Parents as tennis coaches- avoiding the downside

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In my last post, I talked about the reasons why a parent might want to act as the main coach to an aspiring tennis pro. I also discussed some examples of where this has been successful. However, this is not by any means the whole picture.

To begin with, there are many examples of the parent-child relationship disintegrating when faced with the pressure of attempting to succeed in elite sport. Of the ostensibly successful relationships, a number have ended with allegations of mental or physical abuse.

– Mary Pierce and her father Jim worked together during the early part of her career. She made good progress during this period, but it ended acrimoniously with a restraining order and Jim banned from attending tournaments.

– Jelena Dokic (pictured below with her parents) enjoyed the best years of her career when coached by her somewhat volatile father Damir (who was at one point imprisoned for threats made to the Australian ambassador to Serbia involving a grenade launcher!). The coaching relationship ended, and Jelena and Damir were estranged for several years.

– Andre Agassi was coached in his early years by his father Mike, who pushed Andre obsessively. This led to Andre, as he has often stated, hating tennis. This certainly cannot have helped their relationship, although Mike remains unrepentant about his methods.

There are many more examples of relationships between players and parent-coaches ending in controversy and distress. The players mentioned above were successful despite the issues they suffered, although the parent-child relationships were seriously damaged. Considering the fact that only a tiny percentage of tennis players end up making a good living from the game, there must be many more cases where irreparable harm has been done to family relationships without even the compensation of financial reward.

A lot has been said in the sport psychology literature about the nature of the coach-athlete relationship. During my Masters at Loughborough I was fortunate enough to be taught by one of the foremost experts in this area, Dr Sophia Jowett. In their various papers on the subject, Sophia and her colleagues have devised a way of assessing and categorising coach-athlete relationships. They define an effective coach-athlete relationship as one where the goal is to be the best that you can be, both for the coach and the athlete, with the emphasis on empathy, honesty and support. Ineffective relationships, in contrast, are characterised by such features as antagonism, exploitation and even abuse. The other way in which coach-athlete relationships are measured is by whether they are successful or unsuccessful, where success is an objective such as reaching the top 100 in the world rankings.

It is pretty clear that the relationships described above, for Pierce, Dokic and Agassi, were successful, but they were also, to use Sophia Jowett’s terminology, ineffective. This would explain why the relationships ultimately broke down. Sophia has stated that an optimal coach-athlete relationship is reflected in the maturity and growth of both parties. It would be fair to suggest that this was not evident in the examples discussed here.

So, can the relationship between a parent-coach and a child-athlete be truly effective and successful? I have seen many examples where the relationship has been effective but ultimately unsuccessful, leaving the desirable legacy of a healthy parent-child relationship. I would suggest that many of the successful relationships have been less effective in Sophia Jowett’s terms. The closest to truly successful and effective relationships in the present era would seem to be those between Richard Williams and his daughters, and between Alexander Zverev sr and his sons. In both cases there is clearly a strong bond between father and offspring, and the players continue to go from strength to strength. Admittedly, Serena and Venus have in recent years brought in other coaches to build on Richard’s work, but his innovative groundwork clearly contributed a great deal to their hugely successful careers.

The Williams and Zverev examples do have one distinct difference. Richard Williams was a non-tennis player who decided to make his daughters into tennis stars. Alexander Zverev was a former professional who claims that he did not push his sons into playing- he says that it was always their choice. So it does not seem to be crucial whether the children were pushed into playing or not. Perhaps what is more important is whether the environment created by the parent-coach is such that enjoyment and enthusiasm are maintained. Sophia Jowett emphasises the importance of communication, and this will be crucial in maintaining a good atmosphere.

I think all of this suggests that if you are a parent who wants to coach your tennis-playing child, you must try to make the coaching relationship effective. To do this, you must communicate well, and offer empathy, honesty and support, whilst avoiding antagonism and bullying as far as possible. The difference between a normal coach-athlete relationship and one involving a parent is that parents often feel that they know what is best for their child, and may, consciously or subconsciously, use the child to further their own ambitions. This can permanently skew the power dynamic in the coaching relationship and lead to ineffectiveness and resentment. If you can avoid this, this still does not mean that the coaching relationship will be successful- but at least your child will still be speaking to you when they have finished with tennis! If you cannot manage to fulfil the requirements for an effective relationship, it would probably be better to hire a professional coach. 

