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Handling Tough Parents

Q. “I am the head tennis professional at a tennis club in South Carolina, and I was just wondering if anybody had any suggestions or advice in regards to dealing with tough tennis parents that believe they know more than the coaches. We have a great program in place and the kids have been doing unbelievably in tournaments. However, the parents seem to think it’s not working and are asking us to grade their kids. I’m still young and would love some advice.”

From Don, Raleigh, NC

It is time you and your staff pros or tennis director call a meeting with this contentious group of parents, who apparently are looking to jump aboard the fast track to success and a college scholarship or pro career for their youngsters. You need to have as many of the teaching staff present as possible, and you should first gather amongst yourselves to discuss how you will approach this touchy subject. One person, ideally the tennis director, should take the lead during the meting and act as spokesperson for the group and for the club. The director should make a point of backing each of his staff pros during this meeting, and should use real examples that demonstrate the dedication to teaching excellence and the commitment to each student’s progress and development displayed daily on the courts by the staff pros.

The key is to sidestep the issue that is most on the parents’ minds – the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow. They see the dollars they’re spending on their kids’ tennis habit, and they want the biggest return on their investment, which for many may mean nothing short of a scholarship or a lucrative contract with IMG! Of course, this is a ludicrous way for a parent to approach their child’s personal development, but unfortunately it is not a rarity these days. The focus, established by the director, should be on the level of dedication, level of commitment, and level of expertise that he/she and his/her staff demonstrate on a daily basis. The director should touch only briefly, if at all, about the on-court successes of the current crop of students, as this is a fickle thing that depends greatly on the students’ natural talents, dedication and commitment. It is not something that can be controlled entirely by the program. What the program can do is establish an environment, a setting, that allows the youngsters to develop their skills and character free from external pressures (like those brought to bear by their parents, ironically enough).

Keep the talk positive; keep the talk about the program’s philosophy and approach, and its dedication to teaching excellence; and keep the focus away from the current successes or failures and instead on the long-term vision for the creation and sustenance of an environment that produces confident young people with solid tennis skills. That some of the kids who come through the program will occasionally display formidable talents and aspirations is as much a reflection on the desire and talents of those kids as it is on the program. The director should be prepared to speak to how to deal with that smaller group of kids who excel and who want to take their tennis careers further. If he/she cannot address that at this time, then a few of the parents may have a legitimate concern. Get the parents to see the many positive things that are going on – aside from successes in competition – and you’ll win them over.

Finally, if the parents seem emember in their resistance, have the director ask them what specific changes they would propose and why, and suggest that the staff will consider any and all suggestions that come in, provided they are constructive and can benefit all or most of the kids and won’t leave anyone out. That will most likely put an end to their complaints. And if it doesn’t, who knows: maybe you’ll get some good suggestions. Every program can improve, so as a last resort give the parents an opportunity to propose changes for the betterment of the program.

From Mike B., Thomasville, NC

As a tennis dad (with a passion for the game) of a junior 14 girl (who has developed a passion as well) I have some hard and fast rules that I have set for myself.

1. Always respect the judgement of the coaches. Any parent who wants the best for their child will NEVER challenge or otherwise show disrespect for a coach in front of anyone. The only thing that this does is confuse the kids, undermine the coaches authority on the court, and cause tension. The kids will do better if mom and dad stay out of the coach’s way. Remember who the professional is. I would no more ask the tennis coach to write a piece of software as he would ask me to teach a class.

2. Do anything in my power to enhance the advancement of my child. AS LONG AS SHE HAS THE DESIRE. Tennis camps, ball machines, coach recommended equipment, proper diet, exercise, just hitting back and forth with her,conversation,and above all LOVE and support. And remember DON’T PUSH.

3. Help as much as the coach wants. Pick up balls so that he can spend more time with the class, keep scores and stats during tourney play, shuttle kids around. Be a cheerleader and do not interfere.

4. Take what is taught at the lesson home. I think of the tennis coach as I would any other teacher. At the conclusion of a lesson we talk about what we want to accomplish in practice during the week to prepare for the next lesson. Practice sessions (parents can be a big help here) are where the skills are honed. Tourneys are where skills are demonstrated. Our coach goes out of his way to talk with the parents.

5. Set reasonable goals. Our first-ever tourney our goal was to score points. The second win a game; you should have seen how proud she was at lessons when she told her coach and classmates “I won one.” Our coach has been wonderful at this. Setting small reasonable goals leads to scoring more points. Scoring more points leads to winning more games. Winning more games leads to winning matches, etc.

