Any coach who teaches mostly junior players has had to deal with the parents of their students. It is a delicate job that requires a lot of psychology. As a parent myself, I know that when it comes to our kids, we all get a bit emotional and our judgment is sometimes clouded. When I talk to the parents of my students, I try to remember that fact and I am very cautious.
However, as a professional, I have an obligation to tell the parents what they need to hear, whether they like it or not. This can cause friction at times. Some diplomacy is needed, but I have learned that, as a coach, it is best to draw some red lines and keep a few principles in order. It may have cost me a few students over the years, but in the long run, it actually got me many more. I find that both parents and kids will respect a pro who stands up for his/her philosophy of coaching.
I have seen many pros being dictated to by the parents which is understandable because the parent is the employer of the pro and the pro wants to keep his or her job. But on the other hand, the parent is paying us as tennis pros to give them an honest opinion about their kid's game and that can sometimes entail telling the parent to step back.
As a teaching pro, I try to set ground rules when it comes to my relationships with parents. It is part of my job to educate the parents on how to be a good, positive and supportive tennis parent. Many (if not most) of the parents don't have the background and are unsure about how to handle a young kid who suddenly gets the "tennis bug" and starts dragging them to USTA tournaments. Here are some of the rules I try to establish. Many don't always listen to me, but I am consistent about these rules, and in time, most of them do come around and improve because there are many common mistakes that can be avoided when raising a young child in a competitive sport.
1. The parent cannot talk to the child during lessons
This is an iron clad rule. In fact, ideally, the parent should not be on the court and should not attend most lessons. It is better to let the coach do the job and show up sporadically to show some support and check out on the development of the student. It is totally acceptable for the parent to get a report from the pro about the child's development, but the parents have to understand their role in this equation—they provide parental guidance and the pro teaches tennis.
2. Never talk about rankings
I have had parents call me and say, “My goal is to get my child into the top 10 by the end of the year.” That is the wrong approach entirely, because rankings can be misleading. I have nothing against a high ranking, as we all want to be number one, but it is best not to talk about it because it can put unnecessary pressure on the child. The right terms that I like to use and recommend the parents to use have to do more with specific things that are within the child's control. For example, let's improve the student’s practice habits or other areas that they need work on, such as footwork, strategy, technique, on-court demeanor, mental strength in the game, etc. This way, when we check ourselves every few months, we can assess the improvement in these different areas and compare the student's current performance to past performances. The last thing to worry about is where they stand in the rankings. The mentality should be that if we work hard on all of those things, their spot in the rankings will take care of itself and good results will come.
3. Talk to the child as little as possible about tennis
This is something that I'm sure most parents don't listen to me about, but I still preach it. My reasoning is this: A tournament player usually plays three to five times a week, multiple hours a day, including private lessons under the supervision of a coach or multiple coaches who are usually pretty vocal and dominant. The last thing the student needs is to hear more stuff about tennis on the car ride home after practice or a match. That is the coach's job! Also, as we all know as parents, after a certain age, kids will stop listening anyway. Most parents cannot resist and have to tell the kid something about the match, it is usually counterproductive. My advice to parents is to leave the kids alone and let them figure out things on their own. This way, they can develop their style through learning from their own mistakes and working with their coaches. I recommend asking kids questions, rather than barking at them and criticizing them. Oftentimes, the child will shut down if the parents are too deep into their affairs. If the parent takes a back seat, the student will often come around and ask the parent about their opinion, but it has to come from the child. In any case, unless the parent was at least a Division I college player, his or her answer should be, “Just try to listen to your coach and do what he says.” The only time I would recommend the parents to step in is if the player behaves in an unsportsmanlike manner, then the parent can and should be the educator. But when it comes to tennis, it usually hurts the child to receive any kind of tennis instruction. Most parents don't like to hear this, but a good 12- or 13-year-old player knows way more about the game than an average parent who has not competed at a high level.
4. Do not exhibit or display any physical gestures or emotion during matches
I often see parents during matches and it’s a tragic/comic situation. The parent will live the match as if they are actually playing it. If the parent thinks that their behavior during matches doesn't impact the child, they are living in denial. Kids are very sharp and they pick up on any facial expressions or gestures. We all know that what the child wants most of all is to please his/her parents, and when they see that winning or losing a point has an emotional effect on their parents, it sends the wrong message. The right message should be, “This your sport, you love it and I am here to support you. I want you to win, of course, but it doesn't really change anything. I will still love you just the same ... win or lose.”
I strongly recommend that parents sit stoically during matches and not change the expression on their face. Do not get overzealous when the child is winning and not get upset if they are having a bad match. After the match, the parent should ask questions like, “What do you want for dinner?” Needless to say, this one is a tough one for the parents to implement. We all need to remember that this is a sport and we are creating childhood memories for these kids. The goal is that, when they are older, they can look at the junior years as some of the best years of their life. We need to find the fun and sanity in all of this, and I believe that if we help create healthy tennis players, they will enjoy the game for life.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.