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Tennis Coaching- do parents know best?

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Tennis is an individual sport in which players who have professional aspirations travel nationally and internationally from an early age. Training at an academy can cost between £10,000 and £60,000 per year. It can cost over £1,000 per week to attend international tournaments- even at junior level, where the only income is likely to be any sponsorship that can be obtained. This situation means that there is a massive amount of parental involvement and commitment needed to give a player even the slightest chance of making it to the highest level. Some players train at large academies which will take some of the organisational stress away from the players’ parents- but these can be enormously expensive. Some governing bodies, such as the LTA in Britain, will provide partial financial support, but the extent of this depends on the political climate and their opinion of a player’s progress- which is very subjective and heavily influenced by a young player’s physical development and fitness. There is one way in which the costs of developing a young tennis player can be substantially reduced, without relying on the largesse of others: a parent can become the player’s main coach. This also gives the parent substantially greater control than they would otherwise have. Is this a good idea?

For a parent to be an effective coach of an elite player, they need to learn sufficient technical information about the game to be able to guide their child’s practice and technical development. Some tennis parents are already proficient coaches, which might be considered to offer them a significant advantage. A good example of this is the former Russian Davis Cup player Alexander Zverev, who coaches his two sons, Alexander jr and Mischa. After years of hard work, Alexander is currently ranked 20 in the world, and Mischa 33. However, this type of arrrangement is rare in the men’s game. There is only one other male top 50 player who is coached by a parent, namely Bernard Tomic who is coached by his father John. John Tomic was not a tennis player, but he learned as much about the game as he could, in order to guide Bernard and his sister Sara. He is a controversial figure, but he has had more success than many traditional coaches.

Interestingly, the situation on the women’s tour is more heavily biased in favour of parent-coaches. 6 of the current top 23 female players are coached by a parent. What is also noticeable is the fact that some of the most successful female players of recent times have been coached by their father- and most of these parent-coaches have not been former players. For example, Richard Williams coached his daughters Venus and Serena after learning about tennis from books: Piotr Wozniacki, who coaches Caroline, is a former footballer. Former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was coached for most of her career by her father Walter, a doctor by profession. Richard Williams and Walter Bartoli in particular are noted for the innovative ideas which they brought to coaching and practice.

The evidence above suggests that parents are perfectly able to succeed as co aches of elite tennis players- and in fact may benefit from not having been immersed in the currently fashionable coaching and training ideas for many years. A new perspective can sometimes bring progress. Most parents have limited funds, so taking on this vital role themselves can allow their child to play more tournaments and possibly give them a better chance of success. Nonetheless, there are potential problems. In my next post, I will look at some of the possible downsides, and also consider the psychological implications of this type of arrangement.

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Paire shows how not to serve for the set…

In men’s tennis, the serve is a big weapon for many players. If you have broken your opponent’s serve, a key skill is to refocus effectively between games and between points, in order that they are given as little chance as possible to break back. Routines are crucial here, to stop your mind wandering onto unhelpful thoughts such as errors made on earlier points. This type of mental skill needs to be rehearsed regularly, just as the serve itself needs frequent practice.

On 22 March 2017 in the Masters 1000 event in Miami, Benoit Paire had attained a 5-4 lead in the first set against Martin Klizan. Paire is known to be a little unpredictable in his behaviour, and there had already been signs that he was on edge. Nonetheless, he has a good serve, and was looking a strong favourite for the set against an opponent who was also not at his best. The game progressed something like this:

– a rally ensues on the first point. Paire plays a high drop shot, giving Klizan plenty of time to hit a backhand pass which Paire cannot return.(0-15)

– double fault. (0-30)

– misses first serve, then energetically smashes his racquet on the court (umpire awards code violation-warning). After fetching a new racquet, makes a reasonable second serve. When the ball is returned, Paire plays a drop-shot from a poor position, which dies weakly in the net. (0-40)

– smashes another racquet, seemingly attempting to exceed the force he used the first time. The umpire gives a second code violation which, as Paire must have expected, results in a point penalty. (Game awarded to Klizan).

