by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology
Many years of traveling with players to tournaments has shown me that many (if not most) parents don’t know the most effective way to talk to their child after a loss. The way parents respond and talk to their child after a tough loss often causes significant detriment to the child’s performance and mental fortitude in future matches. Many fellow coaches know this, since they’ve witnessed a large variety of parent-player relationships and have noted the differences in outcome, but parents are often unaware. It appears all too tempting for parents to analyze the tennis component of the match immediately afterward and offer their critique: “Why didn’t you hit more shots to their backhand?” “You can’t win by not going for your shots.” “All you had to do was ____________.” Fill in the blank as you please. Or even worse, “This is getting ridiculous! You can’t keep playing like that.” “Now you really need to do well in your next tournament.”
Talking to your child in this way will cause him or her to focus primarily on short-term results. The player will feel immense pressure from the parents (even if the child denies feeling pressure), and won’t be able to perform even close to their potential.
The most effective way for players to approach their tennis development is with a long-term vision. Obsessing over winning and short-term results inhibits their ability to work on what is necessary to improve and perform at their best. If the child wins, of course let him enjoy the moment. Focus on all the hard work he put in to reach the victory. But when he loses, let him feel the emotions. Gently tell that him it’s okay to feel sad or frustrated. Be empathetic and consider giving a hug. After a few minutes, or however long it takes for the initial and heightened painful emotions to begin to subside, ask what happened in the match. Do not talk about the tennis aspects during this time—the focus should be on the psychological. Did he lose concentration? Did he become frustrated or angry, causing a downward spiral and lots of errors? Was he distracted by his opponents behavior or poor line calls? Through this calm conversation, he can reflect on what happened psychologically and will be able to generate ideas of what can be worked on going forward. He now has an important short-term goal to focus on that is part of the long-term vision. The painful loss becomes an opportunity for growth.
When the time is right, after the child has had time to reflect on what happened psychologically, the coach will talk to the child about the tennis aspects. In almost all situations it’s better for the parents to leave the tennis part of the discussion to the coaches.