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ADDvantage magazine
Giving parents a lesson
by Alan Cutler, USPTA

December 2004 -- During a recent educational course, a discussion ensued about ­tennis-teaching professionals and junior students, and it dawned on me then that there was one major piece missing from the equation – the parents. Research in the educational field has shown over and over again that there is a strong correlation between the success of a student and parental involvement. It seems that if we neglect giving a “parent lesson,” we are missing the opportunity to take advantage of this strong correlation and are not doing everything to help our students succeed.

It seems only logical that we take the time to give parents a lesson on what we expect from them, and what their role is in the successful development of their child in the tennis arena. After all, we all agree that tennis is a microcosm of life, and that lessons learned in sports are lessons learned for life, right? So, what are the essential components of this “parent lesson”?

A great deal of what follows came from things I learned from being a parent myself and listening to other USPTA ­tennis-teaching professionals, such as Wayne Bryan and how he dealt with his sons, and Eric Mann, who shared his expertise on junior development.

The “parent lesson” plan
At the outset of the parent lesson, and a lot of times after that, we, as coaches, have to remind parents that their first job is to be the parents. Acknowledge that coaches can be replaced but being a parent is forever. Parents are the constant and home represents a place of refuge from all the outside influences in the child’s life. The coach is just a partner helping reach a specific goal.

We also have to remind parents to be the child’s cheerleader, a source of love, encouragement, praise and unconditional support at all times, not just during a tennis lesson or tournament. While not always easy to do, encourage parents to make continuous efforts to stay positive, regardless of the results in tennis and life in general. Ask parents to reward effort, not results, with sincere praise. Results have a tendency to follow effort. If the results don’t come easily, effort will naturally wane unless the positive reinforcement is for the effort.

Teach parents to have fun and encourage their child to do the same. If the child is not getting the results he wants, and is not having fun, it is likely the child will not want to continue to play. At the end of the day, remind both parents and child that tennis is a game, and games are meant to be fun.

Always keep tennis in perspective. Show parents how to use tennis as a means to communicate with their child, reminding them to attempt to listen twice as much as they talk. (Easy to remember – we have two ears and one mouth.) Encourage parents to ask questions and allow the child to tell them what he is feeling. Remind them to listen with ears and hearts, resisting the temptation to finish the child’s thoughts and sentences, and to make every moment a “parenting” moment. Show them how to encourage ongoing and open communications, even if they don’t agree with the logic or interpretations. Ask the parents not to rely solely on you, the coach, to decide what is right for their child. Instead, ask them to seek their child’s input and opinion, since their child is an intelligent person in his own right.

Ask for permission from the parents to allow you, as the teaching professional, and their child to find your own way of communicating with each other during lessons. Encourage parents to watch your interactions with their child, but ask them to be supportive and respectful of the developing relationship between you, the coach, and their child as the student.

Give the parents the responsibility of making sure their child gets to lessons prepared and on time, and making sure the child has enough liquids to drink. Ask them to resist the temptation to provide easy-to-get sugary drinks like soda, and instead encourage drinking sports drinks or water.

Ask the parents to make coaches aware of any special needs that their child has, as well as likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Remind them that the coach’s main reason for being there is to help the child. Goals should be discussed and readjusted often, and should include input from the child, parent(s) and instructor.

Encourage parents to resist the temptation of equating the cost of a lesson to instant skill improvement. Because a child’s ability to learn as well as effort levels vary from day to day, it might seem like the results are not worth the time and money. However, on certain days, the lesson will be worth its weight in gold. As a coach, be sensitive to the reality that most families don’t have unlimited resources for lessons. All you can do is ask the parents to trust that it is your ultimate goal to help their child improve his skills.

Tournaments
When the parents, the student and you, as a coach, decide that it is time for the child to participate in a tournament or other competitive situation, another parent lesson is necessary because the situations change.

Prior to the tournament, encourage discussions between all concerned parties about the realistic expectations of playing in competitive situations. It might be that together you will decide that it is simply for the experience of playing or it’s just for fun. And as the child changes and improves, these expectations will also change.