Paire therefore did a fantastic job of showing exactly what not to do. Each error he made compounded the previous one- there was no indication of his even attempting to clear his mind between points. However, this was not in this case an irredeemable situation. He pulled himself together sufficiently to win the first set in a tie-break, and eased steadily away from an injured and out of sorts Klizan to clinch a straight-sets victory. So he progressed in the tournament, but this incident emphasised the need for him to put in some work on his mental skills! 

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Marcelo Rios- a Misunderstood Genius

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If you ask most people about the great male tennis players of the late 1990s and early 2000s, they will undoubtedly mention Sampras and Agassi- some will remember a young Hewitt or Guga Kuerten, perhaps even Safin or Kafelnikov. Those who enjoy a big serve might recall Krajicek, Rusedski and Ivanisevic with affection. There is one man, however, whom I believe was truly one of the great tennis entertainers, and who spent several weeks ranked number 1 in 1998, whom I suspect would not be that widely remembered now. His name was Marcelo Rios.

Marcelo Rios was born in Chile in 1975. He took up tennis at the age of eleven, and by the time he was seventeen he was the number one junior in the world. In 1996, he entered the top 10 of the senior rankings for the first time. By 1998, he was world number 1 for a spell, and reached the final of the Australian Open, as well as winning 3 of what would ultimately be 5 Masters Series events. Sadly, by 1999 he started to suffer from injuries, and in subsequent years his physical struggles meant that he was rarely able to recapture his best form on a consistent basis. He finally retired in 2004, unable to regain the necessary level of fitness, at the age of just 28.

The brief summary of his career in the last paragraph should be enough to show that he was a genuine top player. However, the statistics really do not do justice to his talent. I’ve watched and played a huge amount of tennis, and I’ve never been more thoroughly entertained than I was when watching Marcelo Rios. He was not a particularly big man, being approximately 5’9″ in height. He moved extremely well in his heyday, and he had a useful left-handed serve, particularly for his height, as well as being solid off the ground. What made Marcelo really special was his control over the tennis ball. He could disguise all manner of changes of pace and angle, and could be incredibly creative. If he wanted to, he could destroy players of lesser talent with his skills. Sometimes, when watching Marcelo, you would simply have to marvel at the shot-making. If you have a chance, I would strongly recommend watching some of the clips of his tennis on YouTube. If you have a little more time, remind yourself of how the other players mentioned above played- if you don’t think Rios was more entertaining I will be very surprised. In fact, if anyone outside of the Sampras household thinks he was better to watch than Rios, I would be extremely interested to hear why!

So why isn’t Marcelo Rios generally regarded as a true legend of the game? Whilst watching him play was a genuine joy for anyone who loved tennis, Marcelo did not always seem to gain as much pleasure from it as he could have done. There were a few occasions when he did not really appear to be in the mood. He was also famous for his aversion to the media. In his younger days, he gave some very tetchy-sounding interviews, and he was not keen on spending his time signing autographs. This led to him being quite unpopular in many quarters. Yet there are plenty of examples of former players and tournament staff who actually knew Marcelo saying how pleasant and likeable they found him. What could have explained this contradiction? Perhaps part of the answer became clear in 2014 when Marcelo gave an interview in which he noted that he believed that he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum which is normally characterised by obsessive behaviour, and difficulty in social interactions, especially due to a lack of empathy. Those with the condition often have difficulty ‘reading’ other people, and can appear insensitive- they may shy away from large groups and prefer their own company. Imagine how difficult someone with these characteristics would find the life of a top tennis player. They would probably feel that autograph hunters were crowding them, and would not really understand how to relate to the media, or indeed how people would perceive their behaviour. It certainly appears that Marcelo was unloved by the majority of the public due to factors that were entirely beyond his control. So maybe we should reassess things retrospectively and recognise him as a true great of the game?

