I look at this next young generation of upcoming tennis players with mixed emotions. The excitement of knowing what they will experience and the heartache of knowing what they will experience is unnerving for a parent. Some of my very best memories of life are from junior tennis. By competing at a young age, I was able to travel the world, interact and build relationships with players from different countries, experience hands-on how to deal with tough competition and, yes, most of all, the high of winning tennis matches.
It was exhilarating and I loved every second of it. However, it was also one of the toughest times for my parents, my family and myself.
We all know as parents, parenting isn’t an easy task if you are parenting an elite athlete, especially one in an individual sport like tennis. It is safe to say that the children who are able to walk on a tennis court by themselves, perform in front of family, peers, strangers, agents and recruiters, make all the strategic decisions by instinct and then the kicker… to deal with you, the parent when they come off the court, that is difficult. Yeah, you didn’t tell them all of that when you talked them into their first tennis lesson did you? This takes a unique child. I can honestly say, there is nothing normal about teenagers in the first place, let alone one that has chosen to pursue sports. Get ready for a bumpy ride, because kids can be hell on wheels to raise!
So here are my “Top Ten Tips For Tennis Parents” from Marianne Werdel, the 14-year-old girl who was ranked No. 1 in the country, fiercely independent, intensely competitive, cunningly smart, somewhat (or very) precocious, driven and determined to be the best:
#1 I AM A TEENAGER.
Please remember I am a teenager. I have a teenage brain. I will make teenage mistakes. I have teenage wants and needs. I want to go to the beach, the movies, the mall and to just hang out with friends. I see everything and everyone on the sidelines and I can do this all while I am playing a match. It is called multi-tasking and I hear it is a much-needed skill later in life. When I get into high school, I want to go to the football games and dances and yes, I want to stay to the end, even if I have an 8 a.m. practice. And by the way, does it have to be 8 a.m. every Saturday morning? Oh, and when you are thinking about letting me travel in a group to co-ed tournaments, please don’t think back to what you wanted to do as a teenager because as athletes, we would never ever do any of that. No, never.
#2 DON'T MICROMANAGE ME.
I want to organize my own practices, sign up for my own tournaments, manage my own homework, write my own essays, etc. Managing all these things will help me with all the moving pieces I juggle on the tennis court. Believe it or not, I am capable of setting my own alarm, packing my own suitcase and responding verbally to adults. Now, that doesn’t mean that I will always get up on time, pack all the right stuff and not embarrass you with what comes out of my mouth. But hey, I am a teenager and we can only learn from our mistakes, right?
#3 HIRE GOOD COACHES AND LET THEM COACH.
Help me find good coaches that work well with ME. And then, let them coach. Let them do their job so you don’t have to do it. And by the way, I need a tough coach. I am a tough personality and need an equally strong person to be in charge. I need someone to teach me, push me to my limits, enforce the boundaries, hold me accountable to my goals, teach me discipline with my shot selection (good luck with that one), correct my mistakes and to be there for me when things aren’t going well (believe me, things will get ugly now and then).
#4 I NEED A BREAK FROM TENNIS.
Please don’t talk about tennis all the time. The same way you don’t want me checking Instagram at the dinner table. I don’t want to hear a play-by-play from my match or practice at the dinner table. Also, please let me take one day off a week, not just on a rare southern California rain day. My body and my brain need a break. I actually play better after a day off and chances are, I will have fewer injuries. Oh, and a day off means “a day OFF”. Not a bucket (or five) of serves, or a workout, or a run, or reading a tennis book, or watching tennis on TV, etc. You get the picture.
#5 I AM THE ONLY ONE ON THE COURT.
Nothing is more annoying than hearing you say, “WE did this and WE did that.” Last I saw it was “me, myself and I” out on that court. Funny that when I don’t do well it is always, “you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that”. And the way you talk to people about “our” match as if “we” played and “I” am not standing right next to you.
#6 DON’T INTERFERE WHEN I AM ON THE COURT.
It is my job to handle things on the tennis court. This is my playground, my sanctuary and my place with my peeps. I don’t need you to correct the score or correct my opponent’s line call, or my line call, or try and tell me what to do from the bleachers. Let me handle it. I GOT THIS! Even if I don’t always get it right. I need to learn how to do it myself. Call me crazy but chances are I may even have more experience at this than you do.
#7 MY TENNIS IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN LIFE.
I know my tennis can be all consuming but remember that our family is most important. Trouble starts when my tennis takes over. You see, I know this (I am smart) and I will manipulate you all day long with it. Yes, I know when I can get away with everything because I won my last tournament and an even bigger one is around the corner. By the way, rumor has it that I will also need a good education, some social skills along with other interests to make it through life. Just so ya know!
#8 I KNOW IT CAN BE HARD TO WATCH ME OUT THERE.
Well, not really. I am a teenager and my world is rather myopic. It is all about me, myself and I. You have to wait until I am a parent myself for me to truly appreciate the hell you go through driving all over the place and waiting endlessly at tournaments. Just to watch me compete, choke matches, get crushed and behave like an imbecile all the while my tennis expenses siphon your bank accounts dry. Having fun yet?
#9 SOMETIMES TO LOVE ME, YOU MUST LET ME LOSE.
I need to play all the tough tournaments, all the tough opponents and in the tough conditions. Manipulating my schedule, avoiding competition and playing the system won’t help me in the long run. You don’t want to see me struggle any more than I have to, but please make me earn my way. I will be stronger in the end. I’m sure that when I lose or behave badly on the court, it’s embarrassing to you. Please tell me “no” and teach me what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I might say hurtful things to you but trust me when I say I am immature and trying to avoid the tough life lessons that competitive tennis teaches me.
#10 BE A PARENT FIRST.
Please don’t bombard me with all the things I did wrong as I come off the court from a match. I was the one out there after all and I put all the blood, sweat and tears into the preparation. No one knows better than I do how badly I messed up and chances are no one wants to win more than I do. Remember that I am a teenager, who needs a parent. You can always hire coaches, but I only have one mom and dad. When I come off the court after a tough match, I don’t always need a coach, or nutritionist, or trainer, or sports psychologist—I just need a mom and a dad to give me a hug and let me know that losing isn’t the end of the world.
Be the parent we run toward for support after a tough match, not the parent we run away from in tears. We won’t promise you it will be easy, but hopefully, it will be worth it!