The night before a competitive match, ask parents to make sure the child eats and drinks right, and packs all the necessary equipment, so they do not have to scramble the next day. Insist that the child gets a good night’s sleep, or as much as they can with all the excitement. It will do the child no good if he comes to the court already tired. Since the player is likely to be nervous or “excited,” encourage parents to try to calm him down with statements like, “Just go and have fun” and, “I will be proud of you no matter what happens.” Encourage parents to get the child to the match a little early to allow him to look around, so he can check in, relax and stretch.

Ask parents to allow the child to go to the court without them. While he warms up, insist that parents locate a place to watch the match where they can see their child but their child cannot really see them. The reason for this is that a child who has lived with parents for his entire life can easily read their body language, even from a distance.

Encourage parents to provide appropriate applause and statements like “Good try” and “Great shot.” Remind parents to reinforce the effort, not the results. Let parents know that when a match is tough, their child is out there alone and lots of emotions come to the surface. This may be difficult for parents to understand, especially if they have never played a competitive match. They may find it hard to relate to the pressures that a player feels. Help parents understand that this is part of learning to be an independent thinker and that it is through these experiences that their child will start to develop analytic skills by finding out what is working and where his opponent is weak.

At the conclusion of the match, encourage parents to be consistent with their support, whether their child wins or loses. Children know and can read their parents very well. Caution parents to be careful not to give them feedback about the match. Instead, teach parents to ask questions like, “Would you like something to drink?” or, “Did you have fun?” Germane statements like, “Let’s go report your score” are great ways to get communication started. No matter how anxious parents are to give feedback, encourage them to wait for their child to initiate the topic. And when they do, encourage parents to practice active listening.

Giving too much feedback can have a negative impact because how a child perceives what a parent says may not be how the parent meant it. And, as in most times when emotions are running high, it is much easier for the child to focus on the negative rather than the positive, especially when the feedback comes from parents. Once the child is ready to talk about the match, teach parents to help him evaluate the match first, with statements like, “Tell me what you did right, and tell me what you could have done better.” A follow-up would be, “Then tell me what your opponent did right and what they could have done better.” Insist that parents not use statements that sound like or can be interpreted as, “You did this wrong” or “Your effort was poor,” and encourage parents to try to remain positive and consistent regardless of the results of the match.

Just a note about children’s behavior during the match: Remind parents that if their child demonstrates poor sportsmanship during the match, they should not expect the USTA official or tournament worker to correct the behavior. Things such as foul language, throwing a racquet, cheating, screaming, arguing, racial comments or personal insults should never be tolerated. Demand that parents step up and help their child learn appropriate behavior. At a match I saw recently, a 12-year-old threw his racquet and started screaming at his opponent. The parent calmly walked on to the court, told the child to pick up the racquet, explained why the behavior was unacceptable, and made the child apologize to his opponent, the opponent’s parent and the tournament director. While this might seem extreme to some, it made it clear to the child that the behavior was unacceptable, that he had to accept responsibility for it and correct it. I’ll bet the child will think twice about behaving that way again. Remind the parents that it is a parent’s job to be a parent. Insist that they are supportive, but not tolerant of the child’s poor sportsmanship or inappropriate behavior.

Tennis is a unique sport because your opponent is allowed to call your shot. There are rarely line judges on the court for each and every match. While we hope that most bad calls are by accident, and are few and far between, cheating does occur and children need to learn how to deal with it. Talk about this issue with the parents and the child. You might suggest that the child ask his opponent, “Are you sure?” the first time a questionable call is made, and simply request a line judge the second time it happens. This teaches the child to be nonconfrontational but also demonstrates the proper behavior when dealing with this problem. Insist that parents do not make line calls for their child or get involved by offering to do so. Remind them that the child needs to stay focused on tennis and any parent involvement will distract him.

