The goal of tennis parents shouldn't be to make great tennis players. The goal should be to make great people who play tennis well.
IT'S NOT ABOUT TENNIS
By Tracy Austin
Tennis has been part of my life since I was two years old. My family got into tennis a little late, after my mom had her fourth child (I have three older brothers and an older sister). Once mom was hooked, tennis became an everyday part of our lives. She was the pro shop manager at Jack Kramer’s tennis club and all of five us played—it was a great way to keep us busy and out of trouble. Four of us ended up playing professionally and I turned pro at age 15. And although I retired years ago, I’m still living the tennis life, whether it’s through broadcasting, exhibitions, coaching or, most important, parenting.
My husband and I have three sons, and all of them play tennis. Dylan, our 16-year-old, plays No. 1 doubles for a top high school tennis team and practices about three days a week. Brandon, 14, is nationally ranked and trains at the USTA’s training facility in Carson, Calif. Sean, 11, is a baseball All-Star and plays basketball and tennis, but doesn’t compete in tournaments.
One thing I realized early on with my kids: They’re not off-the-charts driven about tennis like I was. Even from a young age, I treated tennis like a career; I couldn’t play any other way. My children each approach the sport in a different way—different from each other, and different from me. I have learned, though, that they all need the same thing from me. They need me to be a mom, not a tennis mom.
There’s a big difference, but sometimes it’s hard to understand that difference and do the best thing for your child’s long-term health and happiness. That’s what this new column is about. In each issue of Tennis this year, I’ll share my thoughts, strategies and mistakes from years of tennis and years of tennis parenting. We’ll talk about how to deal with losing, cheating, success, failure, the cost of tournaments and travel, and much more.
I wanted to kick off this column by making a larger point: You don’t have to be harsh or brutal for your child to succeed at tennis or in life. Tennis parents have a very poor reputation in youth sports, and it’s easy to understand why. Some of the sport’s most famous players have had parents who were at best overbearing, and, at worst, so cruel and threatening that they had to be banned from tournaments. When I go to tournaments these days, I see some parents who seem to think that this type of parenting is the only way to make a champion.
In truth, stern parenting isn’t a recipe for success in tennis. Look at Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two all-time great champions who are two of the nicest men ever to play the game, and from two of the nicest families. Look at Chris Evert or Lindsay Davenport. None of those players has horror stories about borderline abusive tennis parents.
The goal of tennis parents shouldn’t be to make great tennis players. The goal should be to make great people who play tennis well. Now that I’m a tennis parent, I look back and marvel at my own mother, who was always encouraging and supportive, and at ease about my results. She was very calm and logical and just let me play. When it came to tennis, I never felt like I had to please her, I was playing for myself. My father had a similar view. He was a scientist who looked at tennis as a game, nothing more.
As a parent, your children have to come first, not their tennis. Kids want to win and parents want to see their children win. But winning in the short term doesn’t mean anything if your child is unhappy with tennis. Tennis is a tough game both physically and mentally—you’re all alone on the court. What’s more, only a tiny percentage of players turn professional, and then only a fraction of those are able to earn a living. The sport has enough inherent stress and pressure that kids don’t need any more from their parents.
Whenever issues arise with my kids in tennis, I always ask myself, what is best for them and our relationship? What is our relationship going to be like in 20 years? Children need support, not judgments. You want your children to look back fondly at their tennis-playing childhood and continue to play for the rest of their lives.
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