Psychology for Junior Tennis Players and Parents

Junior tennis is a very difficult endeavor for nearly any young athlete. It is usually an individual sport so there is no support from teammates. Furthermore, no coaching is permitted during a match so the players don't get that support either. Players have to make their own line calls so they have to be a referee while they are competing too. Add that teenagers are already in a developmental stage which can be often difficult in and of itself.

Finally peers, adults, and coaches often place undue emphasis on rankings which can add more pressure.I recently attended the 2012 Easter bowl which attracts the top junior players from around the country. Though I was impressed the high level of play and power tennis, I saw that things had not changed much since I was junior tennis player 25 years ago: arguments between players over line calls, rackets being thrown and broken, and many kids who appeared to be suffering. In theory tennis should add to the lives of kids not detract from it.It is essential that parents and coaches lessen the strife inherent in this system rather than exacerbate it. "What can I do?" asked a concerned parent. "I don't even know much about tennis. "

Well the good news is that you don't need an in depth knowledge of the game to be a good tennis parent. In fact there is a certain advantage to not knowing that much about the game itself. That is, there is less tendency to fall into a coaching role if the parent is not well versed in tennis.Some wise tennis parents have avoided the junior tennis scene almost altogether. Take the Williams sisters who have dominated women’s tennis for the past 14 years. Their father, Richard, protected them from junior tennis and had the focus be on developing their games for the pros. Pete Sampras' coach also saw that junior tennis was not the endpoint and was willing to have him switch to a one handed backhand even though this adversely affected his junior rankings. Again junior tennis was de-emphasized and paid big dividends in both later success and less damage to the player as a person.

Well you may be saying to yourself "I don't think I have the next world champion here. How does this apply to us?" Many of the principles are similar however. That is, the parent needs to emphasize fun, development , effort, sportsmanship, and attitude rather than results only. After all, the goal is help the junior become an independent, confident adult not just win matches.

Points of Emphasis:

Fun-This is the reason why people play sports and tennis and be really fun with the right attitude. People tend to play better when they are having fun too.Development- The improvement of one skills and fitness can be very rewarding and help build confidence. This confidence can be an asset throughout life, of course.
Effort. It is essential that effort be recognized and rewarded. If the player understands the virtue of hard work, that is enriching. Further, effort is something that is under the junior's control so it can be done regularly and reliably. Winning is much more variable and less certain.Sportsmanship-The advantage of line calling is that the principle of fairness becomes important. Further, the player can learn to handle losing, being outplayed, and making mistakes with poise and dignity rather than combusting.

Attitude - The player can learn the importance of confidence and calmness. Even compassion. The player can still be compassionate while trying their best. In fact understanding their opponent can help with strategy if the junior understands where his opponent is at mentally and physically. This is similar to the idea of friendly competition. So the idea is to direct your aggression towards your goal but it is not mean spirited or malicious. In psychology this the principle of sublimation: to direct aggressive impulses in a productive/gratifying way.

One terrific tool for helping the junior is having them watch tennis on TV. I don't mean just for watching the strokes/technique of pro players. Have them watch for example Roger Federer's demeanor. This can be very enlightening to really focus on. He rarely gets upset and maintains a relaxed composure. If he misses a shot he does not appear to be angry or upset. He shows good sportsmanship by applauding at times when a player hits a winner by him. Further, though he is so fluid he appears effortless, he actually does try his best to win. Finally, he does appear to be enjoying striking the ball, competing, and the atmosphere. If a player is open to being videotaped that can be very helpful too. This is very easy these days with the invention of smart phones. The player may not realize how tense, angry, and upset they become until they see themselves.

It can be very helpful before each match to set some goals. Thus the goals of the match can be additions to solely winning. Some examples of player goals: to get upset only 2 times or less, to try his hardest, to not push his forehand, to serve and volley at least on 4 times, to (gasp) smile at least a few times. I think cracking a joke before and after a match can be a good exercise too. Event during the match a joke can relieve tension. Laughter is the best medicine and junior tennis can make people sick if we let it.

The writer of this article was a top junior player but refuses to list his rankings as they conflict with the very tenets of this article. He has also coached junior tennis and taught sports psychology at UCLA. He currently helps athletes of all levels enhance their performance as a clinical and sports psychologist.

Michael Whitman, Psy.D.comments, questions: