Hello Parents, Are You Ready To Let Go?


At sixteen years old I was one of the top juniors in the United States.  My dream from when I was a young boy was to be a professional tennis player.  I had dreams of playing in front of big crowds on television and on the best stages in the world.  I was starting to grow and I was getting stronger due to some very intense physical and tennis training that I was doing on a daily basis.

In 1999 I was preparing for an important junior tournament, I booked my airline ticket, a rental car for my mom or coach to drive and a hotel room.  In 1999 you signed up for tournaments by sending your entry fee and entry form either by mail or occasionally by fax with a payment to follow.  Nowadays, the tournament entry system is simple as you just click a couple of buttons on your computer or phone and you are signed up.  When the entry list came out for the tournament my name was not on the list and I started to panic.  I called the tournament director and they said they did not receive my entry form.  I was devastated.  What you must remember is that when I was growing up through USTA tournaments, the children in my generation played a fraction of the tournaments that the children play today.  I would spend a couple of months training for one particular big tournament.  Some juniors today play as many tournaments as I did when I was a professional player.

I sat down with Pierre Arnold, my coach, my father figure, and my mentor and he said that I’m going to go to Elkin, North Carolina and play a $15,000 professional futures tournament since I could not go to the junior tournament.  To save precious funds, I was also going to drive there from South Florida since I had been driving for a couple of months and I had a reliable car.  When I was fifteen with my drivers permit I was driving myself and my mother around daily to tennis practices that were thirty minutes from our house or tennis tournaments on the weekends, so I had logged many hours of driving by the time I got my license.  I was very mature as a young man due to certain circumstances growing up in my family, so Pierre and my mother trusted me in driving solo for twelve hours to North Carolina.

I had no cell phone, but my mother did and she gave me her cell phone which if you remember probably weighed five pounds and could barely fit in your pocket.  Her cell phone only worked in the state of Florida, so the second I got into Georgia the phone no longer worked and I would have to use a calling card at a pay phone to let her know I was all right.

I packed my bags, stringing machine, and a bunch of CD’s that my brother had made for me and  the trek in my Volkswagen Jetta five speed manual with crank windows.  The only thing electric in this car was a button that you could press that would pop the trunk open.  My mom called me every hour while I was in the state of Florida and when I got out of Florida, every time I would stop for gas I would call her on a pay phone to let her know I was ok.  At this time, there were no GPS units as I had a TripTik from the AAA.  At one point I actually thought I was in North Carolina, but in actuality I was in South Carolina which meant I had another ninety minutes to drive.  Finally after twelve hours of driving, I made it to Elkin, North Carolina and met up with some tennis buddies from South Florida.  The only two establishments in Elkin at this time were a Cracker Barrel and a movie theater, along with a park that had 20 – 30 hard courts.

It rained for a couple of days straight and my buddies and I were bored out of our minds.  We passed the time by doing a bunch of fitness exercises and tried to stay busy during these boring rainy days.  It was okay because I was excited to just hang around all these great players and coaches.  I was always trying to pick up great tips and better ways to improve my skills.  I would warm anyone up and just spend all day at the courts watching matches and trying to learn.  I ended up losing in the third round of qualifying to a French guy ranked about 500 in the world in a close competitive match.

As I was planning the drive home, I actually found another player who lost in the same round as me and we drove back to South Florida together.  We left the day after we lost at 5am so I could make it back home for dinner.  We split the cost of gas which we both thought was fair and we drove the twelve hours back home.  I obviously called my mom a lot when I got into Florida but looking back on this trip, it makes you think what kind of parenting and coaching that I had throughout my adolescence.

It was made very clear at a young age that if I wanted to be successful in tennis or in life in general, I was going to have to be very mature for my age and rely on no one to hold my hand throughout my life.  It was preached that no one was going to do anything for me, and if someone did do something for me, I was very lucky.  I was going to have to take the initiative on many things in my life and learn as I go along because many times I could not have my mom or coach travel with me to tournaments.  I hung around the courts all day and hit with anyone that needed to hit whether it was a pro or a kid, and I studied matches at the courts.  I knew that one day I would be doing this full time for a living so I needed to be a sponge and be around successful coaches and players.  Now I get to share my  knowledge with the young people that I train on a daily basis, which I find  very rewarding when you start to see improvements in not only their tennis game, but also their maturity and how they carry themselves as a young adult.  These life skills that are acquired through tennis and discipline will stick with these young people for the rest of their lives.  I know they did for me.

