A lot of parents want to know what it will take for their children to succeed in tennis. The answer is simple: It’ll take everything they have. Only a few people are lucky enough to make a career out of tennis because so much has to go right to get there, and much of it is out of your control as a parent.
Psychologically, there are numerous approaches you can use that will promote resilience and capacity to perform when it counts, whilst still having a loving relationship with your child. This blog will detail some of the most important approaches that develop these core skills.
Competition is stressful. This is the reality of anything where we place importance to succeed with an outcome.
Children can become insecure, that they are not performing as well as they ‘should’. Theme’s start to emerge about ‘disappointing’ themselves, parents and/or coaches. The child may develop are range of stories including unrelenting standards on the court, to move away from experiencing the ‘disappointment’ stories – which may seem helpful but can often get in the way of performance.
As a parent you are one of the biggest ‘agents of change’. And as that agent of change, there is one thing that’s in your control and that’s your relationship with your children.
1) Empathy and Understanding of What is Driving Your Child’s Response to The Stressful Environment.
In our day to day work with parents of aspiring athletes, a lot of parents try to control the internal experiences of their children. It makes sense, because we don’t want our children to be in distress. We use methods such as telling them to relax, or not to worry. This can inadvertently create more stress and perpetuate the need to control the emotion.
What this typically means is that the athlete will lose focus in stressful situations on the court, because they have been taught that it is inappropriate to feel that particular sensation or have that particular thought. If the experience of competition tennis is that you will naturally feel stress of some level, its helpful to empathise (not sympathise and remove the discomfort) with your child.
Once you legitimately understand what is driving your child’s response (eg: “I don’t want to play today”, “I’m anxious”) you can start true behavioural change and enhance consistent performance.
2) Normalising Their Experience.
We are all swimming in the same stuff! With you child, talk about your own experiences when you are anxious – your child sees you as a god! Yes, someone who is competent and has still experienced the same feelings. The more we make certain feelings appropriate to experience as children, the less children see them as a problem to have, and the more they move away from mood-governed behaviour that perpetuates poor performance.
Reflect on how you appear and sound from your child’s point of view, when they are stressed. How might you modify how you carry yourself in your body and in space, how you speak, and what you say? How do you want to relate to your child in this moment?
If your child is frustrated, sad, or anxious – check in why, get more of an understanding. Rather than problem solving what the problem is, we know what reduces stress (and ability to re focus on what is most important) is when we feel understood by someone important.
Think about your own experiences with this- we often simply want to be heard firstly, then we will happily have our problems solved.
Be aware of your expectations of your children and consider whether they are truly in your child’s best interest. Also, be aware of how you communicate those expectations and how they affect your children. You may be implicitly reinforcing their stress and inability to perform when it counts.
3) Deferring Expertise to the Expert (Be the parent, not the coach).
Naturally, you have a vested interest in the ‘happiness’ of your child. You want them to do well. Often our responses to our children when they are not playing as well as they could be, is a reflection on us as parents feeling stress. For example you may engage in behaviour and communication that reduces your stress at your child’s stress, yet only serves to reinforce your child’s stress and anxiety long-term.
No one likes to make a mistake. If your child does make one, it is helpful to remember that they are still learning. Encourage their efforts and point out the things they did well. As long as they gave their best effort, its helpful to make them feel like a winner and that your love and respect is unconditional.
Nick Bollettieri, who coached grand slam champions, including Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova, says the perfect parent is one who stays on the sidelines. “An ideal tennis parent would be one that finds a coach that they believe in and leaves it to them. Be a mother and father.”
4) Help them Focus when it Truly Counts.
Overall, the three previous points lead into this final point.
It’s not about losing focus, its about being aware of when you have so you can refocus on what is most important. Essentially, this is behaviours. When we get caught up in emotions and thoughts about certain situations at crucial times – as a parent you can help shift your child’s attention in a compassionate way – back to what is most important at the most crucial times. Besides, if you have set up the scaffolding whereby your child is more willing to experience the range of normal human emotions – it is easier for them to control the most important thing – their behaviours, irrespective of what is showing up for them on the court.
Dane Barclay & Daniel Dymond