The following article was written back when I was a high school coach and still contains some good information I pass onto academy parents who have high school players.
Spring is here and so is girls high school tennis season in Indiana. As a coach, I just finished my annual parent meeting, introducing myself to the new players’ parents and giving the team and its supporters an overview of our season ahead. Generally during these meetings, I’ll request that each family engage in talks with their athlete on what they wish to accomplish in tennis, during their time in high school. As a coach, I know that any high level athlete generally has a good support network at home. Someone pushing them, driving them, and encouraging them to be the best they can be.
Younger adults or kids these days oftentimes don’t have the drive to realize their true potential. So there’s a delicate balance in urging and pushing your child to do more, practice harder, and, on the flip side, being overbearing. Coaches often face a similar dilemma when coaching student-athletes. Work ethic is often instilled not only with maturity, but also with support at home. As a coach, I can offer my belief in someone’s talent and potential, and give them every opportunity to grow as a player, but without support from parents, it’s oftentimes not enough.
I had a talk with a parent in my first season about the work ethic of their student-athlete. After a practice, I simply stated that this particular athlete could better meet her goals if she committed more on the offseason. The parent shook their head and commented something along the lines that their child wasn’t headed for Wimbledon any time soon, so what would be the point.
Hearing this as a high school coach, well, it struck a nerve. My job as the coach wasn’t training his child for the next Wimbledon, but preparing them for the next part of their life, whether tennis was in their future or not. To me, it’s about teaching athletes to work hard and to realize that effort towards goals is important, not just in tennis, but in life. That what you put into something is what you get out of it. Sports, jobs, relationships…there needs to be work involved in order to be sustained.
Lucky for me, this type of parent is generally the minority, as my girl’s team is filled with a lot of good and supportive parents.
So here’s a quick top-5 list of things I pass along to supportive parents who want their children to get the most out of the sport:
- Sit down and talk about the athlete’s tennis aspirations. Hammer out goals your child wants to achieve and discuss how much work will need to go into achieving them. So set a realistic path forward. Most importantly, let your child dream big. They will later adjust their goals based on what they experience on the road to each goal. If they have huge dreams of being a pro tennis player, break down the path into more manageable goals, like first being #1 on your team, being #1 in the conference, getting ranked in the USTA, etc. They’ll figure it out, but it never hurts to dream, as the path to those dreams will ultimately create great experiences that will pay off in other aspects of their lives down the road.
- Be a parent, not a coach. This is tough for me to do, as it’s part of my career, but I’ve recently quit coaching my youngest son and his high school team. There’s just too many conflicting aspects of your relationship when you are the parent and coach. Parents need to provide unconditional love and support. Coaches need to offer praise and criticism based on work ethic and performance. A parent/coach can be a volatile combination. Let the coach do his or her job and just be there for your son or daughter.
- Be cool during matches. Tennis is an extremely mental sport. One of the worst things you can do as a parent is sit on the bleachers shaking your head, biting your nails, nervously bouncing your legs, or grinding your teeth. And everything I just mentioned I am wired to do while watching my son’s matches. Instead, I sit back, take a deep breath, offer supportive cheers and hand claps for positive reinforcement. Sometimes I’ll excuse myself to the restroom and yell into some paper towels, then practice the most cool-looking expression in the mirror before returning to my seat. In other words, fake it. I’m not perfect with this rule, but it’s important. Trust me, your child will pick up on your discontent and anxiety and it will infect his or her game. I’ve seen this happen countless times.
- Skip a match or two. If my wife was reading this, she’d slap me, but it’s the right thing to do. Why? Because the sport of tennis is a) just a sport, and b) is really great for building confidence in oneself. Tennis is an individual sport and achievements in this type of setting can boost one’s self-esteem. By a parent not attending a match, this sends the message to a child that he or she can do great things by his- or herself. It also relays the message that tennis isn’t the end-all be-all to life. Win or lose, life goes on. If a parent is hanging on for every last shot, this can magnify the consequences and put more pressure on athletes.
- Support the program. Tennis is obviously important to an athlete if they are committed enough to join a team. My team is like my extended family. While I don’t see eye-to-eye with all parents, I hope they’d respect me enough to realize I’m spending quality time away from my own family and life to run a program in which their child is benefiting from. So try not to talk negative about coaches, other teammates or the school. And don’t let your child talk negatively as it’s their extended family as well. All negative talk really does is cut down those who communicate in that way. Building team chemistry is a vital element and joy to playing team tennis. Be a part in making it thrive. Offer to host a team-bonding event at your house, or bring food for the team at a match. Also, I’d encourage parents to watch other matches (not just your child’s), supporting other team members—this action communicates you support the team, which is helpful because your child needs to be reinforced to be a team player, learning from your actions. I can say that I’m lucky as a coach, as I have a great bunch of parents who support the team as a whole. But I do know that in other programs, it’s not like this at all.
Shane Staley is the founder of Staley Tennis and a USPTA-certified trainer, Accredited Professional Coach and instructor.