With professional tennis prize money constantly increasing, more and more programs popping up in all areas of the country, and a resurgence of relevancy in pop culture, tennis seems to be maintaining a solid presence in society. Even so, there is a major problem within the sport that needs constant addressing: the junior game in America and how it’s promoted.
This problem isn’t rooted in basic competition amongst juniors (although some might argue parents and children become obsessive over getting USTA points or a higher Universal Tennis Rating). Rather, the problem starts at home, and sometimes spills over into junior club programs.
Some parents want their kids to do so well that they push them in all the wrong ways, and they don’t even realize how detrimental such actions are.
Such cases see parents prioritizing ranking points and wins over mental health and clear development. This is typically exhibited by excessively long and intense practice sessions for young kids who are just starting out, parents incessantly telling kids how important a tournament is, screaming on the sidelines, and too much more. Taking that approach will drive most kids mad and see them become sour to a sport that they could otherwise gain so much positivity from and enjoy for a lifetime. That’s why the term “tennis parent” is often used in a negative tone. Sure, Andre Agassi’s dad pushed him very hard, but Andre Agassi was also rallying from the baseline at 4-years-old—that’s a special case.
Recently, I was helping run a tournament near my college, and I overheard two dads talking about their kids and how their tennis is going. One dad went on and on about his son (who’s 12) needing more wins over higher UTR-rated players for what seemed like 5 whole minutes. I could tell they were just trying to keep conversation going while they watched, but the way they viewed their kids’ games at such an early stage (and skill level that’s not quite elite) in their playing careers was alarming. It showed how caught up we can get over the things that matter less holistically.
As far as clubs, many do a good job of promoting fun gameplay and instruction for their kids. In my eyes, the bad clubs are the ones that don’t engage with the parents enough on the matter of leaving the teaching to the coaches and the parenting to the parents. If a parent of a child has played tennis, then, yes, maybe their word means something. But it’s too often I come across kids who have heavy-handed parents that think they should micromanage their kids’ coaches because they’re paying them a lot of money. I get it: tennis is often expensive; but your wallet doesn’t make you the next Nick Bollettieri.
At a club that allows too much on-court parent involvement, it’s usually the coach sucking up the annoyance because of the money, not caring or realizing the kid needs breathing room from the parent. Fortunately, I didn’t have such an experience (my Dad’s a basketball guy and my Mom just picked up tennis a decade ago), but I’ve seen way too much over-parenting and submission from coaches on court, and it simply stunts growth.
The bottom line is that tennis has to be fun for kids, and THEY have to want to be there. Most of the world’s top champions—people like Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Serena—are there because they’re talented, competitive and in love with the sport. It’s difficult and overall bad to force a kid to become an excellent player. That can happen, sure, but it’s better to raise an excellent person.