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Monday, 8 March 2010

Playing & Living in Fear

Are we witnessing a generation of players learning & playing the game in fear?

Question – fear of what?
Answer – a fear of failure directly related to the expectations of parents
End Result – fear of parents

Magnitude of the problem? – has reached plague proportions.
A visit to any junior tournament or junior team competition will provide indisputable evidence of nervous players’ first reaction to a mistake being a furtive look over one’s shoulder in the blind hope that a necessity to visit the bathroom or get a drink etc might take away the eagle eye – the eye of judgment.

Here we have a generation of parental tennis experts - adults who in many cases are successful, well adjusted, solid citizens in every walk of life, that is, except for their involvement in their children’s tennis development.

Hundreds of times over the years I have attempted to convince players & “less over interested parents” that as victims of ugly parental behaviour they should not give tennis away in favour of other sports as this behaviour is not isolated to tennis.

Many parents, friends etc with a history of involvement in other sports are adamant that the “parental problem” in tennis is not only rife, but considerably more “colourful & vicious” than in other sports. If this is true then tennis administrators need to take a strong stand – 20 years ago I tried to sell the idea of trialing tournaments that were off limits to parents. Somehow it does not seem to matter what time of the day or night, jobs & personal life etc take a back seat as “calm, relaxed, impartial adults use a bit of flexi time to come out & casually watch their kids have a bit of a friendly hit”.

What a bad joke this is! I recall the newly appointed State Coach of Tennis SA fifteen years ago making the observation that after monitoring a couple of tournaments he felt he had inadvertently been placed in a war zone rather than what was supposed to be part of a development process for young tennis players.

Fifteen years later has anything changed? I think not!

Let’s look very carefully at the behavioural evidence:

  • Young players obviously anxious about the parental presence during matches
  • Parents becoming involved in matches – coaching etc
  • Parents becoming involved in matches – arguing with the parents (or other supportive spectators) of their child’s opponent
  • Parents becoming involved in matches – openly criticizing & demeaning their own child
  • Parental body language – can change within seconds – covers the full range of emotions: agitation, fidgeting, anxiety, pleasure, happiness, disgust – there are no boundaries
  • Parents openly attempting to manipulate results – intimidating their child’s opponent, calling lines, scoring etc

Some of the above behaviour is so blatant as to suggest a total lack of concern from the parent as to what is acceptable stable behaviour, what others might think of their behaviour etc while others are involved in more subtle methods such as offering to score/umpire because the “kiddies have trouble”.

Of even greater concern are the obvious examples of physical violence to one’s own child/children – the pushing, the poking, the dragging off to the car etc – one shudders to think of what happens in the car or on arrival home.

Can these suggestions be written off as one big dramatization (on my part) of the friendly, healthy rivalry that exists within the tennis community? No way! Make no mistake, this is a real live problem – one that is having a detrimental effect, not only on the lives of young tennis players but also on other members of the families involved. Siblings are neglected in many cases as one child may show more “promise” – often younger children are neglected as the first child is bigger & is therefore perceived to be a better player.

In many cases the family structure is put at risk by the more unsavoury elements of the game – worst case scenario – a breakdown – one parent (usually the mother) seeking some escape from the paranoia of the other.

Question: What have we got here? What is it that drives some parents to such despicable behaviour? Is it a lack of achievement in their own lives that now motivates parents to demand the highest level of achievement from their own children? Are parents living their lives through those of their children? Are the worst case parents those that have achieved in their own lives, particularly in the field of sport? If so, have these parents usually achieved at a sport other than tennis? Do the “ugly parents” really believe that their pushing actually helps? Does it? Can learning be accelerated by fear of verbal or physical abuse?
Is the motivating factor money? That is, do parents rather naively see the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow”? Herein we often have the classic “Catch 22” – so much money is outlaid that when anticipated results are not forthcoming, then this is what is pushed down the throat of the player – “We’ve spent all this money on you, airfares, racquets, new shoes, accommodation etc etc - & look what you’ve done – lost first round again!!”

Is it possible that what tends to happen in these circumstances is short term success motivated by fear followed by the player “hitting the wall”? For example, the young player who improves very quickly by being forced to spend long hours on the court & playing matches at every opportunity who then “plateaus out” because they simply don’t have the natural athletic ability to keep improving or the psychological strength to deal with the pressures of the game (including parental).

What happens when the young player simply decides they don’t like the game anymore – are they forced to continue to play? – and if so, how long will it be before they stand up for their own rights & refuse or eventually reject the whole situation & leave home?