From a psychological perspective, perhaps there was a role for more mental skills-related assistance in Marcelo’s career. He could perhaps have benefited from assistance with controlling his emotions on court, which could have made him even harder to beat. Equally importantly, a psychology consultant could perhaps have helped him with dealing with the off-court issues, and contributed to his feeling happier and more comfortable. If he had enjoyed himself more, he might have been even more successful, and could have left an even greater sporting legacy.

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Cliff Wilson- Snooker’s great entertainer

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Sometimes in sport, a player comes along whose story you could not make up- one whose career follows a very different path to the norm, and yet still makes it to the top echelon of their game. Cliff Wilson was such a player. It was not, however, just his back story that made Cliff Wilson’s relatively short career memorable- it was the free-spirited and brilliant way he played the game. If I knew Cliff was going to be on TV, I would cancel all other engagements, as I knew I would see something amazing, win or lose- and I think I also realised that he was not likely to be around for too long.

Cliff’s snooker story started in Tredegar in South Wales in the 1950’s. Snooker did not have a big professional circuit in those days, but in Tredegar they had two young amateurs who were as good as anyone in the country- Cliff and a certain Ray Reardon. Cliff was based at the gas-lit Lucania Billiard Hall, whereas Reardon played at the slightly more up-market Miners’ Institute. Each had plenty of supporters, and when they played it was always a big match. Reardon tended to win in the Welsh amateur championship, whilst Cliff generally emerged victorious in the Welsh qualifier for the English Amateur championships. These days, they would both have turned pro and enjoyed lucrative careers, but in the mid-50’s there was no such option. Cliff displayed a dynamic, fast-potting style which could have made him a legend and helped to popularise the game, but instead, a combination of factors pushed him away from snooker. Reardon moved away from the area as his family left for England. This, combined with the death of Cliff’s father, and the fact that he was newly-married, led to a change in Cliff’s priorities. At the age of 23 he put his cue away for 15 years.

Whilst he was away from the game, Cliff worked in the steel industry. His health was gradually worsening, and in later years he would have ongoing issues with knee, back and hip, as well as heart trouble and awful eyesight. Nonetheless, in the 1970s Cliff started to play again. His enthusiasm returned, and by 1978 he was good enough to win the World Amateur Championship. He finally turned professional the following year, aged 45. This was certainly not the same brilliant youngster who had entertained the people of Tredegar in the 1950s. His eyes were causing him all sorts of problems. He tried playing with an eye-patch, and used various types of glasses. The bright TV lighting made it very difficult for him to see the balls. He was also overweight and looked older than his years. He had had to change his technique to reflect his physical capabilities. All of this, at first sight, made you think that he was going to be a cautious, negative player. It took only a few minutes for you to realise how wrong that was!

There is unfortunately not too much video of Cliff on YouTube. What little there is does not portray how good he was. First of all, he was a very fast player still. Although he would have struggled to beat Bill Werbeniuk (younger readers may need to look Bill up, but a fairly large man!) in a foot race, he wasted no time in playing his shots. Secondly, he was a great potter- Neal Foulds has said that Cliff was the greatest potter he had seen when he was playing professionally in the 1980s. But there were other players who were quick and potted well: Cliff was different because he was almost completely fearless. If you ever watch snooker either live or on TV, you’ll realise that when you are watching a frame, the first question you ask yourself is: ‘Is there a ball they can pot?’ The second question, which the commentators will pontificate upon, is: ‘’Should they take the risk?’ Modern snooker players normally carry out a kind of cost-benefit analysis before they play a shot. Cliff never seemed to do this. Once he had theorised that a ball was pottable, however unlikely this might appear, no further questions were needed- he would inevitably attempt to prove his theory immediately! If there was a double on, he would go for it. However fine a cut-shot might appear, as long as the angle was over 90 degrees, he would attempt it- whatever the situation. A re-spotted black simply gave Cliff the opportunity to play more unlikely-looking shots until he either won or left an easy pot.

