by: Matt Vaughn, PsyD from ProWorld Tennis Academy | Professional Tennis Coach | Doctor of Psychology

The elephant in the room of the junior tennis world

There is an elephant in the room of the junior tennis world—overbearing, overly-involved, and fanatical tennis parents. These parents, brimming with unhealthy obsessiveness and other clichéd behavior, put immense pressure (often unknowingly) on their child and tremendously hinder his or her development as a player. This issue is not discussed openly, but behind close doors these parents are often just referred to as “crazy” tennis parents. Of course there are degrees to which a parent can be too involved and obsessive, as many are much worse than others, but helping all of these parents recognize their negative impact on mental and physical tennis development needs to be a primary focus.

What are some of these clichéd behaviors and feelings that too many tennis parents exhibit? Seemingly always watching practices and private lessons, talking frequently to their child during practice, sometimes complaining and being demanding to coaches, and feeling frustrated or even angry when their child doesn’t perform on court as they desire. At tournaments, these parents often communicate to their child during the match, get involved with line calls (always biased toward their child, of course), and display their emotions with unmistakable body language: frustrated and disappointed facial expressions, dramatic hand and arm movements, looking tense, and sometimes even pacing. Quite simply, as most players and coaches can attest, they give off an aura of being too intense and involved. Sometimes they will try to act calm, but it’s obvious that they are either boiling inside, anxious, or both.

Overly-involved parents tend to criticize their child’s performance at practice and/or after matches—sometimes publicly, but usually during the car ride home or in the privacy of their own house. They almost always make their disappointment known and ask why the player isn’t doing something the “right” way, isn’t getting better, or isn’t winning.

Parents that feel and act this way negatively impact their child more than they realize. I’ve spoken to many of these parents over the years, and it’s remarkable how many are in their own world and convinced that they aren’t doing anything wrong. They are completely blind and oblivious. I have heard many parents confidently state that their child does not feel pressure from them, when, in fact, the opposite is clearly true. Even if parents tell their child that they do not care whether the player wins or loses, it does not work. If coaches can feel the pressure from parents, the child can as well. Parents’ body language tells children everything they need to know.

How does this problem impact tennis results?

Parents that are overly-involved—emotionally and behaviorally—instill fear, stress, and anxiety in their child, and remove the fun from tennis. The player then becomes nervous during practice and tournament matches, and sometimes even during routine practice without point-play. The fear, which is at the core of most unpleasant emotions, comes out in practices and tournaments in a variety of ways: expressions of anger, extreme frustration, tightness, anxiety, lowered problem-solving ability, poor shot-selection, decreased effort, and tanking. In too many cases, players begin to attach their self-worth to their tennis results. As one highly-ranked and prominent male player recently told me, “players with these parents kind of feel like they have to earn love through winning.” It’s hard to illustrate the problem more succinctly than that. The scary part is, most of these parents have no idea their child feels this way.

These issues with parents hinder the player from reaching his or her potential. Many players with fanatical tennis parents are very good and highly ranked, but usually not close to the level they are capable of. When the player becomes overly concerned with immediate results because of the pressure they feel from a parent, it becomes nearly impossible to maintain a long-term vision with their development (see #6 on Improving Our Coaching To Help Players Reach Their Potential). Development becomes slow at best, non-existent or regressing at worst.

What causes tennis parents to become emotionally and behaviorally overly-involved?

Why do some parents feel and behave this way? It might appear simple on the surface: parents have a large emotional and financial investment in their child’s tennis, are obsessed with their child winning, and feel a “need” to win. They are not secure with themselves and are in ways living vicariously through their child. This is accurate for most overbearing, overly-involved, and fanatical tennis parents, but why is this true? Eckert Tolle, in A New Earth, elegantly illuminates the core issue that these parents are experiencing (bolding is mine and added for emphasis):

The all-important question is: Are you able to fulfill the function of being a parent and fulfill it well, without identifying with that function, that is, without it becoming a role? Part of the necessary function of being a parent is looking after the needs of the child, preventing the child from getting into danger, and at times telling the child what to do or not to do. When being a parent becomes an identity, however, when your sense of self is entirely or largely derived from it, the function easily becomes overemphasized, exaggerated, and takes you over. Giving children what they need becomes excessive and turns into spoiling; preventing them from getting into danger becomes overprotectiveness and interferes with their need to explore the world and try things our for themselves. Telling children what to do or not to do becomes controlling, overbearing.

Overly-involved tennis parents feel and behave as they do because their role has become part of their identity—their sense of self wrapped up into their child’s tennis results. Tolle continues:

A mother or father who identifies with the parental role may also try to become more complete through their children. The ego’s need to manipulate others into filling the sense of lack it continuously feels is then directed toward them. If the mostly unconscious assumptions and        motivations behind the parent’s compulsion to manipulate their children were made conscious and voiced, they would probably include some or all of the following: “I want you to achieve what I never achieved; I want you to be somebody in the eyes of the world, so that I too can be       somebody through you. Don’t disappoint me.

 For some parents, getting them to recognize this problem and make changes will be an uphill battle. But, I have confidence that transformational change is possible throughout the tennis world if coaches, academies, and international tennis federations are motivated to see their players reach the highest level possible.

 What can we do about this problem?

I think it’s time for coaches, academies, and international tennis federations to educate parents on this issue and pressure them to make changes. Coaching is more than working on strokes and strategy—it involves helping players improve their effectiveness and performance on the court, and helping them achieve their full potential through any means necessary. For some players, overly-involved parents is the primary factor impeding tennis performance and development. It’s important to not be afraid to discuss this problem with parents, as they might be more open than you realize; awareness is the first step in change. Compassionately engage them in conversation regarding the issue, and maybe even encourage them to read A New Earth by Eckert Tolle, the book quoted from above, as it should be required reading for all tennis parents.

The ultimate goal is to enable the child to practice and play with emotional freedom. The only pressure should come from within. In almost all cases, the coach should do the coaching and the parent should do the parenting. Lets help these players by no longer confining these conversations to behind closed doors—coaches, academies, and federations can bring awareness and change through open conversation and direct discussion with parents.

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