It’s very clear to me that a lot of young tennis players are too dependent on others. This dependence can and will, in all likelihood, create challenges for these players as they are trying to transform a brilliant junior career into a professional senior career.
In Denmark we have a term called “curling children” which refers to children whose parents insist on sweeping away everything that may get in the way of their child; their own polished stone. The term derives from the game of curling that is popular in colder climates. It’s getting more and more common that parents and coaches handle all of the practical circumstances of the young players’ lives, from carrying bags to transporting children to and from training to making the tournament schedule, without any inclusion of the child in sharing the responsibilities.
When the tennis season starts, everyone is excited about what the training schedule will look like. Especially after experts on talent development, like Malcom Gladwell, introduced the theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any given field, there has been intense focus on a combination of quantity of training and the quality of players involved in training sessions. On weekends, a huge amount of money is being spent on private lessons in lieu of self-organized training at the local club or socializing with kids from other clubs who have a similar desire to improve their game. What I’m seeing in Denmark is that, in some cases, private lessons are starting to surpass local club training as a means of training.
Soto Tennis Academy
In this regard I would like to share an experience I had when I was on an internship last summer at the Soto Tennis Academy in Spain. The majority of the players who attend and live at the academy are strong junior players trying to get through the keyhole and carve out a professional career.
It’s Wednesday afternoon and the second training session of the day focuses on doubles. Manisha, on Court 19, is going to England on the following Friday to participate in a professional women’s tournament, and Thalia, age 9, the youngest player ever to get accepted at the academy, is on the same side of the net. In the middle of the training session I went over to Manisha and asked her how she was able to stay so focused, work so hard, and accept that she, just two days before leaving for the tournament in England, is spending her afternoon playing with a 9 year old girl who uses green balls. Manisha replies that no matter who she is playing with, she needs to take responsibility for her own training and development. She has her own focus and she is happy to give something back, as she often gets to train with the professional male players, where she by far is the poorest tennis player. By the way; Manisha went to the tournament in England, went through the qualification, and beat no. 380 on the women’s world ranking.
In many cases, as a result of coddling, I don’t think that we as coaches and parents teach or stimulate the young players to take responsibility. If the players do not learn how to take responsibility for their own training and development in an early age, it becomes a big obstacle later on when they are trying to play tennis or any other sport full time and trying to develop that career that so many of us have dreamed about at some point in our lives.
Too Much Help is a Disservice to Your Child!
I have often heard parents explain why their sports-focused children are not responsible for simple practical everyday tasks like cooking, shopping and transportation to and from the club, on the grounds that the kids are busy with homework and their sport. In my opinion, learning to stand on your own feet and taking responsibility might be the most important education a young athlete can get. I don’t believe that a young athlete will ever learn that, as long as coaches and parents clear all imaginable challenges of everyday life on the road.
A mother recently told me: “Well, Adam, usually you say that we (parents) are responsible for ALL of the practical things and should leave the tennis coaching to you guys (tennis coaches).”
She was absolutely right, but there is a fine line as to when coaches and parents should help children with the necessary, practical tasks involved in a hectic schedule, and when we are going too far. If we go too far, we are really doing the young athlete a disservice; making them dependent and unable to fend for themselves when they have to stand on their own feet and try to carve out a professional senior career.
In this quest to create professional athletes, a term called “life skills” is getting more and more popular. Life skills covers basic skills that are essential for one to have the ability to reach the top in any sport. Life skills accounts for, among other things, being able to plan your time, goal setting and how to reach those goals, and being aware of the pressure you put on yourself, as well as pressure from other people, e.g. a coach, friend, or parents. In the long run, developing life skills is a far better investment than paying the local coach for another couple of private lessons.
So what are we going to do? We coaches and parents have to try to stimulate the players inner motivation. Coaches and parents can try to help the athletes as much as possible, but they/we have to remember that the core dream and desire to improve must come from the young athletes themselves, not us.
Things to Work on
Make time in the weekly training schedule where it’s possible for the players to train by themselves (the players have to make appointments with each other – no trainer/parent involvement)
Let them plan the entire trip to the next tournament:
How to get there?
Where to sleep?
Have the players set their own goals and create a plan to get there (guide if necessary)
Have your son/daughter travel back and forth to training for the next month on their own
Make sure you are always praising for hard work, not the result, when talking to your child
Be aware of when your child really needs your help versus when you are just nursing and doing your child a disservice.