A child’s experience in tennis is developed around relationships with a number of adults, which includes a coach, parent(s), and in some cases a sport psychologist. With these relationships in force, facilitative and positive communication, co-ordination and maintenance of these adult relationships are an important consideration for the athlete’s experience.
In this article particular attention is given to the youth tennis player-parent dynamic, to help parents make tennis a positive experience for their child. Interaction of the athlete and parent(s) with each other, and their interaction with the environment are considered, while also suggesting appropriate boundaries and the role of the parent, throughout a youth tennis player’s career.
The parent-child dynamic While families provide the social environment for a child to develop self-esteem, an identity and motivation for success, they can also prove to have negative effects on a child’s tennis experience. Rigid rules and unrealistic expectations can impact an athlete’s performance.
Parents often fulfil three roles in youth sport: interpreter, role model and provider (Fredricks & Eccles, 2004). They are able to give feedback, model good sportsmanship and appropriate tennis etiquette, and provide opportunities for play, transport, equipment and lessons. However there is plenty of research evidence to suggest that parents can impede their child’s development in tennis, are the source of negative experiences such as being the cause of stress, anxiety, and youth burnout and dropout. Clearly parents can influence the child’s tennis experience through their actions and opportunities for feedback.
Making the experience positive for youths is key to their development, success and enjoyment. It is often challenging to know what feedback to give and what may facilitate their development in tennis. Parents are critical to the development of a child as a person and a tennis player. What follows are some considerations to help parents in their role and help youth tennis players enjoy their sport, whilst in pursuit of their goals.
Avoid child comparison. Comparisons against others can lead a child to develop feelings of inadequacies that lead to low self esteem and anxiety. All children develop differently and progress in different time scales. Focus on your own child’s progression and development in tennis.
Develop shared goals. It is important that you discuss with your child his/her ambitions and desires. It may be that in your mind you hope for your child to become the next Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova. Your child however, may have other ideas and might simply be participating for enjoyment and making friends. Once you have shared goals and realistic expectations, take steps towards those goals together. Check in with your child on his/her goals and consider developmental changes and desires and adjust accordingly. Your child may have started out wanting to simply play for enjoyment, but after some development decides that he/she wants to go forward in competition and performance programs. Your child’s self-directed goals are likely to elicit more enjoyment and success in tennis.
Focus on development. Keep it in perspective. An obsession about your child winning, or playing on the team or getting into a tournament can soon lead to fear of disappointment, and result in low self esteem for your child when things don’t go his/her way. Rather, by recognising the rich experiences your child is gaining from the experience and by identifying opportunities in his/her tennis, your child will more likely be engaged and enjoy the sport.
Placing expectations on your child and emphasizing whether you feel he/she should win, will only make your child nervous and place excessive emphasis on the outcome. After a match, rather than asking ‘did you win’ or ‘how did you do?’ focus on what went well for your child by saying something like ‘ what worked well out there today?’ Remember too to comment on effort and attitude. Use this opportunity to discuss what your child can work on the next time, if things that didn’t work so well are highlighted.
Tennis commitment does involve a financial commitment for parents of children wanting to compete. However, be mindful of expressing this financial commitment to your child and placing importance on working hard and doing well because of this.
A child’s development and experience in tennis will be more positive the less the emphasis placed on winning is. Allow your child opportunities to play with less skilled players, be challenged by entering tournaments where competitors may be stronger, and allow for your child to have fun with the sport. Making tennis too serious, may affect the spirit of your child.
It’s your child’s experience, not yours. Remember to always keep in mind that what you observe and perceive to be your child’s experiences while they are playing, may not be his/her experience. Tune into how your child felt the experience was for him/her. If you have a history of playing tennis, be careful not to assume your child’s tennis experience is the same as what yours may have been in a similar situation.
If you’re new to tennis as a parent, develop an understanding of the game, which includes the psychological and physical challenges, and the technical and tactical complexities. This will help you to support your child when an experience is shared with you. However, remember that your child’s coach will be key in their technical and tactical development, and in many cases their psycho-social development. So, be aware of giving technical and tactical advice and too many tips before a match, and certainly refrain from coaching your child during a match; youths have described this as confusing and find little comfort from it unless directed from a parent who is knowledgeable of the game from playing at a high level or who is themselves a coach (Knight, Boden & Holt, 2010).
