It’s Saturday morning… I’m with my younger daughter (9 years of age) who has her last tennis practice before the next day tournament.
As it ends, I ask Bianca to play a practice match against her older sister, Cezara.
Bianca, who lately has been dominating the “battle of the sisters” is up 9 – 6 (tie-break to 10 points). Match point, right? But that’s when she makes the mental mistake that only inexperienced players allow to happen:
“- Daddy, if we get to 9 – 9, are we going to play by two points?”
I take a deep breath, forcing myself to control my frustration. I know what is about to happen:
Her opponent (Cezara) comes back to even the score at 9 – 9 and eventually wins the match: 13 – 11.
So what is this about?
When Bianca was ahead 9 – 6, her mind should had been focused on winning the next point and close the match. Instead she thought about 9 – 9. Whatever her mind was preoccupied with… happened.
This was her lesson which I hope she understood:
Whatever our mind focuses on, happens!
Whether we visualise good or bad things, that’s what we get. It’s a universal law that applies to everything in life, including tennis.
When my older daughter turned 10 I knew it was going to be tough to split between the green and orange level tournaments – my younger one was still determined to win an orange tournament before joining her sister to the full court / green level competitions.
During the indoor season we unsuccessfully tried to participate in several tournaments – the distance was an impediment for the fact that my two daughters had to play on different days due to their separate levels.
When Spring came and outdoor season kicked in we finally managed to book our spot in a tournament that would host both levels (green and orange) on same day and just a few hours apart. Which meant less wait between matches and obviously less travel for all.
My older daughter, Cezara, was first to play beginning at 12:30 pm. Even though a day before she caught a bad cold she decided to take part in her first green level competition anyway. I could see in her movement and body language that Cezara was far from being fit enough to concentrate and compete… Nonetheless she played all her 6 matches (round-robin, first to 7 point tie-break) winning two and losing four. A good performance considering the health issues she had to deal with and her first time competing on a full court and against tougher opponents.
At 3 pm came the time for orange level matches. My younger daughter, Bianca (8 years and a half), blended among the players during the warm-up. She was the last in line and visibly the shyest one. Nothing could tell that she would end up within a couple of hours get everybody’s attention and admiration…
They were divided into two groups of 6 players who were going to play in a round-robin format (every player against each other in a game to 7 point tie-break). The top 4 players from each group would go on to the quarter-finals: first player vs. the fourth from opposite group, second vs. third player and so forth.
Bianca had won 4 out of her 5 group matches and went on to be the top player in her group.
Before the quarter-final began I went to the fence and told her that she would be playing elimination matches from now on and whatever happened before she should erase from memory and focus only on how to win the next matches. I suggested to Bianca to not be satisfied with past performance (a big mental trap) and keep her mind busy in the “now-and-next” mode.
(Some of the pieces of advice I gave my daughters before the tournament were the following: – during the warm-up they should keep feet moving to get the blood flowing and resist from hitting the ball hard; – make mental notes of their opponents possible weak shots – e.g. backhand, serve spin etc. – use more slice serves because some kids are not familiar handling spin serves; – mentally they should keep their focus by always knowing the score and visualising winning the next point)
To my satisfaction I saw that Bianca followed most of the advice I gave her in regard to the warm-up and strategies.
She won the quarter-final in a heavily contested line calls and long rallies match. The umpire made some mistakes on both sides. Eventually Bianca prevailed 7 – 3.
Again, I went to the fence (while she was resting and waiting for the next match) in order to help her stay focused on present and what’s coming ahead. She told me that this is how far she had gotten in previous tournaments – 4th place was the highest achievement. After giving her a few tips on staying loose and focus I left her on the bench, alone.
To our surprise, her semi-final match was going to be against, what we considered, the best player in the tournament. This girl, who traveled from out of the country to participate in this tournament, had a beautiful technique (great backhand, nice slice serve) and looked very confident. We still don’t know how this happened, but Bianca marched to victory and sent her opponent to play for the 3rd and 4th places… All I could say is that Bianca kept her focus from the beginning to the end, played steady shots and ran for every single ball. That in the end paid off.
Our delight was immense: not only for her victory against one of the best players she’d ever played but for the fact that first time she’d be in the final and so close to winning a tournament.
The final match put her against a player who lacked the technical elements but who was very persistent and smart in hitting a lot of balls in. After a good start when Bianca was leading 3-0, she found herself contemplating the win and very certain of a first place in the tournament. This is the mental trap that is hard to get out of the head afterwards…
Bianca found herself slowly beaten and denied the first place.
Even so, by playing with confidence, focus and persistence my daughter made us all proud to see her getting a medal and recognition for her achievement.
We, after all, celebrated with a pizza and some of our close relatives waiting for us at home to congratulate both sisters. 🙂
Conclusion: Even though every tournament that we go to means a lot of pressure for both parents and kids, in the end, the fact that we dare to get out of our comfort zone is what matters. Experiences, bad or good, are what make life worth living and sharing. It is not the winning or losing in tournaments that matters; it is the fact that we meet new people, get good exercise and make a difference in the world for giving a good example of hard work and respect for others.
I was recently asked about my preferred teaching style: do I strive for the “perfect” technique or I let my students learn tennis through games (lately there are more and more tennis coaches who embrace the games based approach by the way).
The answer is simple: tennis should be fun regardless of the level of performance.
I do like to stress the proper technique in the beginning of the lesson just to start with the right fundamentals but I want to make sure that at least 60% of my lessons are actually exciting for my students by introducing games and drills that have them work on placement, friendly competition and strategies.
