In case you’re wondering how a woman from Scotland—a country with no tennis tradition, terrible weather and hardly any indoor courts or coaches—managed to raise two boys to become professional tennis players . . . I can assure you, that wasn’t the plan.
I played pro tennis very briefly in the early ’80s and have always loved the game, but I never had in mind that I would steer either of my sons, Jamie and Andy, toward a life in tennis. I was a sales rep when the boys were toddlers and I started helping out at our local club as a volunteer purely to keep myself active. I started to learn how to coach some years later and have been doing it for 20 years now.
I’m from a very sporty family and my philosophy with the boys was simple: Play sporty games with them as much as possible and let them try pretty much everything that’s available. They tried gymnastics, squash, badminton, tennis, football (what you call soccer in the U.S.), ice skating, mini rugby, golf and swimming.
Trying lots of different sports—both individual and team—at a young age is crucial for developing hand-eye coordination and for understanding how to play different games from a tactical point of view. You also make a lot of friends. While it’s usually the parents who enroll the kids into their first sports classes, I reckon that by age 8, kids have a good idea of which sports they want to try or focus on. Andy played as much football as tennis until he was 14; Jamie had a three handicap in golf at age 15. And while it’s true that you likely have to start tennis at a young age to become very good, you don’t have to train like a professional as a child.
Much of coaching today has become too programmed: You learn how to hit the ball, but not always how to play the game. I hear and see a lot of instances of kids who are identified at young ages as having a lot of potential, and very quickly the parents and child take up a program with a lot of structured hours on court. When my boys were young, they would play at the club where I taught, and they didn’t play just tennis, or just with kids their age. They played against older kids, younger kids and adults, which is very important for learning how to read the game and working out how to deal with different sizes, ages and styles of opponents. Tennis is a game of constant problem-solving, so this area is really important. You don’t necessarily learn that from solely playing with kids your own age.
In your children’s early years, it’s important that they have fun. They need to love the game rather than see it as a chore or a possible career. If the love is there in childhood, the hard work that’s needed to become a professional won’t seem as bad if and when that time comes. On the other hand, if tennis becomes too competitive or results-oriented at a young age, it can breed unhappiness and anxiety and cause your child to reject the game. This is especially true if parents become too intense about a child’s results or performances.
Having fun is important for pros too. I’m now the captain of Great Britain’s Federation Cup team and I often have our players participate in crazy on-court games, like four-a-side tennis. You’re never too old to enjoy playing tennis, and having fun will keep you in the game for longer.
The problem with tennis parenting is much like the problem with parenting in general: You don’t always know if you are doing the right thing for your child. It’s your role to create opportunities for them, but whether those opportunities are actually good opportunities can be difficult to judge. I know from experience. I made a mistake, and I still regret it, with Jamie, who was one of the top juniors in the world as a 12-year-old, right behind Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet. He was given a chance to join an LTA training program at age 12, but the program I’d agreed to was changed just weeks prior to his entry. He went anyway and he was miserable; after he came home, he didn’t play tennis for six months.
I wish I had known this wouldn’t be a good fit for Jamie, especially at such a young age. Because of this, Andy had no intention of leaving home until he realized he was falling behind his peer group. When he went to Spain, at age 15, it was because he was dying to go—he was friends with Nadal at that point and wanted desperately to keep up with him. He was mature enough to live away from home and I was so glad that he made that decision because we just couldn’t create a competitive sparring environment in Scotland.
If it turns out that your child has a particular talent for tennis, find someone you trust who has done this before. Every child and every family is different, and there are many roads to success in tennis, so you don’t have to follow someone else’s plan. But it helps to listen. In team sports, most of what talented kids need is organized by a team or league. Tennis is different: It’s an individual sport, and that makes the parents incredibly important. Try to learn from as many people as you can and then do what you feel is best. A lot of it is common sense. Most important of all, make sure you enjoy it—and that your children enjoy it too.
More Lessons in Parenting:
Thursday, 9/12: Judy Murray, "For the Love of the Game"
Friday, 9/13: Lindsay Davenport, "Making the Right Choices"
Saturday, 9/14: Tracy Austin, "Match Day"
Sunday, 9/15: Allen Fox, "Your Child's Mind"