Why was Cliff able to play this way? Clearly he did want to win, but he stated very clearly that he regarded snooker as a game, not a sport, and that it should be enjoyed rather than taken too seriously. He did have success, breaking into the top 16 in 1988/9, and winning the World Seniors Championship in 1991. The weakness of the way he played was that he missed a lot of ‘routine’ pots- but then again he made more unbelievable shots than anyone before or since. The joy of watching him was that you would find yourself (normally more than once) saying: ‘Surely he won’t go for that?!’ He would then proceed to go for it, and often make it! Knowing Cliff’s story, and his health background, made it all the sweeter when he did beat some dour young professional. He played for enjoyment: he knew his professional career would probably be short: it was impossible not to want him to win, or to take your eyes off the game while he was playing.

Cliff was a likeable man- an affable, rotund figure, whom you could imagine as an old Welsh uncle regaling you with stories of his misspent youth. He said that by the time he turned professional, his eyes were so bad that he couldn’t see the far end of the table- he claimed that a good memory was what enabled him to play! Whatever the truth of this, his eyes were undoubtedly very poor, which makes the precision of some of his more ambitious shots all the more remarkable!

By 1994, Cliff’s health was deteriorating further, although he was still playing tournaments when he could. He died, aged 60, in May of that year. Snooker had lost its greatest entertainer.

Is there anything we can learn from Cliff in terms of sport psychology? His is a very unusual story, so few people will ever find themselves in a similar position. Nonetheless, he made more near-impossible shots than anyone I have ever seen, and had more success as a professional than many who turn pro 25 years younger, don’t have 15 years out of the game, and, indeed, can see the other end of the table! Of course he had natural ability, and he could be very careless with less difficult shots, but the real key point for me is that he played without fear. Despite all the disadvantages he was working under, Cliff was not afraid to take chances and was not afraid to lose- and often this enabled him to win. Learning to play with less fear can help many sportspeople, and this is where sport psychology can help.

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Herbie Hide- one of the great British heavyweights

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I was looking back at some old heavyweight boxing the other day when I came across a couple of videos of the great Herbie Hide in action. Some might quibble with the use of the word ‘great’, but let’s not forget that Herbie’s ‘natural’ weight was generally considered to be between 85 and 90kg, which in today’s terms makes him a cruiserweight. Even when Herbie was in his prime, and the cruiserweight limit was lower (around 86kg compared to 90.7kg today), he was more of a cruiserweight than a heavyweight. Despite this, Herbie was twice WBO heavyweight champion.

Why was Herbie special? He was fast- perhaps without the boxing skills of Ali, but still a decent technician. More importantly, from a spectator’s viewpoint, he could punch. His career record reads 49 wins, 43 by knockout, and 4 losses. When Herbie walked into the ring you knew that something was going to happen, and whatever that was, it was unlikely to be dull! He first won a world heavyweight title at the age of 22, knocking out Michael Bentt. His next fight was against Riddick Bowe, who was then in his prime, and at a very conservative estimate 13kg (2 stone) heavier- some suggested that Herbie’s weight was overstated for that fight. Now, just imagine that for a second- a 23 year-old British ‘cruiserweight’ taking on one of America’s top three heavyweights, a man 4 years older, and looking totally like he should be in a different weight division. It was only Herbie’s second fight outside Europe, and his first in America. Herbie was much quicker than Bowe, and landed some good shots- Bowe later admitted to being ‘out on his feet’ at one point, and told Boxing Insider that Herbie was the hardest puncher he ever faced. However, Bowe also had fast hands for a big man and eventually overpowered Herbie in 6 rounds. Herbie showed a lot of courage in that fight- he was down 6 times, but kept getting up and troubled Bowe to the end.

After the loss to Bowe, Herbie regrouped and a couple of fairly straightforward wins led to him fighting Tony Tucker, who had once gone the distance with Mike Tyson, and was a former IBF champion, for the by now vacant WBO title. Tucker proved to be little threat, and Herbie stopped him in 2 rounds. A couple of swift defences followed, before Herbie was dethroned by a fairly useful fighter from the Ukraine called Vitali Klitschko- another man who should clearly have been in a higher weight division!

