this question in the email, as well as the paragraph below:

  • Be positive ourselves.  Congratulate other parents on their children’s performance.
  • Make sure every parent is involved.  Be excited and have more people join in.
  • Stay positive.  Trust that the kids are doing their best.
  • Be supportive.  Listen.  Have fun.
  • Be sociable and volunteer for extra activities as needed.
  • Make positive comments while in the stands.
  • Be positive and cheer for the team, not just my daughter.
  • Be positive fans for all the players.  Share pictures and stories about fun moments.
  • Be positive.  Be supportive.  Cheer!
  • I am supportive and encouraging, and will do my best to promote unity.
  • Congratulate other parents when their daughter does something well during the game.  Be positive in the stands.  Cheer & clap a lot.
  • Be positive and encouraging and help others see that our kids are learning more than just basketball.

Just as we encourage our players to find ways to create a positive and meaningful experience for their teammates, we encourage you to do the same for your fellow parents.  If you can be faithful to the things written above, I have no doubt that your experience will be a special one together.

 

Card 3 (back – right half) – What can the coaches do to help facilitate that experience?

This question beautifully combines the need for parents to be accountable to one another with the importance of coaches being vulnerable to receiving feedback.  By opening ourselves up to criticism in a constructive we were able to build trust particularly as we follow through on some of their suggestions.

Perhaps the best part was that parents were comfortable giving us feedback on a card that had their name on it.  Too often parent complaints are anonymous, or done to everyone but the coach in fear that the coach will retaliate on their daughter.  The willingness of parents to take ownership of a potentially negative comment was incredibly meaningful to our coaching staff because it communicated trust.

Here’s how they answer this question:

  • Help them learn life lessons and be positive people.
  • Support and understanding for me, and encouragement for my daughter.
  • Keep teaching the girls the meaning of team and to enjoy the opportunity they have.
  • Continue helping through your experiences and continue coaching the way you do.
  • Keep doing what you’re doing – I’m getting the experience I want now.  Continue to communicate changes in the schedule as soon as you can.
  • I enjoy all the YouTube videos that are put together an shared on social media.
  • Look for individual needs from the girls (meaning to help them stay positive by coming up with little things and sayings to help them out of a slump).
  • Communicate (which you are good at).  Remember that I would like to spend time with her too – get out of practice on time so there is still time with family.
  • Just engage in short conversations from time-to-time.
  • Communicate and be positive role models.
  • Have a positive relationship with the team so they can come to you if they are unsure on things.  I think you guys do most of what’s needed already.
  • Coaches will always have their favorites but they should not show it.
  • Remember that there are more kids on the team than just your starters.  They all need attention.  They will be happier about basketball and make life at home happier.

This feedback was encouraging, and incredibly insightful.  We choose to embrace those few comments that could be perceived as critical because they help us to become better coaches.

The best part of this entire process is it provides us a road map for building trust.

All relationships are built on trust.  

The feedback we received from parents after this meeting was tremendous.  Many called it the best parent meeting they’ve ever been to.  I hope that they felt valued as we helped them think about what really matters beyond the outcome on the court, and as we welcomed their feedback to help us provide a better experience for everyone.

 

Does this mean we will never encounter another difficult parent?

Probably not, but when that day comes, our hope is that trusting relationships will be in place that can weather disagreements.

Regardless, we will choose to coach the parent with love, understanding, appreciation, and encouragement just as we would one of our players because our days of dealing with parents are over.

Holding Up A Mirror: HBO’s Trophy Kids

If you haven’t already, be sure to watch the latest HBO sports documentary, State of Play: Trophy Kids, that is currently airing on HBO and HBO Go. Here is the trailer:

 

 

I was deeply affected – I am still feeling the impact of Josh and Justus, Steve and Derek, Jamie and her twin boys, and Andre and Amari – by the parents and the young athletes profiled by producer Peter Berg, and my husband and I have continued to discuss these families over the past several days. I just can’t seem to get them out of my mind. As Meryl Streep’s character in August: Osage County says, “Some people are antagonized by the truth.” Sigh.

The morning after the show originally aired, I reached out to sports psychologist and mental skills specialist for USTA’s Player Development Larry Lauer who was part of the post-show panel discussion (click here to listen to last year’s podcast with Larry).

I asked Larry if my reaction to the show, the pain I felt on behalf of those kids but also their parents, was an American cultural thing, if he thought parents in Russia or Asia or Africa would react the same way. I asked him if he thought our American reaction was causing our kids to be soft, if it could be a big reason for the decline in the number of Americans excelling on the world stage, not only in sports but also academically and economically. If the parents profiled in the film were doing the necessary things to instill in their children the drive to be The Best. If that’s what it takes to create champions.