6. Our coach wants my child to succeed. Of course he does, and to think anything else is crazy. Help him don’t hinder him. Remember the coach is the best judge of your child’s skill level. A parent’s view is always biased.

7. If I get out of line I want our coach to let me know. Rational conversation is the only approach to solving problems.

8. When in doubt, see rule 1.

I hope that this helps you form a strategy for dealing with the parents. To Tim at Oak Hollow Tennis Center, see rule 7.

From Jan K.

I just read your e-mail about the parents of the kids in your program. I know exactly what you are talking about – not only do they think they know more than the pros they all think their kids are going to be pros on the tour. My son plays competitive tennis locally and he is on his school team. These tennis parents are their child’s worst enemies. They all have grand dreams which I think are sometimes their own. I say let the coaches coach them and most of all let them have fun in a sport they can play for the rest of there lives.

Keep up the good work!

From Andrew

Are the players developing their games? Meaning, is the coaching staff stressing the things that will not only produce results now, but in the future as well? That was always the criteria I used as a coach, and Head Professional at a large D.C. area Country Club for 14 years. I believed it was part of my duty to try to educate all of the people involved in the process. The parents almost always have the best intentions for their children. I say try, because not everyone wants to become better informed. So Erick, in my opinion, education is the key to making it a little easier on yourself. Offer to map out a plan for your students’ progress. Grip mastery, understanding technique, tactics, fitness level, competitive results, etc. Have a meeting every 3 months or so and evaluate their progress. With all of that being done you will still have your detractors. Listen to what they have to say, and move on. Try not to let them bring you down! Keep fighting the good fight!

From Neil J., Escondido, CA

There’s a great program out called Serve, Stroke & Volley (SSV) that would do exactly what you need: grade the kids.

What’s tough on tennis pros is when they have to make a subjective judgment on the relative ability of their players. They are very venerable to the opinions and criticism of parents and players.

SSV is a very accurate objective basic skills test for all ages and levels of play. SSV is “free” and it is being used by hundreds of clubs across the country. Go to www.ssvtennis.com for more information.

From Rick S., Rockledge, FL

First off, get used to it. It is an unfortunate and prevalent practice by mostly well-meaning parents. I have seen it snuff out the kid’s enthusiasm for tennis more than once. And guess who gets blamed when that happens? The coach, of course.

There is no one all inclusive answer to your question because not all parents behave the same way. I have coached USTA Team tennis in the summer for 7 years and high school varsity tennis for 4 years. One thing I always do at the beginning of the season and again just before sectionals or districts is to pass out a “Parent’s Do’s and Don’t’s” memo. That usually takes care of most of the problems. The other thing I suggest is to keep your relationship with the parents at the “business” level. Treat them as your customers. This helps establish that, when it comes to tennis, you are in charge. Don’t ignore them but don’t interact with them as if they were your peers. Keep it professional, answer their questions and periodically give them an honest assessment of their son or daughter’s progress. By doing this you can often “beat them to the punch” so they don’t start offering you advice or asking to know how their kid stacks up against the others.

Finally, get a thick skin. There are some parents whom you will never be able to satisfy. It is unfortunate because it is the kids who get hurt. Good luck!

From Dick B., Morrisville, VT

Whenever I have run into that problem I set up a meeting to discuss the future goals and objectives of the program. I require all parents and players to attend. By having all parents attend you create a balance of feedback from all of them.

I would suggest that in the future that the meeting take place prior to the season starting, clearly stating your goals, coaching expectations,etc.. This will eliminate the majority of your problems before the season starts.

Also remember, you can’t and won’t please every parent or player. Just continue doing your best and it should all work out. Good luck!

From Dino B.

A good rule I, as a teacher/coach, follow is that parents are not allowed at training/practice sessions. I don’t allow them in the court areas during matches. At first they don’t like it; but once they see you have the students welfare at heart and not your own nor theirs (the parents), they comply with your rules and appreciate your efforts.

I’m neither a parent nor a tennis pro, simply a young adult 3.5 player who grew up in a prominent tennis family in southwest Ohio and played all through the 12 – 18 Juniors. I was fortunate to have very supportive tennis-playing parents who never tried to force the game on their children, live their lives through our accomplishments, or tell the pros what to do.

From Suzy H., Beverly Hills, MI

First of all, as you say you’re the head pro at your club --- YOU are the boss. It’s your program. You’re the one who’s USPTA certified to teach the kids! Don’t let the parents dictate how you run your program. If you allow tennis parents to control you now at a young age, it’s going to get harder and harder (if not impossible) to establish or regain any control and credibility the older you get and the further you go in your career. Let the parents pull their kids from your program if they so choose --- in return, you’ll gain a reputation (that no one can ever take away from you) as a pro and coach who doesn’t put up with any crap, and you will begin to GET the players and parents who will respect you for that and who WANT to be in your program.

