The names change but their meaning is really quite generic. Stage moms, baseball dads, skating hags, take your pick. In our sport they're called tennis parents and tales of their exploits are legendary.
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of them all is Jim Pierce, father of touring pro Mary. After many incidents such as slapping his daughter at a tournament in 1991 and punching a fan at the 1993 French Open, the W.T.A, in an effort to protect not only Mary but the other players and fans as well, banned the elder Pierce from attending professional tournaments.
While this is one of the highly publicized, and perhaps extreme, examples of tennis parenting at it's worst, there are literally millions of children who we will never read about who are subject to either physical or, more commonly, psychological abuse at the hands of those who supposedly love them the most, their parents.
The issue becomes more complex and disturbing because abusive parents are often difficult to identify. Some are easy. The more vocal ones will jump up out of their seats, shouting instructions or criticism at their child as he or she prepares to serve, or after they've missed an easy volley.
Others operate on a less apparent level. They use their facial expressions, body language or quiet actions to convey their displeasure. To the casual observer they appear harmless and quite often go undetected, except by the ones who they impact, and often damage, the most.
Can you imagine how devastating it is for a child, after making a mistake, to look up at a parent, the one person in the world who is supposed to provide unconditional love and support, and see a look of anger and disapproval?
Or even worse, seeing that parent get up and leave the building because of their dissatisfaction over the child's performance. Vic Braden tells the story of a mother who got so angry with her twelve-year old daughter's performance during a tennis match that she got in her car and left. She left the tournament site and was on her way home, sixty miles away. She was so consumed by her daughter's losing performance that she abandoned her.
Tales such as this are, unfortunately, endless. But rather than re-hash old horror stories, I'd like to examine what a healthy parent-child relationship within the athletic arena should be.
I broached this subject with Vic Braden who, in addition to being one of the world's top tennis pros, is also a licensed psychologist and has been dealing with tennis parents for over forty years.
"The problem of tennis parents appears in many forms and on many levels of severity," says Vic. "These parents," says Braden, "manage and manipulate their children with the idea of winning
tennis scholarships and launching them into the professional tour."
Unfortunately, to a certain extent, the junior tennis system and the never-ending battle for higher rankings, actually perpetuates such behavior.
Children at a very young age are made aware of the supposed "importance" of their performance. "Even tournaments for children under twelve are crawling with agents as well as parents ready to bribe officials to get higher rankings for their children," says Braden. "Higher rankings, after all, help them win scholarships. It's quite grotesque."
In his fabulous book Mental Tennis, Braden recalls the story of a man approaching him saying "Vic, I want you to teach my son so he can win a tennis scholarship to Stanford."
As Braden spoke with the man, he began to recognize the symptoms. "We talked for only a few minutes," said Vic, "but it was clear that he and his wife had planned this with some seriousness."
"So, even though I don't take on children and train them to win tennis scholarships to Stanford or anywhere else, I was curious. My instincts told me that a modest intervention at this point might save another child from being warped by parents projecting their own fantasies."
Braden asked to meet the child and was shocked when the man held up the hand of the five year-old boy standing next to him and said "He's right here." "I had assumed," said Braden, "that the boy he was talking about was at least thirteen or fourteen, at a point in his life where he and the family were beginning to think seriously about college. But here was this child, probably still in kindergarten."
Some would call this father, and others like him, simply ambitious people wanting the best for their children, but Braden sees it differently. "When a grown man asks me to create a tennis scholarship for his kindergarten child, that is approaching outer limits."
This phenomenon is not limited to children with "future star" or "earning" potential. Go to any little league field, gymnasium or tennis club in the world and take a look at the dynamics between many parents and their children.
When questioned about their behavior, many of these parents swear that their actions are in the best interest of their child and perhaps they truly believe that, but they have no idea of the damage that they are inflicting on the child. Damage that can last a lifetime.
Donald Cohen, a family therapist who practices in Weston, Connecticut says that "Children who grow up in the type of high pressure environment that tennis parents create, receive the message that they must win on the court or they are, in effect, losers in life."
Their total self-image becomes derived from their latest performance on the tennis court. These children develop a win at all costs mentality which can stay with them throughout their entire lives.
"In addition," says Dr. Cohen, "many of these children suffer from very low self-esteem which is manifested by the feeling that whatever they do, is not good enough." This feeling of inadequacy can affect all aspects of the child's life.
The potential for damage to a child's mental health through the "tennis parent" syndrome is evident so the question arises, just how involved should parents be with their child's tennis? Many feel that they should stay as detached as possible. Simply drop the kids off at their lessons and come back in an hour to pick them up. Braden disagrees.
"Parents are unbelievably important because no one knows a child like a parent. Parents can be a valuable aid for the pro or coach working with the child."
"The key for parents," continues Braden, "is to relate to their child in a healthy manner and it is often up to the instructor to teach the parents what that healthy manner is."
