As a sports psychologist, I consult regularly with tennis players, and the ones I work with most are the highly motivated junior tournament players. Some are in the high-powered tennis academies and others live at home, but their common problem is excess stress. They put in hours every day on the practice courts and play tournaments most weekends, and their goals are high. Most aim for a university scholarship, but many have aspirations for the pro tour. All are driven to win because win they must if they are to have any chance of achieving their goals. Unfortunately, train as they will and try as they might, winning is uncertain. Combined with their high aspirations, this is the perfect formula for excessive stress, nervousness and underperformance. And well meaning parents often make the problem worse.
I was recently working with a young player, let’s call him Sam, who was exhibiting symptoms of excess stress: becoming overly nervous when he got ahead (this is when most players get nervous, but Sam was excessively so); moodiness; losing his temper quickly and often; and tanking, both in practice and tournaments. These symptoms are indicative of stress because there is an element of escapism in them. “Escape from what?” you ask. Escape from the stress of desperately wanting to win and the uncertainty of being able to do so. Escape from the constant risk of loss. Escape from potential disappointment.
My first inclination was to find out where the excessive stress was coming from so we could work on reducing it. Tennis matches, by their nature, involve a bit of stress because we all want to win. And some players are so highly driven internally that they simply overstress themselves. But in addition, there are often external factors, foremost among them being parents.
In Sam’s case, it was his father. Dad was an excellent player himself (5.0 level) and a very smart, successful and wealthy businessman. He loved his son, who was also smart (straight A’s in school), driven and an exceptional athlete, and he wanted only the best for him. Although Sam had a professional coach, his dad was heavily involved in Sam’s tennis development. He saw Sam’s physical talent and thought he had the makings of a professional player. He watched every match and afterward provided helpful technical and motivational advice. At the time we talked, Sam was preparing for a tournament in XYZ city, and his dad told him that if he won his first match, he would take him out to a steak dinner at the finest restaurant in town.
Sam’s case provides object lessons for other tennis parents. First, it is obvious that Sam’s father was unwittingly increasing the pressure on him. His emphasis on winning, his advice, his scrutiny, his constant physical presence and his own successful achievements all combined to increase the pressure on Sam to win. Motivation is a two-edged sword: Too little of it and one becomes lazy, weak, unfocused and ineffectual; too much of it and one becomes hyper, nervous, confused, paralytic and also ineffectual. Somewhere in the middle is the effective amount. In Sam’s case, he was, to begin with, a driven, perfectionistic over-achiever, and he didn’t need additional motivation. He needed the emphasis taken off outcome (winning), and put on enjoying improvement. His father, who was certainly not selfish or living through Sam, needed to step back and let Sam’s development be primarily guided by his tennis pro, Sam’s own observations and his on-court experiences with his peers.
Of course, all young players are different, so there can be no absolute parenting guidelines. But here are four general concepts that parents of tennis players could do well to keep in mind....
1. The first and most important is that tennis is just a game that the child ultimately plays for enjoyment. It can and should be very satisfying as a “project,” where youngsters work over time to develop and shape their games, much as they might get satisfaction from building a beautiful model airplane. But great success on court is not crucial to their long-term well-being, any more than great success in basketball or soccer might be. (This is in stark contrast to their education, where success is far more important.)
2. Parents’ words have more impact on their children than they might think. Helpful advice often sounds like criticism, so less advice is usually preferable to more, especially right after losses. In general, it is risky for parents to coach their own children. (Yes, I’m well aware of the many champions who have been coached by a parent. But I’ve also noted that many of these champions have also had substantial emotional difficulties that, as a parent, I would not wish on my children.)
3. Tennis is a great game for learning life lessons, and a parent can certainly stress the important ones. Topping the list is the fact that persistent, intelligent, hard work is the key to success. A good message is, “If you want to win more, practice more.”
4. Parents should be supportive of their child’s tennis but not dominating. Too little involvement is generally preferable to too much. On the other hand, a parent should step in firmly to stop cheating or overly self-indulgent emotionalism. (Of course, this latter is a judgment call, and there are no hard and fast rules for all situations.)
Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, former Wimbledon quarterfinalist and author of Tennis: Winning the Mental Match.
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"