Second, I’m going to share something from a young player’s perspective --- what I saw my dad do when I was in Juniors. You need a “parent advocate” --- that’s the best word I can think to call it --- a parent who truly DOES know tennis (not just thinks they do) and who DOES support what you’re doing. I don’t know how you would find them, aside from mentally evaluating all the parents you know, and then maybe meeting with one-on-one with those who might actually be in your corner.

My dad was a very accomplished tennis player himself and coached my brothers and myself all through Juniors, and I knew even by the age of 14 or so that Dad knew more about tennis than some of the club pros who taught us. But Dad never told the pros how to do their job, instead he supported their efforts and rarely voiced his own personal criticisms. In his conversations with other parents, he would always defend the pro or the program that seemed “questionable”, and I think that diffused a lot of the other parents’ anger because of how much those parents respected my Dad. I learned at a young age that parents listened to OTHER PARENTS first, that was their “fuel” --- negative parents were always looking for others to join them in their negativity, and the whole mess just fed itself. But as a tennis-smart “advocate,” Dad never let himself get dragged into that; and whether knowingly or unknowingly, he allowed the club pro to maintain control of their program, however “right” or “wrong” it was perceived to be. I wish you well!

Q. "I am a young player, and my parents put too much pressure on me. For example, when I am in a slump, they get mad because I am not playing well. I have talked to them about it, but they just can't seem to help it. What can I do to deal with it?"

From Kris C., Atlanta, GA:

My parents did the same thing when I was young. They pushed really hard, too, and that was 30 years ago.

You have to understand that parents think you can do anything and have paid big bucks to make it happen. Unfortunately, so have all of your opponent's parents, too. The fact of the matter is that half of the players lose every time they play, so there will be a lot of disappointed parents out there.

Just keep working on your game every day, whether it be conditioning, tennis or mental preparation. Your best chance that it will come is if you believe in yourself and work hard every day. My parents sent me to Jim Loehr when I was in high school and got into a slump, and I worked hard at reaching goals daily and ended up No. 1 in the state every year, including when I was in the "slump." I also received a full scholarship to a Division I school, which was my parents’ dream. The problem was that at this school, the pressure started again, only it was not from my parents but from my coach.

Think about what you want in life, and go for it. My sister quit tennis in college, and I didn't, and we have totally different experiences. We both turned out fine. I currently teach tennis and would not change it for the world. The difference is that I am teaching recreational-level players to have fun and play for their lifetime and don't expect miracles or a return, like your parents and mine did. I would not be able to do this if I had not had the experiences I had, pressure or not.

Good luck!

From Bill W., Turlock, CA:

Marissa, this is a tough one. Your parents only want the best for you but may be having a difficult time communicating with you. I don't know how old you are or your tennis goals, but I will assume you are a young junior playing girls’ 14s or 16s and looking towards solid high school or even college tennis.

Since you have already spoken to them about the undue pressure, I would suggest you sit down with them and write a "pressure contract." Explain to them in writing what your tennis goals are (they may not be the same goals as they have for you), where you think you stand in relationship to your goals, and what you need to do to achieve your goals. By doing this, they may see that you are working towards your goals, and hopefully you and your parents will be able to come to an agreement towards your common tennis goals.

Make sure you identify in your contract what your parents are doing that creates the pressure situation and what you would like to see them do when these pressure situations arise. If they follow the contract, you still may not succeed right away because you may be distracted by the fact that they have changed and are putting you in charge of your own destiny. If this happens, it is now up to you to set your standards for play, get prepared both physically and mentally to play, and show your parents your work ethic towards your goals.

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

Marissa, you have two problems – pressure and negative parental response to your performance from those you expect to be your safe haven. A certain amount of pressure is part of all sports. An appropriate amount of parental encouragement is necessary; however, pressure to win is not the same thing. Let me say this without ever meeting your parents -- they want the best for you. Sometimes what they have to offer is less than helpful.

If you feel your parents are acting outside of their roles, then ask your coach or pro to help with your parents. Standing in the gap is part of what they do. It is your game, and it should be fun. Yes, losing a match may not be fun, but playing your best should be fun.

My simple presence in the stands while my son was at bat was too overpowering for him. I could watch him as the catcher, but I was at the concession stand as soon as he was on deck. I actually took it a step further. I would pass him while he was on deck and ask, “Cola or orange?” He knew the rest. It was my way of offering comfort to him. Slumps are in the mind. Getting this important part of your game life in order often is the cure. By the way, he went from a .250 hitter to .770 once I was willing to do what was best for his game.

