The other day I was walking around the courts watching a group of junior players in my program take their lessons. The kids were running, sweating and hitting away when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around and saw John, the father of one of my players. Now John is one of those guys who came out of the womb on a mission. He is humorless, views every aspect of life as a competition and is always, always intense.
"So Greg, tell me," he began looking firmly into my eyes. "How many of these kids will make it to the U.S. Open?" Uh oh, now I'm on the spot. Should I tell him what he wants to hear that, "well, with a lot of work and a little luck, Billy (John's son) could go all the way." Or, do I tell him the truth? I opted for the truth. Looking back into John's eyes I answered, "Not a single one of them."
John stepped back and looked at me as if I'd just told him that his fly was open. "You're not supposed to say that" he challenged. "Sure I am," I replied because "first, it's the truth and second, that's not why they're out here." I then recited the following passage I found in an article by Joe Dinoffer. I'll let Joe take it from here:
"Probably no junior that you know personally will reach the highly glamorous position of being ranked in the top fifty singles players on the professional men's or women's tours. Among regular junior and collegiate tennis players in the U.S. this elite group constitutes a scant 14 individuals out of 5.1 million players, almost as small a percentage as winning a lottery.
The next level to think about achieving is collegiate tennis. In the U.S. there are about 25,000 players on Inter-Collegiate Tennis Association teams. If we then extract the percentage of junior players who will end up playing college tennis the statistic still comes to only .5% (one half of one percent). The next level is one of the primary feeder entities for college tennis: the high school tennis arena. This group consists of about 150,000 players out of the 5.1 million or about 3% of the total junior tennis playing population."
John's didn't have to speak, his face said it all: "You mean my little Billy isn't going to be on television, making millions of dollars? I'm not going to sit in the player's box with that cool looking badge around my neck? I'm not going to get free clothes and be able to brag about how I recognized a champion when he was born and made him what he is today?" Sorry, big guy but I'm afraid you're not.
Little Billy will probably never play above the high school level but, you know what? That's okay. Billy loves tennis and (if his father stays out of his way) will probably enjoy it for the rest of his life.
I've written on this subject before but it is such a prevalent, vitally important issue that it bears repeating. As parents, we're not giving our children tennis, guitar or acting lessons to turn them into the next Seles, Segovia or Segal. Our objective should be to expose them to lots of new and different things and hope that (if we're lucky) something clicks within them and that they enjoy the activity for the rest of their lives.
Growing children need something that excites them, fills their days and gives them something to work at and look forward to. Kids that find that special something seem to be better able to avoid many of the pitfalls of the teenage years. They develop a direction, an inner sense of right and wrong and the self-confidence to make the right decisions.
Kids that don't tend to drift through their adolescence, going where the wind blows them and often end up in places where no child should be. Tennis can be that wonderful, healthy activity that your child can enjoy for their entire lives. For me, it clearly fit the bill.
From the age of 10, tennis had had my attention. I hit thousands of balls each week and loved it. Tennis helped me got me through the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. It was there for me when my parents split up and today; nearly thirty-five years after swinging at (and missing) my first tennis ball, there are few things I would rather do than play tennis.
It drives me berserk when some overblown, under exercised adult displays their pomposity by pressuring and criticizing kids who are just out there to have fun. "Am I getting my money's worth," these clowns often say. I always answer this question with one of my own: "Do they like it?" If the answer is truly "yes" then I point out that they are clearly getting their money's worth. If they embrace tennis for the rest of their lives than you've given them something that cannot be defined by money.
Your child's tennis is not an activity where you should expect a monetary return on your dollars. If that's what you're after, call your financial advisor and get a few stock tips.
If they're lucky enough to enjoy tennis through their adult lives, then the game will help them stay healthy physically and mentally. It will give them a release from the stress of their careers and the pressure of raising a family and making ends met. As a parent, if you can give your child such an activity, you've done a wonderful thing.
Certainly there will be that special child who does have the talent, desire, opportunity and good fortune to play at the higher levels of the game. If you have that child, of course you want to encourage them and give them every chance to reach their potential--whatever that may be. But be realistic.
Find an experienced professional who will tell you the truth--not what you want to hear. If the talent and desire (your child's not yours) is truly there then by all means go for it!
However, please believe me when I tell you that, in all probability, tennis for your child will never be anything more than an enjoyable activity, a break from the stress of trying to find who they are and their place in the world. And that's okay--it's as it should be. Your job is to provide exposure, support and unconditional love, not pressure.
Don't ruin what could be one of the most enjoyable aspects of your child's life because of your lost dreams, past failures or ego inadequacies. Once we have children, any thought of "me" should go the way of the wooden racket. It becomes about our kids. We had our turn, now it's theirs.
If your child does hit the tennis lottery and become a touring pro, then in your case, I'm wrong. When your child wins his or her first professional match give me a call. I'll personally fly to your house and eat this column in front of you.