In my teaching career I’ve often paid attention to the faces of my students: when they are put through the repetitive drills of learning the “perfect” technique and when they are presented with the opportunity of playing tennis games.
The difference between the two is enormous; and here is why:
1. When a coach stresses the technique most of the time they (the kids) might end up “looking great” on the court but deep down in the back of their minds they will consider tennis as boring and repetitive.
2. The games based approach gets players thrilled to be on the court and, even though their technique will not be as good in the beginning, the fact that they enjoy playing tennis will make them do this longer and not only that… they’ll encourage their friends to get involved into it because people want to share things they love.
I’m not advocating that technique should be eliminated from the tennis practice – just not over-emphasised.
My suggestion would be that a player/student should practice his/her technical elements in the beginning of the lesson (let’s say for about 15 – 20 minutes) but then she/he should be exposed to applying the learned fundamentals into a fun related tennis activity.
The idea to write this article came to me right as I was watching this YouTube video of a 9 year old tennis “prodigy” girl… This particular video was the last drop in the bucket for me regarding a debate that is kind of tabu for a lot of parents and coaches. !!! If you are a tennis parent or coach you might want to stick with me and read this article all the way.
For those who don’t know me, I am a tennis coach and have been teaching tennis since… I was a kid. I have always loved teaching and sharing my knowledge with anyone willing to learn and improve. But this is not about me. It is about a debate that seems to be a sensitive subject for many. It is about whether parents should PUSH their kids to pursue a certain sport…
It’s a great scenario when your child loves a sport, let’s say tennis and he is motivated to improve and cannot wait to get on the tennis court. But there is also a scenario in which you, a parent, love a certain sport, let say (: tennis, and you see your child has no drive, no desire to practice a sport even though he/she has talent and you know that by practicing the sport he/she will benefit tremendously later on in life.
During my tennis teaching career I have met and taught countless adults who confessed that they regretted the fact their parents did not “push” them to stick with and work harder in tennis when they were kids. They are aware that when they were young they had other hobbies who were more comfortable to them like: hanging out with friends, watching TV, video games etc. Those distractions did not account for a more enjoyable life later on.
Now, as a parent myself, I am put in a situation where I have to guide my two daughters (7 and 5 years old) to whether pick up tennis or not. As a tennis coach I would hate myself to have any of my daughters, in 20 years from now, asking me why did I not teach them the sport I am so knowledgeable about? I would hate to know that I have the necessary skills to give my children the gift of a healthy habit (of playing tennis) and not do it.
My problem is the following (and I am sure a lot of parents and coaches have this dilemma): my kids are not “crazy” about playing tennis! My kids would rather just hang around with their friends all day, watch TV and/or indulge in short term fun activities like playing online video games… As a parent I am aware that a few years from now they will find that these activities are not providing a healthy lifestyle for them.
So the BIG question is: should I, as a parent and a coach, step up and “push” my kids into playing the sport I am very proficient in? (Tennis Lessons with Little Kids)
Before I give you MY answer I would like to give YOU some arguments:
– I’ve seen and heard the opinion of many parents stating that kids should be given options and let them choose. I think it is a very wise decision. But what if… while you give your child the many options, you and your child, actually focus on at least one sport that you are sure your kid will benefit in the future. Something like running, swimming, basketball, tennis, surfing, iceskating… These are sports that they can practice for the rest of their life. These are sports that will allow them to stay in shape even after the age of 30, 40 or older. What if we “push” our kids to learn a sport they can practice for the rest of their life? As much as I think playing American Football or Baseball are great and teaches them discipline, hard work and team play, these sports are kind of “dead” for them (as far as the possibility of continuing practicing them) after the age of 25… On the other side, if we just let kids experiment all the sports hoping that one day they will stick with one, they might end up knowing a little bit of every sport but not be good at any one…
– Think about how you were at the age of 7, 8, or 9… Were you aware what would be good for you in ten, twenty, thirty… years later? No, of course not. Therefore we, as parents, must present the future to our kids describing the importance of doing sports and activities that could have an impact for them later on. Even though Johnny loves to play online games, that will not help him be more sociable, driven and outgoing in the future.
Having said that, here are my opinions in regard to providing our children with skills that would help them become successful later on in life:
Every kid should be given the opportunity to learn at least one foreign language.
Kids should also learn how to dance (how many times you went to parties or social gatherings and you envied the ones who were able to move gracefully on the music?).
Every kid should, at some point, know how to defend themselves – get them into a few karate or any self-defence classes.
Children should be given the opportunity to learn how to play at least one musical instrument (piano, violin, saxophone etc.).
Every kid should practice and be good at one sport. Why? Because in order to be good it takes dedication and perseverance. It is easy to begin a sport or anything else and… quit. But if we, as parents, encourage the kids to stick with a sport they will learn that whatever they do and work hard at will become a habit and great things happen when we persevere.
With these said, I think that I should “push” my kids to learn tennis and they should learn from my knowledge to become as good tennis players as they can be. I am sure that whether they will decide to stick with tennis or not, the skills they will learn from practicing and persevering in tennis will help them in life later on too. And I am sure of one thing: my kids will not tell me “Hey Dad, how come you did not teach us tennis?” As I do this, I want to make sure that my kids learn a foreign language, play piano (or guitar), take self-defence classes and take dance lessons too. Everything else… is up to them.
I would love your opinion on this. Please share this article and contribute with your feedback… Thanks!