"You don't just teach a child, you must also counsel the parent," says Braden. The parent can re-enforce or sabotage the experience so I want them there so they can learn and understand when they are contaminating the relationship for the child."
As far as the dynamics between the parent and the child, the solution lies in the same place as in all aspects of effective parenting, communication.
"Not surprisingly," says Braden, "there is little honest communication between many of these parents and their children. Often the children are playing the sport in search of parental approval and they accept the role assigned them by their parents for fear of losing their love if they don't."
"Or, the parents are deaf to any statements from their children about their true feelings. I've lost track of the number of times I've asked a child, "Do you like tennis," only to have the parent answer, "Oh, God does she love tennis." That tells me something about the parent, but nothing about the child."
To study this subject, Braden interviewed and videotaped a number of children and their tennis parents, usually the parent who was the most invested in the child's tennis, the one who drove them to their lessons and tournaments. The following comments from one mother and her daughter were, according to Braden, quite typical.
"The daughter was ranked, yet at the time was thinking about dropping out of tennis. 'What do you want from your daughter?' Braden asked the mother. 'Well,' responded the mother, 'I just want her to enjoy the sport for the sport's sake.' To have some fun. To relax. To just have nice experiences."
Away from the mother, Braden spoke to the daughter. "what do you want?," he asked her. "All I want is my mom to let me enjoy this sport." the girl responded.
"At another point in the interview, the mother was talking about her daughter's upsetting body language. "When my daughter loses a point, she walks back with her head down."
In her interview, the girl commented: "I'm afraid to look up because every time I've lost a point my mother's up there, going, like, 'Oh, no, not again."
"Both mother and daughter were stunned when we showed them the tapes of their interviews," says Braden. "They both felt they were a mother and daughter who cared about the other. Neither could believe that she had misread the other so fully."
One of the first things that Braden feels a parent must communicate to their child is the meaning of winning. "All too frequently," says Braden, it is an overemphasis on winning and often it is a message sent quite unconsciously."
A parent will say to the child, "the important thing is to try hard and have fun," but the first question that same parent asks the child when they walk in the door is "Did you win?" This question conveys the true message that the parent are conveying. Winning is everything"
Unfortunately we live in a society that perpetuates the "winning is everything" attitude. When the child wins, he or she feels good, the parents get to brag and everything is wonderful. But what happens when he loses?
Instead of asking the child "Did you win?," Braden suggests asking "Did you have fun or, did you learn anything today?" "With that shift of emphasis, the parent creates an entirely different world.
"The parent is saying to the child that what matters most is learning, improving, and having fun."
"Countless people are so hooked on results that they never have discovered the pleasure in the learning process itself," says Braden. When the pressure of winning is taken away, the child is better able to focus on learning which translates into better tennis and a more enjoyable experience.
However, to approach sports and for that matter life, with this attitude the parent must have their own act together, so to speak.
"Healthy parents don't need to satisfy their own needs by exploiting their children," says Braden. "Healthy parents are able to keep their children's needs clearly in focus. These are the parents who talk with coaches not about rankings, but about development and pleasure. Is she happy when she's playing? Is she making progress, how is she handling competition? Is she making friends. How does she feel about tennis, about herself."
The second part of successful communication is listening to the child. "If we listen carefully," says Vic Braden, "each child will tell us about his or her aspirations, fears and self-esteem. We can then do a better job of offering our support while surfacing realistic potential solutions. When there's trust earned through listening, solutions seem to surface faster."
Dr. Cohen agrees. "The key is to read between the lines because quite often children say what they feel their parents want to hear rather than what's truly in their hearts."
The relationship between a parent and a child is complex enough without the added dimension of the "tennis parent syndrome."
If there's tension within the relationship as a result of tennis, something is wrong and the parents need to take a strong look at the way they are presenting the sport to their child. Is tennis an opportunity to learn a skill, make friends and have fun, or do the parents have a different purpose in mind?
The important thing is that the goals of both the parent and child be aligned and that the parents create an environment in which the child feels comfortable expressing their true feelings.
If the child's goal is to make their high school team, earn a tennis scholarship or make the pro tour, the parent's job is to support the child and provide them with every opportunity to reach their goal. If their goal is simply to have fun, then the parents job is to respect that and enjoy the game with them.
I'm often asked what advice I would give to parents and their children regarding tennis and the parent/child relationship as it relates to the child's development. To the kids I say simply, enjoy the game and let it take you where you want to go. To the parents I strongly urge you to let them enjoy the ride.
Dr. Cohen outlines several warning signs in a child's behavior that may signify a potential problem.
- If the child appears temperamental on the court or unable to control their emotions.
- If they tend to think only about themselves.
- A tendency to isolate themselves or to try to dominate other kids.
- Eye-contact. Do they appear focused on the court or are they always looking up at the parent.
- Body language. Should convey enjoyment.
- An inability to compliment another player after they have hit a good shot.