Talk to the parents about appropriate parent behavior during the match. In countless tournaments during the year, we see parents escorted out of facilities, fights among parents in the parking lots, and even parents being restrained and taken away by the police. Parents displaying poor sportsmanship simply set a bad example for the children. How can we expect children to behave properly if we, their role models, do not? Sad to say, we have witnessed times when parents behave worse than their children, and this includes the language we use. It may seem funny at times, but this is no joking matter. It bears emphasizing because if we calmly thought about it, we would realize that inappropriate behavior by parents is really not going to help the child play better. Remind parents that if they coach their child during a match, it is a violation of the rules. And whether it is done in English or in another language, it is still against the rules and still considered cheating.

If you, as the coach, cannot attend a match, ask parents to allow their child to discuss the match with you and give you his or her impression of it. As coaches, we have been trained as to what questions to ask and how to interpret what we are told. Explain to the parents that this feedback and discussion period allows both the coach and the child to come to a conclusion of what they need to work on. Also ask for the parents’ feedback, but do not ask for it in front of or within earshot of the child. We have to be sensitive to the fact that the child will interpret what the parents say in his own way.

As for the parent who is also the coach, this is a very tough position to be in. There are quite a lot of teaching professionals who do this and some are more successful than others. When I was contemplating coaching my own daughters, a wise parent/coach asked me if it was worth the chance of damaging my relationship with my children. With so many great teachers in the area, we can always find someone else to assist us in working with our child. And, instead of going to the court to teach your child, as a parent, we have the rare opportunity to just go out and play, and share our love of the game. And sometimes, it may be more important to share the passion than the knowledge.

Remember that this is all about the child and not the parents’ dreams or expectations. A child’s level of interest and intensity are likely to fluctuate throughout the years. If he needs a break from tennis, allow him to take it. You do not want him to burn out like so many before him. And when he is on a break, which is one of the toughest times for a parent not to push, let him be. Your child will tell you when he is ready to go back to the courts.

After all is said and done, the best thing a parent can do for a child is to simply be there for him. Do not judge him, but love and respect him for whatever he does. Parents and coaches are on the same team, trying to help the child become the best tennis player he can be. However, sometimes it may be more important to help him become a better human being first.

Delivering the parent lesson
The delivery of the parent lesson has been done in different ways with varying levels of success. Some teaching professionals insist that parents of the students who are playing tournaments take a paid one-hour lesson where this information is given and discussed with them. Parents in a paid lesson are more likely to pay attention because of the cost and the perceived value of the lesson.

Some teaching professionals commit the lesson to paper and give it to the parents. Still some take it a step further and ask the parents and the child to sign a contract, agreement or list of expectations.

Does it work?
While there has not been a formal measurement of the success of the parent lesson, anecdotal reports have been overwhelmingly positive. Most parents are grateful for the expressed expectations and behavior guidelines. A lot of parents appreciate being acknowledged and reassured that the teaching professional has their child’s best interest at heart. And, there are those who are thankful because the parent lesson opened the lines of communication among the parents, the student and the coach – lines that are not always open, especially during the adolescent years.

And yet, the parent lesson does not work for everyone. While it has been a very successful and helpful tool in the majority of cases, there have been times when all the teaching professional can do is to be the technical expert. And there have been times when there is not much that the coach can do for the parent or the child, except to refer them to someone else who can.

The parent lesson is not the ultimate ­answer, but if it is neglected, we would be remiss in using one of the most important components of our students’ successes. We would also be missing key elements of success, that of establishing expectations and communication lines. Ultimately, if we skip the parent lesson, we would be doing a disservice to our students by not doing everything possible to help them succeed. Alan Cutler is running grassroots programs in Southern California. He has a master’s degree in computer science, was named the 1999 USPTA California Division District Professional of the year, the 2002 USPTA Industry Excellence Award recipient and was USPTA’s highest educational credit award winner for three consecutive years. He is a HEAD/Penn National Advisory Staff member.

Alan Cutler is running grassroots programs in Southern California. He has a master’s degree in computer science, was named the 1999 USPTA California Division District Professional of the year, the 2002 USPTA Industry Excellence Award recipient and was USPTA’s highest educational credit award winner for three consecutive years. He is a HEAD/Penn National Advisory Staff member.