Develop a democratic relationship with your child’s coach. The coach will be a good resource and has the knowledge that will be influential in your child’s tennis development. Be careful not to instruct the coach on what you think he/she should be teaching your child, but rather explore with the coach his/her thoughts on your child’s development. Through the coach you will gain an understanding of your child’s achievable goals, how your child is progressing in practice, and what tournaments may be good to enter. If you develop a good relationship with the coach, it will allow you a better understanding of your child’s journey and in addition, your child will recognize a united approach to his/her interest in tennis.
Clearly, communication with the coach is important, but given a coaches demands, discuss the best time and methods of communication. Trying to discuss your child during a practice may not allow for the coaches full attention, nor allow for effective communication. The coach may prefer to set aside time after practice or it may be more useful to email the coach.
Practical advice for preparation and recovery. Youth tennis players interviewed preferred that their parents helped them with practical advice rather than technical advice (Knight, Boden & Holt, 2010). For example, giving nutrition advice before a match, or your child may call upon you to help in the cool down and recovery process after a strenuous match. However, don’t become the overbearing parent who continues to fuss and keeps repeating the practical advice; your child will either distance oneself, or shut down altogether. Tune into your child’s needs and develop awareness by asking how he/she might like to be supported.
Your presence and behaviour. Based on interviews and research conducted amongst youth tennis players, tennis etiquette appeared to be of great concern to them (Knight, Boden & Holt, 2010). Players felt that parents who were disrespectful were more concerned with outcomes, and the junior players perceived this as pressure. Tennis etiquette refers to choosing appropriate moments to cheer your child (children often feel uncomfortable about parents cheering when the opposition is losing badly), refraining from side-line coaching during a tournament match, or refraining from deliberately trying to put off your child’s opponent. Support good effort and play from both your child and the opponent. Be aware of your tone and non-verbal cues that can influence your child’s perceptions. For example shaking your head in disappointment can be discouraging and affect your child’s confidence, just as a flat face if he/she is struggling. ‘Parents should work to ensure they appear relaxed yet interested and their verbalisations are consistent with their non verbal behaviours’ (Knight, Boden & Holt, 2010). Stay calm, control your emotions and be a supportive presence.
Positive parental behaviours are also ones that teach your child good sportsmanship and good moral behaviour. Effective handling of your child misbehaving on court, helps in their positive experience and development.
How to address the needs of your child during a competition or tournament? Tennis is a psychologically demanding game, and children not only need the skills to cope with the mental demands, but will require a flexible parenting approach. Their needs will not only be person dependent, but also sport dependent. Remember too that what works for one child, may not be appropriate for another.
Address with your child his/her needs prior to a tournament. Is your child one that needs help getting fired up to play, or is your child one who prefers calm and tranquillity in order to perform at his/her best. It may be that your child likes listening to music through their earphones to help with preparation for performance (research does support the use of music for raising arousal levels; see Music and Performance).
Also use the opportunity to also discuss whether your child prefers you at the courtside or quietly watching in the distance with interest. It may be that your child welcomes the cheer or alternatively may want you silent. The trick is to let the young players have that independence and develop that sense of responsibility, by being able to share what they need from you.
And lastly, as discussed earlier, feedback is critical to your child’s development. However, rather than commenting on the outcome, make it about his/her effort and attitude. Keep in mind that your child’s approachability will depend on his/her match performance, personality and game outcome. Give your child the time to process and reflect on their own performance before charging in. Lastly, you may think you know your child well, but remember to have frequent discussions with your child to ascertain if there are changes in preferences. As he/she develops, your child’s needs will likely change too.
Follow your child on his/her journey with positive influence. Think about your child’s long term career without rushing the process and looking for instant results. Reinforce ideas of hard work and effort, engage your own emotional intelligence strategies, and make it about the process and enjoyment, rather than focusing heavily on outcomes.
Fredricks, J.A., & Eccles, J.S. (2004). Parental influences on youth involvement in sports. In M.R. Weiss (Ed.), Developmental sport and exercise psychology: A lifespan perspective, 145–164. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
Gould D. & Lauer L. (2008). The role of parents in tennis success: focus group interviews with junior coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 18-37.
Knight C.J, Bodena, C, M. & Holt, N.H (2010). Junior tennis players’ preferences for parental behaviors. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology (22), 4, 377-391.