  • Administrative bodies need to take a tough stance – What does this mean?
  • Tennis administrators need to make a genuine professional attempt to address the problem with an appropriate degree of respect & understanding – ie an educative attempt
  • Is the existing code of behaviour for administrators, coaches, players, parents etc a superficial, token attempt? If so, then let’s get real – the game is suffering – big time!!!


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The Natural Tennis Player Theory

I often hear certain people referred to by others as being “natural tennis players”. It is as if anyone who plays well was just born to play tennis.

Associated with these concepts is the common belief that good players were born good or at least at some stage they automatically became good.

Firstly no one is a “natural tennis player”. Highly skilled players are invariably naturally talented athletes who if brought up in a different sporting environment would almost certainly enjoy a high level of success in that particular sport. Naturally talented athletes would logically have the potential to excel in a wide range of physical activities. I have a strong belief that if even the very best players eg Lleyton Hewitt were not introduced to tennis, then of course they would not even play the game let alone excel at it.

In Lleyton’s case I am sure he would be capable of achieving a high degree of success in a number of other sports eg football & golf.

With reference to the “natural tennis player” there is no such person – anyone who plays the game well has achieved that situation by endeavour – thousands of hours of hard work. The combination of natural athletic ability, opportunity & a passion for the game leads to success. Some people have similar theories related to certain sections of the game. For example, some players are described as “natural volleyers” – again a misconception – there is no such player, only those that don’t volley well & those that do (very few I might add) & all of these develop skills in the area by sheer hard work.


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False Desperation

My observation suggests that adults teach infants to behave on occasions in a dramatic & exaggerated manner. Behaviour is rather loud & extravagant as young children are encouraged to develop an ever increasing range of physical skills.

Initially, walking is a major conquest – but there is no shortage of assistance – numerous people willing to hold each hand in order to support weight that the infant is struggling with.

Every gain (or every attempt) is greeted with raucous applause – every child (maybe more so in really caring families) is led to believe that they are performing feats of enormous magnitude – running faster, jumping higher or throwing further than any other human being on the planet.

Tennis provides a whole new stage for performing – a whole new range of skills to dramatise. Result: young children generally playing on a full size court, logically having enormous difficulty covering the area become desperation machines – diving to short balls & wide balls, jumping in vain to anything & everything that flies over their head but in fact reaching very little.

Question: Is the effort genuine? ie Is it the best effort possible to reach that particular ball or is it often an example of “false desperation”? ie In the mind 100% effort but in reality an action that can’t possibly be successful.

Example: How many times do we see, not just young children but often quite skilled adults, lunge desperately (often associated with a very audible groan) only to be passed, when a couple of controlled steps would have created the opportunity to play a relatively easy shot.

My experience suggests that once the player is made aware of the above, they quickly realize the inefficiency of many of their actions & immediately set about making more genuine attempts.

The most obvious examples of this “F D Syndrome” tend to occur on anything that is hit out of reach – eg quite a friendly lob can be missed completely (smash) only to be followed up by an attempt to turn, run backwards & retrieve the ball with a back to front over the head hook shot. Surely if the lob was good enough to beat a genuine desperate attempt to smash then it could not be possible to recover from the attempt & then go & successfully retrieve the ball.

Short balls provide another excellent opportunity to exhibit “FDS” – dozens of times a day I see players battle unsuccessfully to “dig up” a half court ball when a simple skill test with a much shorter ball proves that the player is easily physically capable of chasing down the original ball.

I frequently find myself talking to players about how I trust them to “intend to put in 100%” to reach a challenging ball while at the same time challenging them with the concept that with a 100% planned & structured effort they may well have reached that particular shot comfortably.


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Accelerated Learning

In recent times a number of general beliefs appear to have evolved e.g. the earlier a player starts to learn the game, the better, and the younger a player achieves a successful professional standard, the better. These 2 beliefs imply a need for some form of accelerated learning.

This whole concept with regard to other areas of learning is very much open to debate, particularly when sensitive issues such as overtaxing the pre-adolescent body, psychological burnout, loss of “childhood” and education etc are taken into account. There is no shortage of evidence, particularly in the past 2 decades of child prodigies who reached “superstar’ status at very young ages only to see the wheels fall off for a whole myriad of reasons.
  • Some of the more widely documented examples are very tragic in their own right, suggesting that at least in many circumstances this whole area is a very tricky business. Of major concern is the apparent dramatic escalation in the number of cases where young children from 7 to 12 years of age are treated like miniature professionals.

