Recently, Long Island Tennis Magazine asked me and several of my fellow teaching professionals a few philosophy-based question that touched on subjects like: What's wrong with American tennis? Why doesn't the U.S. dominate the world rankings? Will home schooling help me improve my game? Will high school tennis hurt my improvement? While these conversations are important and interesting, many of the answers I read singularly focused on performance issues and neglected to address what might be best for personal development. Perhaps the following questions should also be considered like: How much should performance alone matter? Should players sacrifice family, education, health or safety to achieve tennis improvement?
Maybe it's time we reevaluated our priorities and broadened our perspective to consider the personal growth and development of children above all else, even above improving their second serve. Let's shift the accountability paradigm to reflect the betterment of young tennis players thru participation in tennis.
When providing advice to players who look for guidance and support, parents, most coaches and some organizations, truly have their best interests at heart. Unfortunately, this leadership is shortsighted and ultimately counterproductive if it answers, "How do I improve in tennis," without concurrently considering and addressing the full intra-personal investment of improvement.
Tennis is a wonderful sport, and the pursuit of tournament tennis excellence is an invaluable learning and growth opportunity for players who choose this path. Tournament tennis training promotes important physical qualities like health, fitness and well-being. It demands and encourages personal attributes like focus, attentiveness, organization, courage, persistence and deferred gratification. It helps young children become mature, wise decision-makers and problem solvers, and the great news is that there is no direct positive relationship between rankings success and the quality of the experience.
As Arthur Ashe explained, "Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome." Sure, the experience of the player ranked 100th in the East will be somewhat different than the experience of the player ranked number one in the nation, but it need not be inferior if the goal is to integrate a tennis education and athletic identity as part of an overall healthy education and positive self-esteem. The sport can be about enhancing physical, intellectual and interpersonal development as a means towards achieving self-actualization and growth.
Over 30 years ago, Arthur Ashe had this powerful observation on culture:
“I strongly believe the Black culture spends too much time, energy and effort raising, praising and teasing our Black children about the dubious glories of professional sports."
Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Ashe, Black educational culture has strived in a positive direction, but I worry that if we substitute the word "tennis" for "Black," then this statement reflects a troubling trend and resonates disturbingly and needlessly close to home for too many young tennis players.
The dangers of a narrow path of tournament tennis achievement are similar and consistent with the risks of any myopic focus for children. A singular educational focus encourages insolated, entitled and pampered children who may grow up to become disillusioned adults. I call it “Crushed Star Syndrome” and it's too common amongst former tennis standouts. We all want to shine and to be the center of adoration and attention. Unfortunately, when you step out of the insular protective bubble of the tennis environment, the world is indifferent that you were once a star tennis player at your club, school, section or nation. Blue chip tennis recruiting status and a token will get you a subway ride and nothing more at the age of 22. A huge forehand is only a relevant job skill for a very limited number of tennis employment opportunities.
Parents, coaches and organizations who lavish tennis entitlements to young players borne out of tennis talent and ability alone become facilitators and must take enormous responsibility to provide perspective. When freedoms are granted to young players without the checks and balances of responsibilities also demanded of them, it is a source of great concern.
"Panem et cirenses," which translates to "give them bread and circuses," was the early Roman formula for creating a docile population.
Educationally, are we feeding our children empty calories and teaching them that their highest aspiration and achievement is to perform for our pride and entertainment? Are we encouraging that tennis is their education and not just a vital and synergistic part of it? Are we reinforcing dysfunction by neglecting to remind children of humility; that being a better young tennis player does not make you a more entitled person. Do we intensify this by failing to demand the responsibility of recognizing that, as an elite player, if you have more, then you have more to give? Tennis achievement is not a singular goal, rather it provides the structure and context for a life of achievement, health, fitness and personal development and growth.
Steven Kaplan is the owner and managing director of Bethpage Park Tennis Center, as well as director emeritus of Lacoste Academy for New York City Parks Foundation and executive director and founder of Serve & Return Inc. Steve has coached more than 1,100 nationally-ranked junior players, 16 New York State high school champions, two NCAA Division 1 Singles Champions, and numerous highly-ranked touring professionals. Many of the students Steve has closely mentored have gone to achieve great success as prominent members of the New York financial community, and in other prestigious professions. In 2017, Steve was awarded the Hy Zausner Lifetime Achievement Award by the USTA. He may be reached by e-mail at StevenJKaplan@aol.com.