In my career as a tennis coach, I’ve learned that when you start working with a young tennis player, it’s not enough to just focus on the quality of the technique, you must also take into account what happens outside the court.
Children play many roles … they are sons and daughters, students, friends and so on. All of these different social roles they play and social environments they live in affect each other so understanding your player’s overall state of mind will allow you to better guide their performance as a tennis player, and more importantly, it will help you make sure they have a positive relationship with the sport and help them leave the court feeling happy.
Since the performance of the players is linked to these three environments (home, school and the court), I begin by establishing a complete picture of their life by asking them how they’re doing at school and I talk to them and their parents to try to understand the family’s dynamic.
After you get to know the player better you become more sensitive to certain signs he or she might be showing and the possible forces that are colliding inside that players mind causing them to act in a certain way, this awareness will empower your decisions and help ensure better outcomes.
Even though understanding your players’ life outside the court is very important, it’s also essential that each role they play and each environment they interact in is kept separated. When they enter the court, they should leave behind the stresses of their school day or family disagreements. This separation is important because sports, in particular, are an amazing way to help kids (and adults) deal with the stresses of daily life.
This brings us to a very important point which is that one of the coaches jobs is to establish himself at the top of the hierarchy inside the court space and sometimes this can lead to all sorts of problems within the parent/coach/player relationship.
My experience has shown that in order for the player and coach relationship to work, the parents should not interfere with the practice sessions and give room for the coach to perform his job. The first reason is very obvious … parents do not have the technical knowledge nor do they necessarily understand the best methods to deliver certain messages to the players.
The second reason, and the most important one for me, is that when the boundary between the family and court environment begins to fade, the player loses an incredible opportunity to become more autonomous and learn to interact productively with others, therefore becoming more self-confident.
I see this happen all the time, and often the result is that these young players start taking to the court with anxieties from their family life and that time of the day stops being their “safe harbor," where they only have to focus on the process of learning a set of skills that are already very demanding. More often than not, in these situations, the players end up losing interest for the sport because it becomes another source of stress for them.
Parents have the best intentions when they choose to be present and comment on the practice sessions, but I believe they do not understand that this might actually work against theirs kid’s best interest. Their presence will disrupt the coach’s authority and possibly intimidate their child, that will now also have to deal with their parents expectations. For example, when a coach points out a mistake the player obviously feels bad, frustrated and even embarrassed, especially if there are other young players present, if you add to that the parents presence those feelings will only be exacerbated and it will be more difficult for the kid to let them go.
So how should these situations be handled? I recommend that all coaches set healthy boundaries, like not allowing parents to be inside the court, and communicate with parents the reasons behind that need for separation between the “Family” and the “Tennis Environment.” Parents can and should be engaged in their children’s athletic life, but they should do so in a way that is helpful to their personal and athletic growth.
Vasco Antunes is currently a teaching pro at Glen Head Racquet Club and also serves as the facility's Tournament Director. He specializes in high-performance students, and has previously served as a hitting partner for Victoria Azarenka in addition to being a former coach of Pedro Sousa. A former ATP Player himself, Antunes reached a career high singles ranking of 1,091 in the world.