A Junior Tennis Case Study

The process of coaching players and parents should not be underestimated. It is not only nice to have, it is a must-have for a successful partnership.

The coach - Parent - Player journey

The time that coach Brett was completely wrong!

A personal case study

One player I was coaching back in 2012/13, unfortunately, ticks all of the boxes of a toxic environment and I have learnt since that this player and their love for tennis is a mess. All over the place.

It began when I had just launched a tennis academy in Melbourne and we had 7 full-time players. We had a range of ages and levels as it was a pilot program. School and tennis all in one place. One of our students was incredible. One of those players that would make onlookers stop and go wow! This player was only 5 years old at the time. By far, the best player at 5 years old I had ever seen, including my experience and time at Sanchez-Casal and working with Tennis Australia's elite programs.

I was a younger coach then and with hindsight wished I could have handled the situation a little differently. Not in a coaching sense but in the sense of better managing the environment. As a coach, it was my job to work with the parent to create an environment that would help the player excel but not overwhelm them.

This player was Mike. Mike's court sessions with me were special. Smart, attentive and always smiling. We had a blast and there was no skill that Mike couldn’t do or learn very quickly. I’m talking Roger Federer style slices, drive volleys, drop volleys with perfect technique, drop shots and even aggressive lobs. It was insane. It was honestly like watching Roger play but this Roger was only 4’5ft and 5 years old!

Where we went wrong as a team.

From the start, I had a few suspicions that Mike's home life was a little disconnected. I couldn’t put my finger on it in the early days but over time, and many conversations with Mike's father, the picture became more clear. Mike's Dad, as it appears, was devoted to one thing. Mike becoming world number 1. For me this was not a problem, why would it be. What a great goal and in all reality, the skill that Mike so clearly possessed, maybe not unreasonable. At the very least a fully-fledged professional tennis player. This I had no doubts about. Of course, Mike was 5 years old and there was a lot of time between the here and now and a touring professional

The early signs were in the form of body language. Mike's dad, Paul, was always so serious. Like the next level of seriousness. Calculating technique, footwork and watching me like a hawk. I love sharing in the process of coaching and was all too happy to explain the details. We had long conversations, hours at a time. In-depth coaching conversation, discussions on current professionals, training techniques and learning methods. He was highly motivated to learn and I was highly motivated to teach. I understood he had some qualities that were detrimental to Mike, I hoped that with time, trust and connection in the process, we would iron out these kinks. After all, he believed in learning and I assumed more learning would lead to positive action in Mike's life.

3-4 months later the picture became more clear. Mike, along with the academy training (5-6 sessions per week) included movement and coordination classes, group sessions. It was a lot but it certainly wasn’t all tennis and only 2 hours were solo and more structured time with me. My ‘structured’ time with players is still a lot of fun and enjoyment still drives the learning process. Seriously fun learning was my goal.

Every Monday I would ask each player what they had for breakfast and what they did on the weekend. Most players say; toast, cereal or whatever and on the weekend I went playing with friends, to the beach or played a tournament etc. It varied. Mike would have a sports breakfast! Protein/energy shake to become strong and would play tennis 2-3-4 times every weekend. If it rained, off to the indoor they would go.

I asked, 'Do you like doing all this tennis, Mike?'

Mike said, 'Not really. Dad makes me and gets angry if I want to stay home to draw'. Ok, now it is clear. We have a problem.

‘Dad gets angry at me when I want to stay home and draw.’

How to approach this?

In all honesty, it was a really big challenge for me as a coach. I was worried that if Mike left our program, they would find another coach and the same thing would happen. Mike’s world was still the same and there is always a new coach to find. The second thing I had a concern with was when Mike turned 13/14 years of age and truly hated tennis, the process and felt tortured because of the process. I wanted to be the coach that stopped this from happening.

I struggled with this each and every day when we were working together. I would have long conversations with Paul to share my research on training load, send articles about communication, write articles for the academy students, however, they were directly written for Paul.

I think he understood the theory and he saw merit in science but... Paul was unable to separate his emotions from the here and now for the long term, more calm and balanced approach.

The long term approach, the Ultimate Tennis Parent approach, is hard. It takes time, it takes deep conversations and dedicating yourself to becoming a better teacher, parent and person. Is it the easy option? Absolutely not. Is it the right way? Without a doubt yes!

At this stage in my coaching career, I was only beginning to truly see the disconnect within the parent world of elite coaching. Sure I had seen it as a player with many parents of friends, however, I thought it was only a few ‘crazy tennis parents’ - as my understanding grew, I started to see it as a spectrum. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum as parents and finding the balance should be the goal.

In the end, my abilities to coach outside of the court (with the parents) were not strong enough. What I failed to do then, that I believe I have found the methods now, is paint a detailed picture of the process. Understand a ‘full’ or as close to a full picture of best practice for parents and players. Me failing to help Mike more came from my lack of deep input with Paul. It hurt knowing this. For so long, I believed I had failed Mike.

Around 7 years after this, Mike would have been around 13 years old at the time, a former assistant coach of mine gave me a call. We were chatting about a few things, then Mike’s name was brought up. So do you see him at tournaments around the place?
My buddy continued;
They moved away, somewhere that has less rain so they could play more days of the year. Mike hates tennis and doesn’t want to play. Paul yells at him on the side of the court and can’t control his temper…

Trust in the process and know that tennis is a long and beautiful road. Your child is growing, learning and things take time. They need to invest in this beautiful process and most importantly they need to enjoy it.

I hope my experience of learning the hard way can create many more positive and successful moments for all of my players and parents moving forward.