Marissa, it is your response to pressure that counts. As parents, we are your support system. Some things we just can’t fix until we put pride in its place and it works for both parents and players.

In closing, keep a view on the big picture. You are the daughter before tennis, and you will still be their daughter after tennis.

Play on!

From Lindy Lou, Bensalem, PA:

This is a tough one. Wish I could talk to your parents. I would certainly tell them to back off because they are very close to having their child give up the game. You're headed for third-degree burnout, and you know it. But they don't. Your playing badly is only a symptom, and, believe me, this will get worse before it gets better.

You say you have talked to them. I would love to know what you said and what they said. The only thing I can think of is to say, "Look, I can't do this any more. I'm not having fun. I feel too pressured to win. I need a BREAK!"

When they come to you to sign the tournament application, refuse to sign. If they sign for you, don't get in the car to go to the tournament. If they drag you to the tournament (they wouldn't go that far, would they?), when your match is called, tell the tournament director that you are defaulting. You can't make it any clearer than that. I am so sorry that this is happening to you.

There are books on this subject, but I don't think your parents would read them. Oh, here is another idea. Tell them you would like to speak to a sports psychologist. After one or two sessions alone, the doc would then have your parents come in for a chat. He/she will be ON YOUR SIDE and will back you up. Sometimes hearing it from someone else, especially a professional, might help them see things differently.

When my daughter, a tournament player, had various psychological issues, we found the services of a sports psychologist to be one of the best decisions we ever made.

Good luck, and please write back.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

After all these answers are posted, I would have your parents read them all. Very few young tennis players make it to the pro level or the college level. It is unfortunate that so many Division I schools are giving their scholarships to foreign players, but that’s another issue.

Winning is not everything. It’s getting the release of tennis, the fun of getting better and being with people who also like tennis. When looking at youth tennis, I always say playing many sports will help their tennis game and life. I also think you have to want to play to get better.

It’s better to hit the ball out than into the net. Kill that ball swinging through it and releasing all your anger into it. Don't be an ugly person on the court, screaming and throwing your racquet… that’s just not right. Be a well-rounded youth. Play many sports and do many things – your education, art, music, friends, the mall and all that there is in a teen’s life.

When you go on the court, it is because you like it, want to win and want to get better. No one else lives your life – you do. So, again, have your parents read all these answers, and sit down and talk with them about a plan that will make you happy and you a better person, and player.

From Eric R., Santa Rosa, CA:

Marissa needs to have a sit-down talk with both parents present. She needs to make a signed agreement that involves her promise to practice and play hard, never give up in a match, and listen before commenting in answers to calm coaching suggestions.

In return, her parents agree to "count to 10" when angry. After doing this, they agree to only comment in a calm, reasonable manner. If there is a signed agreement, it will hold more substance.

In a perfect world, parents and kids do not need this type of intervention. Here in the real world (where Marissa has experienced this repeatedly), it becomes a necessary instrument.

From Coach Dave, Palm Dessert, CA:

I would suggest that you stop playing competitively for awhile until you and your coach identify the problem[s], which could be technique lapse, match stress or just physical tiredness.

Have your coach talk to your parents, as well. As you identify the issues and work on solving them, you will return to your winning ways.

And have fun... that’s very important. Winning is good, but if did your best and lose a match, that’s OK, too.

From Heather, Bradenton, FL:

First of all, know that your parents love you and they are having a tough time communicating with you. As a parent of three tennis players, my husband and I are constantly asking each other, "Are we being too easy on them? Are we pushing them enough or too much? Are they happy playing tennis? Where is this all going?"

It is really hard to be a parent, let alone a tennis parent… phew! If you are like my kids, you started playing at a young age and may be a teenager now. That means you are changing, and the way your parents communicate needs to change, as well. Sometimes we forget that letting you learn lessons on you own is the best way for you to grow and develop. It is tough to "let go." That goes for life, not just tennis!

My advice is to use the tennis triangle. That is the triangle created between coach, player and parents. We find that if we have a big issue that is only tennis related, we bring that to the coach, and then he helps us understand and then talks to our child. Sometimes we are just out of touch with the reality of the situation. It's easy to sit and watch; playing out there is totally different. He helps us remember that. You may use the triangle, too. Tell your coach your feelings and maybe he/she can relay this to your folks.

Lastly, we read a great article by Ashley Harkleroad's dad with a great rule of thumb. Never talk about a match for 24 hours. Everyone is usually seeing things much clearer after a good night's sleep. If you can't wait that long, try for at least three hours! Good luck, Marissa. Hope this helps!

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