The article above is another wonderful contribution from coach Todd Widom. His story is reminiscent of a post I wrote about my son’s first tournament on his own – click here!

13 Comments on “Hello Parents, Are You Ready To Let Go?”

  1. Serena, Venus, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and others all proudly display their parents in their player’s boxes. It is a shame that many Americans, not all, but many, strongly believe in placing a wall between children and their parents. Americans, in this respect, are very unique and unusual when compared to the rest of the world.

    1. I don’t think this article says anything about putting up a wall between player and parent. Rather, it talks about the independence teenage players learn through playing this sport, an independence that will serve them well as they go out into the world.

  2. Hi Lisa,

    If the parents are paying the child’s expenses, then, IMHO, there really are no real, meaningful lessons of independence to be learned. The child is still very dependent when the parents pay for everything. In this article, instead of learning independence, the child is learning how to behave RESPONSIBLY while using his/her parents’ money to pursue a dream. If you think about it: if the parents truly let go, then the child would have no way of doing these things mentioned in the articl or anything else until the child earns an income on his/her own, in which case there is TRUE independent. Everything else is just a sham.

  3. Other cultures place varying emphasis on different aspects of family life. Americans are a fiercely independent culture, and place great importance on developing our children to rely on themselves, not us, as they will be expected to become productive citizens in a merit-based capitalist culture, not part of a collective.

    When our family started in tennis, my 7-year old was very apprehensive about approaching the registration desk (even with me at her side) and was always much more nervous the first time she played in a new venue. I slowly engineered situations that placed more responsibility on her, for the interpersonal interactions, planning, and equipment maintenance, so she would feel confident on her own, and have ownership over her sport’s direction.

    I vividly remember the first time I wanted her to register herself. She was nervous and looking to me to walk her to the desk. I drove around the lot and told her that we were late, and I would have to park at the far end of the lot, so I would have to drop her off at the front of the facility and she needed to register herself. I dropped her and then backed up so I’d have a view through a hedge, of her walking to the desk. I also had called a friend who kept an eye on her from the moment she walked in, until I parked and caught up with her. As far as she knew, she’d done it all on her own and from that day on, she insisted on doing it herself. In friendly, known environments where we had lots of friends, I would let her. In unknown environments, I would continue to keep her with me, until she was about 12, and then I felt comfortable allowing her much more latitude. At 16 she was travelling on her own to interstate events, and meet-up with friends at the airport.

    Now she’s in college and functioning autonomously for all coursework and athletics. My contributions consist of flying her home for holidays and summer, and I couldn’t be more proud.

    Lisa is right; it’s not about walling off yourself from your child. It’s about producing an individual who can function successfully on their own, while always maintaining a loving environment that they can draw on when necessary.

    I also have to wonder if the support provided by many foreign tennis federations make it easier for a parent to remain with their player. In the US, if a kid accepts any financial support, they risk losing NCAA eligibility, but foreign players (not all, but many) are heavily supported by their country. I would love to have been able to dedicate more time to developing my child’s tennis career, but economics dictated that I rely on others to travel, and advise in my place. Looking back, I believe that insinuating others into the dynamic helped to foster her independence, as she didn’t have Dad in close proximity all the time. We develop a sense of familiarity and take for granted those who are closest to us. Having others around during times of stress provides a foundation for how we will react in school and work throughout our lives.

    Lisa said it well: “[it’s] about the independence teenage players learn through playing this sport, an independence that will serve them well as they go out into the world.”

  4. Liberal ideology pervades American educational institutions, media, and government policy and, I believe, is responsible for creating this wall between parent and child and is responsible for preventing the US from being a true “merit-based capitalist culture.” If Americans are not vigilant and these negative attitudes toward family cohesion and autonomy go unchallenged, American society will start sliding closer toward Platonic ideals where the child becomes the property of the state.

    I am all for a merit-based capitalist culture where people are taught how to fish instead of being given a fish, as the proverb goes: “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Teach the child “how to fish” without creating any walls between the child and his parents so that the child always appreciates and enjoys them and proudly displays them in their player’s boxes the same way Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, Serena, and Venus have done.