There was no sporting reason for Herbie’s career to go into a decline at this point. He was 27 years old, and he had lost two fights, both of them to absolutely top rate fighters who were much bigger than him. However, in his book ‘Nothing but Trouble: My Story’, Herbie explains that the death of his young brother from leukaemia hit him hard, and he was never quite the same after this. He fought just 5 times in the next 7 years, including two losses against journeyman heavyweights (to be fair, he avenged the first of these, and the second was lost on a cut). In 2006, at the age of 35, he relaunched himself as a cruiserweight. 13 unbeaten fights followed, largely in Germany. He was talked about as a potential world title challenger again, but his last appearance was in Sky’s ‘Prizefighter’ series, in which he sustained a bad cut in winning his first fight and was forced to retire from the competition. This put paid to any talk of world title fights, and Herbie’s career seems to have ended there.

Since his glory days, Herbie’s personal life has been beset by controversy, culminating in his being imprisoned for a spell following a sting operation by the notorious ‘fake Sheikh’. However, I don’t want to talk too much about that here: instead, let’s consider Herbie Hide the boxer, and how the public regard him. People tend to say that Herbie could not take a punch- yet in his prime he was only beaten by Riddick Bowe and Vitali Klitschko. These men were vastly bigger and heavier than him. I think it’s interesting that Chris Eubank’s natural weight is similar to Herbie’s. Everyone believes that Chris had a great chin- and indeed he did- but no-one thought that it should be tested by fighting Riddick Bowe or Vitali Klitschko! Herbie did get knocked down a few times by huge opponents, but he never lacked heart and he was the most exciting fighter of his generation. If he had fought at cruiserweight he would almost certainly have been recognised as an all-time great. His only rival in that era would have been the staggeringly durable, technically sound, Evander Holyfield, but I know who I would have chosen to watch!

I think it’s a great shame that the British public never really took Herbie to their hearts. Frank Bruno was widely liked, yet he was nowhere near as exciting a fighter as Herbie, nor was he in many ways as good. If you don’t remember this era, try watching a few Bruno fights on YouTube, and then compare with a few of Herbie’s. Of course Lennox Lewis was around then, and he was Britain’s best ever heavyweight, but he was also much bigger than Herbie- his fights were exciting in their way, but this was mainly as a result of seeing a Briton dominate the division. Lewis was a patient, intelligent boxer with a decent punch, but never a natural entertainer. Herbie was on another level, entertainment-wise, but the public never really seemed to recognise this. There were no big pay-per-view nights for Herbie!

How can we analyse all of this psychologically? When Herbie fought Bowe he looked good enough to win, but Bowe was so much bigger that when Herbie was caught with awkward shots he was hurt to an extent he probably hadn’t felt before. That brought doubt, which seemed to cause him to back off a little when he could perhaps have beaten Bowe. Arguably, that is the problem in putting fighters in with much bigger opponents- eventually they start to lose that iron self-belief which is crucial in combat sports.

By the time Herbie fought Klitschko, he had lost his brother, and that fight and some subsequent performances tended to indicate a lack of focus in preparation. Many sportsmen understandably find it difficult to regain the necessary single-mindedness after suffering a traumatic event in their personal lives.

But why was Herbie never massively popular? I think he never really knew how to express himself to a mass audience outside of the ring. He had a speech impediment, and he always came across as somewhat spiky. As time went by, his personal difficulties resulted in him possibly losing a bit of perspective, and some of his interviews appeared a little eccentric, to say the least. People loved Bruno because he was a superficially straightforward man with a ready laugh- but this was also marketing at work: the interviews he did with Harry Carpenter did so much for his popularity. What would have happened if someone who understood Herbie had helped him to present an image that people had warmed to? Could he now be affectionately regarded as a legend? Many boxers have problems after their career finishes- look at Bruno and Hatton. Herbie is no exception to this, but wouldn’t it be great if people could actually give him the recognition he deserves? Perhaps this would help him in dealing with whatever happens to him in the rest of his life.

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