  • The entourage connected with each player is often extensive and often without experience or qualification in the area.

Result: uneducated, emotive adult minds designing and structuring the learning experiences of young children – at worst there appears to be a total ignorance of the learning process, grossly unrealistic expectations, severe psychological pressure etc.
  • Not withstanding the above, my experience suggests that in almost every case it is possible to accelerate learning and development in a “healthy way.” i.e. improve the efficiency of the learning process – learn more and develop further in a shorter period of time.
Nice theory!
How can this be done?

Basically, I think it is all about young people playing a greater part in their own learning process – i.e. an ownership of the process that needs to occur for them to achieve excellence at anything. There is a need to develop a “feel” for the game, an almost intuitive or instinctive ability to see a direct connection between skill development sessions and the actual playing of the game. Let’s see a lot less mundane, routine, technical development for the sake of technical development and more of a genuine understanding of the strategy of the game.


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Everyone loves their Coach!

As a school teacher, experience suggests that at an infant/early primary level everyone loves their teacher – it is not uncommon to see open, wonderfully spontaneous examples of warmth & affection extended by young children towards the teacher, something that I might add, for probably understandable reasons is frowned upon by “authorities” if the teacher is to reciprocate.
At a secondary level, however, it becomes decidedly “not cool’ with a majority of students to cooperate with one’s teacher let alone like them!

A comparison with pupils on the tennis court proves an interesting exercise. Very young pupils tend to “idolise” the coach, constantly trying to impress, seek approval etc etc – the coach can do no wrong. Adolescents & young adults treat their coach quite differently to the school teacher. Although not as openly expressive as their younger counterparts, pupils from this group nevertheless generally hold their coach in the highest regard – often having to strongly defend their coach’s skills, reputation etc – the “my coach is better than yours” syndrome.

It seems logical that both groups are highly supportive of their coaches – after all, unlike the school situation, the pupil (or their parents) has made the choice of coach. Except in some squad type situations, selection of a coach (particularly in larger centres) is a free choice.

PROBLEM: Most young players & their parents are not sufficiently “tennis wise” to make an informed choice. We therefore have a situation where the player (and their entourage) are very friendly with & highly supportive of a coach with sometimes very limited teaching ability.

Assuming that tennis is a very difficult game to learn to play at a high level, then we have a dilemma – “an uneducated tennis community” desperate to be successful is frequently placing its formative development in the hands of coaches who are sometimes not capable of doing the job in a professional manner.

This lack of capability is often a matter of personal ignorance of one’s own coaching ability while in other circumstances, unscrupulous “coaches” are well aware of the superficiality of their “teaching”.

Either way, the result, or lack of, is a dilemma that recognised late or not at all will ultimately lead to lack of development & consequently “under performance” as related to “potential”.


Related articles from Peter Smith

  • Watch and learn from the Greats of the Modern Game
  • Accelerated Learning
  • The Natural Tennis Player Theory
  • False Desperation
  • Playing & Living in Fear
  • Potential downside of having successful role models

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    Potential downside of having successful role models

    Particularly in a relatively small tennis community like Adelaide, it is easy to have contact with local stars like Lleyton Hewitt & Alicia Molik – they can be seen practicing or working out at Next Generation or in Lleyton’s case playing the Australian Mens Hardcourt.

    The emergence of players like Lleyton & Alicia tends to lead to a belief with certain people that similar success is therefore very achievable. It proves that it can be done.

    “See what Lleyton has achieved!”
    “I remember when he was playing here as a junior, he wasn’t that special.”
    “If he can do it so can you!”

    • The problem with this belief is that Lleyton & Alicia are special – they are the highest ranked players in the history of SA – the possibility of other players becoming as good is quite remote – we are literally talking 1 in millions!

    • The whole concept of believing that if you want something badly enough you can have it, is fundamentally flawed! One can think of an endless number of situations where this is simply not true.

      An example I often use is the challenge of being able to jump high enough to clear the backstop at the end of the tennis court – in theory possible but in practice clearly not possible – it would require the existing world high jump record to be broken by a metre or two – there will always be limitations to what someone can achieve regardless of “how badly they might want it”.

    • As coaches then please let’s get away from this line – by all means encourage pupils to strive to improve, to be inspired & motivated by the great players & therefore ultimately to become as good a player as they can be. However, at the same time let’s keep the whole thing in perspective – the best they can be will probably fall way short of what they see on TV & maybe even shorter than what their parents expect having watched TV.


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