Hello … My name is Mark McMahon and I’m a Master of Psychology (Sport and Exercise) Candidate at the University of Queensland. During the last 6 months, I have had the opportunity to work with LifeTime tennis. Having attended tournaments where I’ve been able to talk to parents, it became evident that there was a need to recognise the unique stressors that parents face; and also to work with parents in helping them with their own journey as a parent whose child is involved in sport at an elite level.
It can be the case that parents can become known by coaches (and other parents and athletes) to display negative body language and to voice extensive criticism. At times, parents become bullies targeting their own children, players on opposing teams, referees and coaches.
I think the clip is great – when you hear the concerns from the kids themselves it adds weight to the point they are trying to get across! Just to expand on the short video clip – I came across an article on a website written by a coach who had witnessed a conversation between a young tennis player and her parent. The young athlete made several points, obviously believing that her parent needed to see things from her perspective…
* Do you realize that tennis is one of the most unfair sports that there is? I mean we come to a tournament and there is only one winner out of 32 people. My chance of winning is 1 in 32!
* The will to win does not come from you, even if you want me to win. I think the will to win can only come from me and my desire to do well. And none of your yelling or anyone’s can bring that out!
* It is my desire to have fun, but you guys add pressure to win and remove the fun. What is up with that? It’s the weekend!
* I am a kid, not an adult, and I will make hundreds of silly mistakes. Why do I have to hear about them from you after I did what I am supposed to, make mistakes. The score tells me I made them.
* After I win or lose, can we just not talk about it, I just wanted to play.
* Please understand the score in tennis. It is the one of the only sports in which you can be winning the majority of the points in a match and still lose it.
* I love you, but please this is just a game… it is a way to have fun.
The conversation finished when the young athlete proposed a rule – “if I win I pick where we eat. If I lose you do. That is all I want, and spend the weekend with you.”
So why do some parents seem to take an overly harsh approach? What are the reasons? The research would suggest that there are certainly expectations around results. Some parents will view their perceived investment being worthwhile if it is recorded as wins rather than losses. However, becoming an elite tennis player is a process, and if the process and related commitments are not well understood, then parents will undoubtedly be challenged. The
challenge is similar to the challenges faced by a developing player who may not taste the fruits of success for a period of time.
But let’s now look at some of the unique challenges (stressors) that parents face…
Like coaches and players, parents are a key stakeholder in the player development process. Parents face a diversity of stressors as the parent of a young elite tennis athlete. These can be broken down into financial stressors (i.e., coaching fess, transport, equipment and clothing), competition stressors (i.e., planning and preparation, child’s behaviour/ emotional control, other parents’ interference/ gossip) time stressors (i.e., limited personal, partner and family time; work conflicts and commitments) organisation-related stressors (perceived favouritism in selection/ opportunities) , coach related stressors (perceived lack of support; lack of interest in parents; lack of strategic advice), sibling stressors (unequal time, money and attention; sibling resentment/ jealousy; living a split family life) and developmental stressors (current educational conflicts; limited opportunity for multiple sports; future decisions about education).
So… is it any wonder that emotions sometimes seem to get out of control?
Not only this… but there is also the pressure of being a parent on competition day. This involves the fear of failure, loss of direct control, fluctuation of pleasure and distress that appears to change depending on the score board and error rates. The parent is often in a stressed and distressed state, the limbic system highly activated and the hormonal systems producing cortisol. A parent may feel sick in the stomach and a have sense of dread as well as excitement. Unlike their kids who get to run around and burn off cortisol, parents have to sit in that ‘soup’ for a couple of hours and they are unable to ‘directly influence’ performance!
It is true that some parents are concerned that they may place undue pressure on their children to succeed or continue in their sports. Conversely, sometimes a parent’s vision is myopic and they lose sight of the bigger picture as it applies to their children as whole people. Sometimes parents build their expectations too high and seem to lose perspective. They invest time, money, energy, and sometimes subconsciously their own self-worth into their children’s futures. They seem to forget the big picture and the importance of their children and their happiness. What may have started as positive support turns into pressure.
Well – this seems all very confusing … So let’s go back to the beginning and ask the question: Why do the kids play tennis? Why is my child playing?
Self-determination theory would pose that children or adolescents undertake activities in order to meet the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. It can be said that in other words – they wish to improve in the way they perform the activity, have fun and make friends. You can notice that these points are relate to intrinsic motivation (fun, friends), rather than extrinsic motivation (rewards, prestige), and this was really evident in the short video clip we watched earlier...
Some parents may wonder why they should support their child’s interest in the game – after all – can’t the need for friendship and fun be fulfilled through alternatives avenues? Other parents, who are deeply immersed may have forgotten what brought them to their level of involvement… so let’s consider that tennis serves the following purposes:
- It builds confidence and self-esteem.
- It teaches the child how to be a competitor and how to uphold standards of good sportsmanship and respect for opponents.
- It teaches self-discipline and self-reliance.
- It teaches goal setting, and that hard work will lead to achievement.
- It is a lifetime sport, good physical exercise, and fun.
- It teaches stress management.
- It teaches development of a positive attitude in spite of great difficulty and adversity.
- It stresses problem solving under pressure. In fact, playing tennis can be perceived as a continuous presentation of problems.
- It teaches independence through travel and through relationships with a wide variety of people.
- It potentially provides a route to a scholarship.
- It teaches emotional and physical balance. Tennis fits requirements for aerobic fitness, and because of its integral nature, it teaches youngsters how to relax and how to recover under pressure.
Role of parents
In the past it was sometimes thought that much of the stress affecting the games of junior players was influenced by and intertwined with their parents. Coaches often took the anecdotal evidence as meaning the parents were the players’ problem, and that a solution was to push the parents out of the way. However, it is now widely recognised that ultimately, the goals of the parents are the same as that of the coach. They want their son or daughter to find fulfilment and happiness. It takes emotional control to be the parent of an athlete; and it takes exceptional emotional control to be the parent of an elite athlete. Parents have to agree to be supportive and to use the tennis experience as a developmental tool for their youngster. As the primary support system the parent must agree not to become overinvolved emotionally because of either the time or the financial commitment, and to mitigate both the on-court and off-court pressure the child feels by providing unconditional love and specific and strict guidelines on appropriate behaviour. (Research indicates that cheating is inevitably the parents’ problem, the result of an obsessive need to win that has been fostered and encouraged at home. In an extreme example, Christophe Fauviau was found guilty of manslaughter in 2006 for drugging his son’s tennis opponent’s drink!)
The role of parents in children’s sport experiences is important, because children usually view their parents as their most significant adults. One goal for psychologists is to work with parents so that they try to base the success of their children’s sport experiences on their children’s happiness and not their children’s performance successes or failures. Parents should be involved in their child’s psychological skills training and realistic goal setting, should be encouraged to understand that fun and family should be emphasised in the approach to tennis, and be able to establish family communication patterns that facilitate enjoyment and mastery experiences (e.g., the first comment after competition is always about enjoyment of competition and not who won or lost)
Some suggested roles for a parent (Loehr & Kahn, 1989) are:
* To be supportive financially and emotionally
* To help their child constructively manage the competitive stress associated with junior tennis
* To assist the coach gaining insight into an understanding of their child’s personality and feelings.
* To ensure that the tennis experience is a good one – principally from the perspective of the developing person.
* To be an enthusiastic and positive member of the team
* To make sure their child adheres to the principles of good sportsmanship and ethics.
This blog just highlights a few points – there is much to be considered!
I hope that it will be a positive and rewarding journey for all the tennis parents out there!