He told me that researchers have found no evidence that being hard on children leads to their success. Being honest with children and teaching them to have realistic expectations based on their own goals is what works. The majority of children just don’t have the ability to withstand parental over-pushing to come out stronger on the other side of it. Larry reminded me that there are so many factors that have to go right in order to get kids to the top of the game, and there are healthy ways to create champions, including having good coaches who know how to get the best out of the child in a positive way alongside supportive parents. Each of the parents profiled in Trophy Kids was trying to control his or her child’s development too tightly. Larry says we parents have to strive for what he calls Optimal Push. If we do it the wrong way, there will be definite ramifications. When parents make outrageous sacrifices for their child’s sport, that adds incredible pressure on the child because the child feels the parent expects something in return and that can destroy the parent-child relationship. Our first goal when we introduce our children to sports should be to strengthen the parent-child relationship through sport. Then and only then should the goal be to develop an athlete.

I later found a review of the show online at HBOWatch and posted a comment asking for those who had seen the show to contact me. Much to my surprise, I got an email from Andre, the father of 7-year-old golfer Amari who had been profiled in the film, and had an opportunity to speak with him at length on the phone. Andre asked me what I thought after seeing him on tv. I asked if he really wanted my honest opinion, and he assured me that he did, so I told him that my heart hurt for his little girl, especially when the film showed her on the ground crying while her dad was cursing at her after a missed putt. We talked about how tough it is to know how hard to push a child. We talked about wanting the best for our children and doing the best we know how to do. We talked about the pain of seeing yourself on tv behaving like someone you don’t even recognize. We talked about the power of the media to edit and spin and sometimes make things look worse than they truly are. We talked about that same media acting as a mirror to show you how and what you need to change.

After hearing that Andre was ashamed by his behavior in the film and that he has taken very deliberate steps to be more loving and supportive toward his daughter (she is now coming up on her 10th birthday), I assured him that his willingness to show his true self in the film was sending positive ripples into the world as other parents watched and saw facets of themselves that needed to change. In an email, Andre wrote, “I believe [if] the doc could help some junior parent see how they act towards their kid then it has served its purpose, and that person it helped was me. I see the error in my ways and have been changing towards the better, but I have always said that the parent should grow with the child, be more communicative towards the child and explain things in a much lighter fashion, listen to the child as they too should have input in their respective sport.”

It’s been interesting to read the Tweets and talk to other parents about this film. Pretty much everyone is quick to say that the parents profiled are whack jobs, nutcases, bordering on abusive. Most of us are judging these parents pretty harshly. However, if this film did anything, it served as a mirror for my own sports parenting behavior, much as it did for Andre, and maybe it’s doing the same for others of you. As much as I hate to admit it, I saw myself and my own misinformed actions in those of the four parents profiled. Worse, I saw my son’s reactions reflected in those young athletes – the hurt in their eyes, the anger at their parent’s interference, the stress and fear masked as apathy during practices – and that was the most painful part of all. As I’ve said before, chronicling my journey here and sharing it with you has, thankfully, helped me become a better Tennis Mom, a better Mom in general. Rather than judging Andre, Josh, Steve, and Jamie, how about we learn from them?

The parents profiled in Trophy Kids aren’t evil people. They had good intentions even though we may watch them and deem their behavior disgusting. Their actions are coming from a place of love. They may just need to learn how to understand why their way isn’t the best way, that there are healthier means to achieve the development and performance goals for their children while maintaining the well-being of the child. Even the most well-intentioned parent can’t sustain their child’s top performance if the child isn’t happy. If they do (take a look at Andre Agassi’s autobiography), there is often horrific collateral damage. Larry Lauer assured me that being part of this documentary reinvigorated him to do even more parent education in his role with USTA.

There’s a fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of pushing our kids to excel. A very fine line. Take a look at this video:

According to the comments I’ve read on Facebook and elsewhere, this guy is “an awesome dad” and his actions are to be commended and emulated. I agree – in the video, it looks like everyone is having a great time. But, Titus is only about 2 years old here. What happens when he’s 7 or 8 and the expectations increase? I mean, he’s already “performed” in Europe and in a packed college stadium and with movie stars – what’s next? What if the child wakes up one day and tells his dad that he doesn’t like shooting hoops for audiences any more, that he just wants to play on his neighborhood team or maybe try tennis instead? How will Dad respond?

I hope Titus’s dad will respond with a hug and an encouraging smile, and that his son will continue to find the joy in sports simply because he’s having fun and learning how to develop a set of skills that will extend outside of the gym or court. I hope Toddler Basketball Dad watches Trophy Kids and chooses to go down a healthier path for both his own sake and that of his son. I hope we all make that choice.