I have seen it hundreds of times in tennis … burnout. I have seen it with an overwhelming majority; from kids in their late teens who played almost every day working for their Division I scholarship, to those who graduated from Division I colleges where a major focus was their tennis. They simply have had it with the game of tennis and they have to find real motivation to play at a time when their tennis desires should be burning brightest. It could be years before they come back to the game and reignite their tennis competitiveness.
Is it true with all players that compete at that high level? No, of course not … but there is a significant amount of burnout that does take place at that level that warrants writing this article or at least provoking a thought to the reader. For now, let’s eliminate those who do play at that high level and can keep their competitive desires burning after attending college.
I have written about this before, “the importance of exposing our younger generation to our great game.” to keep them enthused and to enhance the “sport of a lifetime” to quote the USTA slogan. Who does it serve (no pun intended) when by the age of 21 or 22 they want to keep their racquets in the closet for an indefinite amount of time? Sure, they may have received an education out of it, which is certainly a great asset or maybe that was the goal to get an education all along. But strictly speaking in terms of tennis, they might be out of the game for a very long period of time due to burnout. Some professionals can play into their 30s before they succumb to burnout or age robs them of their skill and speed. But we are talking about the best of the best of the best who are also gifted athletes both physically and mentally. Those professionals who can make it on the tour are the smallest minority.
I know, in writing this, I might stir up some controversy for those who do practice several hours a day. I might even stir up some controversy from some of my tennis teaching colleagues who want their students to go to Division I schools on tennis scholarships. For those players, practice and commitment is the key. Practicing, playing in tournaments, traveling to out of town tournament, and playing every day after school is a sacrifice which will, in many cases, reward the player with a college education. Those experiences reward them with not only an education, but the experience of meeting great people, learning about themselves as an individual and more. But burnout could also be a result of this approach. To be honest, I hate burnout, and as a tennis instructor and parent are acutely aware of the signs of burnout and I go out of my way to avoid it. My approach is a bit different than the average tennis pro/parent. “I want the total package!”
We, as a family of tennis players, made a decision very early on to take a different approach. In my opinion, it is an approach that works and yields great rewards as well. First and foremost, I am a father who also grew up in a tennis family and I love the game of tennis. My children love the game of tennis and I want them to love it forever. Like any parent, I am partial to my children, but in terms of tennis and quality of life, I look to my gut and I truly believe we went about their tennis education the right way. We were laser focused on having my children play tennis in college. However, we knew the sacrifices to get them to a Division I school would hurt us financially. In addition, there were just no guarantees that their talent level would support that effort. The sacrifice also both physically and socially on them was a major factor on how we would approach our strategy. We as a family worked out a great formula resulting with my older son playing Division III college tennis and becoming captain of the tennis team. We believe we yielded great dividends that resulted in a good education and a great tennis experience. In terms of tennis, he thinks of well … what next? The fire and desire still burn, and he is looking to his tennis future by perhaps playing in USTA Tournaments, USTA Team Tennis and perhaps even doing a little coaching.
The mission statement we set from the start was accomplished. Better yet, my son is cashing in on the work put in. The goals were, no burnout, get an education, play competitive tennis, be well-rounded and have a great skill for a lifetime. As my sons have often asked me during their early teen years such questions as, “Why can’t I play more days this week?” “Why can’t I go out of town to this tournament?” He now knows why! While they were 12, 13 and 14, they watched as some of their tennis colleagues moved ahead of them on the USTA ranking scale, as my wife and I remained focused on the big picture. A great win only made them king for that day and a bad loss was not the end of the world and resulted in an opportunity to learn. Either way, we never flinched in attaining the goals that were set early on. My sons eventually signed on and adopted the formula.
I always promised my oldest son that he would have the last laugh when he suffered a bad loss in high school and in USTA Tournaments and it is became a reality. He developed into an outstanding successful collegiate level player. My youngest son who plays Level 1 and 2 Tournaments gets a very similar message. We do not travel off Long Island for a tournament, there is plenty here in “our own backyard.” He plays an equal number of Level 1 and 2 Tournaments to support the local Long Island USTA grassroots tournaments. He plays very little tennis over the summer, except for an occasional practice session or an occasional “tune up” tournament. Rather, he works in an “all-sport” camp where tennis is not an emphasis. He plays tennis in a good program during the school year with good coaches. The intention is we are laser focused in building a tennis player for life with all the other assets I described. Burnout is not an option, as there is too much at stake. We refuse to sacrifice 40-50 years of great tennis ahead for the 10-12 years of seven-days-a week of intense tennis. We must look at the big picture!
Financially, had we been in the position of having our sons travel or play a few more times a week, the mission would not have changed. Tennis is the sport of a lifetime and his tennis education was to prepare him for a lifetime of great tennis. The added benefit and if not more important was getting an education with tennis as just a bait, developing good social skills, developing a good self esteem and more.
Let me close by writing this. There are others who will disagree with me and that is fine; otherwise, there would be no Division I tennis and U.S. Open Champions. However, you have to know the odds going in and as one would say, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” There are many ways to achieve the same goal; we choose a way that works for us. But, you parents of great juniors make sure you are sacrificing for the right reasons. Make sure your son or daughter is not suffering from any burnout. Put the brakes on in this case, re-evaluate your strategy and move forward. But whatever you do, keep them in the game for as long as possible.
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.