Playing & Living 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?
SOLUTION(S) TO THE PROBLEM:
- 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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