Sports Parenting

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.

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