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!