| By Steven Kaplan

In the 30-plus years since I first began coaching tennis, society has seen many changes in the way people communicate and interact. Technology has not, however, altered basic human nature, and in this example, the inevitability of self-serving, immediate gratification-seeking behavior of junior players, coaches and parents. Many aspects of the system of junior tennis seem to encourage short-sighted behavior. Tennis is a highly competitive and clearly defining individual sport. There is much to be gained by winning, and losing is, well, "for losers.” I don't blame the system, however. The world is a competitive place and the tennis world reflects this reality. Competitive adapting is the backbone of evolution, and while I'd like to say, this is my original idea, Charles Darwin beat me to it. Rather than knock the tournament world, perhaps what is needed is a re-evaluation of how this experience is interrupted. Specifically, parents and coaches should assume responsibility for the leadership of players in critical areas of conduct and values. Players are ultimately responsible for their behavior of course, but the experience of being young is to emphasize immediate gain. Parents and coaches can balance and temper inexperience. Several examples follow:

In elementary school, my teachers used to say, “When you are cheating, you are only cheating yourself.” I didn't understand that advice then, but I do now, and it applies to tennis. First, let me preface by saying that very few players, and parents and coaches for that matter, believe they cheat. Rather, they believe that everyone else cheats and they are fair. By "fair" they mean that they only get "even" after receiving bad calls. My introduction to psychology text refers to this reverse cheating as the defense mechanism known as "rationalization." The tennis world is less kind and just calls it "hooking,” and no matter how high a player's ranking or how great their accomplishments, the first thing that will come to people's lips when your name is mentioned is that you are a cheater. At least Machiavelli would be proud of you.
Obnoxious behavior
Tennis is an interactive game in that one player is not solely responsible for determining the outcome of a point. This seemingly obvious fact is often not recognized by the player who obnoxiously demonstrates disapproval over losing a point, every point. It is demeaning and insulting behavior to shout "you suck" to yourself, because it is a pretense to believe that this is self-directed behavior. When a behavior such as this one is externalized, it is directed at an opponent as well. Even more disturbing are the parents and coaches who enable and promote this behavior with obnoxious clapping and shouting provided under the guise of "encouragement." I couldn't even begin to describe all of the "clap contests" that I have seen in my life. How can parents and coaches expect players to "just shut up and play" when we are unwilling to just shut up and watch?
Trying to buy success
Since I am in the business of selling tennis lessons, I believe I have credibility when I say that the single highest correlation to individual tournament tennis success is not how many lessons you take, but how many tournament matches you play. Matches provide the reference points by which the most learning can take place and the lessons become relevant. Too many parents tell their children to believe in themselves because they are "special" and therefore entitled to succeed. Too many coaches seize this behavior as an opportunity to sell the concept that, if they facilitate you to hit with a great player, somehow their talent will magically transmute to you. The reality is that these attitudes do not instill confidence in players. Rather, they are disempowering because they would have a player believe that they are highly dependent on others for success. In contrast, if a player believes that confidence is drawn from effort and preparation then they can self-empower, while parents and coaches try to find ego boasting elsewhere.

Shortcuts to tennis success rarely work. Focus on improvement and learning that draws upon your own experience as well as the wisdom of others with more experience always works. There are many sacrifices that players, parents and coaches need to make in order to perform their job best. Integrity is not one of those sacrifices.

Steven Kaplan

Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.