Parenting is a tough job. Having a child that plays USTA tournaments makes it even harder. Quite often, the parents seem to suffer more than the players. If you walk into a random tennis club on a Friday or Saturday during a USTA tournament, you will find yourself in a tension-filled room with parents who are actively involved with the matches that are happening on the courts. They often have to watch through windows to see the matches, or worse, a TV monitor. Every decision by the player is being scrutinized, every close line call debated. You hear phrases like:
►“What was he/she thinking on that shot?”
►“Why doesn’t he/she play like they do in practice?”
►Or my favorite, “Is he/she doing this to torture me?”
It looks like the parents find themselves on an emotional rollercoaster with peaks and valleys of intense feelings and lots of confusion. This can be entertaining, both in good and bad ways. It must be exhausting, but more importantly, it is not helpful to your child.
I know that all parents strive to be helpful, so here is where I would like to offer some help.
When I speak to parents who do not play or have not played competitive tennis themselves, I find it valuable to try to explain what their child is going through on the court emotionally. They are often frustrated and confused with the behavior of their child on the court. Players can be irrational and seemingly overemotional. This can be hard to understand, after all, it is just a tennis match.
I draw the comparison to watching a scary movie. Everyone has watched a scary movie before and behaved in a way that was completely irrational, like blocking your face with a pillow or just peeking through your hand. You know it is not real and just a movie, but the fear can be so strong. I remember going to the theater to see the movie “Saw” and halfway through the movie, I was hiding behind the chair in front of me. Several times I had to look away from the screen when certain sounds alerted me to more horror coming (yes, I paid money for this experience!).
I tell these parents, “Your child can be experiencing these same fears during a tennis match. Your dedicated child has lots of practice hours invested in their hopes, dreams and expectations, and challenged it can set off some very strong feelings. These feelings will temporarily override their rational decision-making process and trigger behavior that can best be described as ‘live or die behavior,’ our instinctive ‘fight or flight’ responses.”
You will be better off asking the question, “What was he/she feeling” instead of “What was he/she thinking” in trying to understand your child’s behavior during a tennis match.
Intuitively, parents know that their children must learn by trial and error, but still, it is so hard to allow them to do so. As an adult, you can be very helpful in your child’s tennis development in the following ways:
►Help to find the proper context: If your child is nervous before a match, you could help by placing the match in the right perspective. Every match is a learning experience for a more important match in the future, so keep the focus on improving and overcoming obstacles. Temporarily, this match will turn into the most important match in your child’s life, but as an adult, you know better. When your child is devastated after a loss, this same advice will be meaningful as well. Whether they win or lose, please allow some time for decompressing post-match.
►Have your own life: Parents sacrifice a lot for their children. Children are aware of this even if they do know always show their appreciation (yet). Make sure that the sacrifices are in proportion. Get something out of your day or weekend. Have a to-do list of your chores and somehow get them done. Don’t miss your workout. If it is a tournament out-of-town, look for some sight-seeing or cultural opportunities. Don’t have your child’s tournament be your entertainment!
►Know thyself and detach with love: Be aware of your own feelings. If your child’s match is affecting you too much, you are better off not watching. If you find yourself getting upset or frustrated while your child is playing, you need to take a step back. Those feelings will have to be validated, and the “culprit” will come off the court soon, and you might not be able to offer the compassionate support that is needed. Instead, you might be in a hurtful state and challenge them on the decisions they made or on poor play. This experience is the basis for a lot of performance anxiety that junior players undergo. By detaching with love, you are offering the best support, and you are the best parent you can be.
Tonny van de Pieterman
Tonny van de Pieterman is a tennis professional at Point Set Indoor Racquet Club in Oceanside, N.Y.. He was recently named USTA Tennis Professional of the Year for the USTA/Eastern-Long Island Region and helped the Eastern Section win this year’s Talbert Cup. He may be reached by phone at (516) 536-2323 or e-mail Tonny@PointSetTennis.com.