  5. Joseph, I think you are completely off topic, and make very little sense. Where in Todd’s ariticle does he menion any liberal ideology? I do agree that I have no idea what the parents of 30 plus year old atheletes still travel with their kids, other then staying on their payroll.

    I think Todd’s article was right on, the player has to learn to be independant at some point, and honestly parents need to get their own life, and not be at every tournement. I also despise the term “we” for the player and parent, if your not playing its not we.

    One thing I look at with children and teenagers is, are they able to speak with an adult (shake hands, look in the eye…), I have from a very young age had my kids order their own food at resturaunts, thank coaches after practice…. I think these small things add up to creating a more mature young adult.

    I really enjoy all of Todd’s articles, and hope they keep coming.

  6. Joseph, you started off with a basic concept that had some merit, then went off the rails. Your initial post had merit from the stand point that I do not agree with the USTA system, or many US parents approach to junior tennis. I do think we push kids to run their own show at tournaments far before they should have to. God forbid a 10 year old get reminded to drink water on a 95 degree day or the other parents will raise holy heck.

    I have been to other countries where the tennis club is central in the towns. At these clubs kids work hard but play with both adults and other kids. The environment is nurturing and allows kids to develop their games, go for their shots, and slowly mature. A shy child with talent can develop just fine.

    The USTA culture at tournaments allows the dominant personalities to succeed regardless of talent. An 11 year old who is willing to boss the other kids, willing to cheat, willing to intimidate, able to look a strange adult referee in the eye and lie….they have a huge advantage. They call balls out that are winners, the honest kids have to argue, spend hours waiting for refs to come back and forth, and they start pulling shots and not hitting anywhere near the lines. It crushes development and chases some talented kids from the sport.

    I see the rankings and see a joke. Many of these kids are pitbulls who are not as good as kids ranked below them. And we celebrate them as being ‘independent’?? Tennis can teach great life lessons, but the current USTA system of juniors is broken. And the decrease of US college players on rosters will continue.

    Lin, foreign players do not get heavily sponsored any more than US players do. The talented ones get free coaching, just like here. You go to Boca when the USTA high performance kids were there and there were 20-30 US kids staying for free, getting meals, and top coaching. And all but a few went on to total college scholarships. The facility being built in Orlando will provide talented US juniors with the best facilities and coaching on the planet. Now we can disagree with the kids the USTA chooses for this help, but that is another story.

    1. OMG! Jon it is like you have been a camera secretly recording our lives. My daughter is very shy. Each tournament is a struggle. She is fine when the players are fair in the calls but she loses to players who cheat her. She struggles to know how to handle them. This just happened when she played the 1A in Birmingham. As soon as she got to the seeded player, she got cheated from the first ball. My daughter could hear the balls hitting the lines on the clay court and her opponent would call them out. She got so angry and then she started to cry. Sometimes, she handles these situations well but often because she is so shy she gets overwhelmed and cries. This has happened since she was small so girls learned very quickly that they didn’t have to outplay her they just had to cheat her. She is 16 now. And alot of people would think at her age she should be able to handle these situations. They don’t understand the progress she has made from literally being coded by officials because she would not speak at all- she couldn’t bring herself to speak on her own behalf. It was like she was mute. To now, where she is able to handle the situations well on some occasions and not well on others. Because of the USTA system, we have enrolled her in acting so she can act her way through these difficult moments and we do role playing to teach her how to handle her matches on court. She is developing an oncourt persona that is better equipped to deal with the cheating. It is really unfortunate she can’t be her true self on court, but that is the system. The dominate personalities win. And she trains too hard to accept the losses through cheating.

  7. Hi Jon,

    Great post. You did not make one bad point. I enjoyed reading the insights you provided. Thanks.

    Now, If only those who can do something about it would listen to you and other sensible people like you, something great may happen in American tennis.

  8. John, I totally agree with your post about the European system, they play more of UTR system with adults. Why travel 2000 miles to play against 12-14 olds when you can compete with lower ranked 17 year old’s or adults. The rankings and points do not matter, are the kids progressing as tennis players???

    That being said it is the same in all youth sports, the biggest aggressive kids dominate in U14. If kids keep training and get proper fundamentals, and support they will win in the end. The focus should be on development and technique. The child has to buy into this, many of our kids just go along with our development plan, and don’t care as much as the parent does.

    The junior tennis player has to set their own goals and be a major participant in the process, or they will not go far.

    Again, great article Todd and keep them coming

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