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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