Tennis Parenting: The Good and the Bad

Tennis is, ultimately, supposed to be fun, which winning is and losing isn't.

That was my rationale for squirming in my seat that day, when I should have been enjoying the sunshine and the hard-earned skills of my son, regardless of the score.

I was not anxious for myself, certainly, but for Charlie. And regardless of why, I was still deeply emotionally involved--and frustrated--because I was powerless to influence the outcome, yet forced to suffer with each lost point.

And this is the crucial juncture--the issue that separates the good tennis parent from the bad. It was clear that the cause of my suffering was Charlie! He was making mistakes!

I realized, of course, that Charlie couldn't help it. He was doing the best he could. But that understanding did little to reduce my stress or make his errors less painful. And striking back is our natural response towards a person who causes us pain, even if that person happens to be our own kid.

The bad tennis parents, though they will not even admit it to themselves, will have some small (or maybe even large) urge to take their frustrations out on their kids. After all, the kid just put them through an afternoon of torture and then lost the match to boot.

The bad parents will often seek vengeance in the guise of educating and helping their children. "What were you thinking of when the tenth lob in a row went over your head?" Or, "Why didn't you wake up and play your opponent's backhand?" Nasty stuff.

I've seen this a thousand times--frustrated, angry parents unloading on their kids under the pretext of analyzing the match. Chastised and miserable, the kids will hang their heads and feel like they have the criticism coming. It's a pity, for, inevitably, some of their love for the game will be sucked right out of them.

It's okay to be a frustrated, anxious tennis parent, as long as you remain a good one. With self-control, the two can co-exist. On that particular day in Santa Barbara, Charlie ultimately lost his match. It happened quickly. Near the end he made a few mistakes, his opponent hit a few great shots, and it was over.

Fortunately, the end of the match heralded my return to rationality. I reminded myself that my excellent relationship with Charlie and the positive role I intended to continue playing in his development would be a thousand times more important than any constructive criticism I could offer.

I wanted him to continue enjoying his tennis, and when he walked off the court, win or lose, I wanted him to look forward to seeing me. Furthermore, I knew he felt bad enough about losing without me piling on. He did all he could. (And, I reminded myself, he certainly held his head together a lot better than I did at his age).

I firmly resolved to keep my match analysis to myself until he asked me.

So after the match I just gave Charlie a hug and told him, "Tough luck, kiddo. Great effort! I love you to pieces." Then Nancy and I took him out for an excellent steak dinner.

To this day Charlie, who is now a sophomore at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo University, loves his tennis and plays daily.

In fact, we are going out to hit a few balls together this afternoon.

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