My 11 year old Son Elliott has just begun his junior tournament career and last weekend we travelled to London for the first event away from home. The main purpose of this event was to introduce the experiences of different courts, opponents and the pressure of this foreign environment and see how he responded and what we can learn.
As the event approached, I was very aware of the sense of excitement and nerves, but not from Elliott, instead from me. I have been coaching players at tournaments for over 25 years from juniors of 8 years old through to British Open finals with the World number 1. But this is my son and for the first time I clearly experienced what parents of young players go through, and the challenges faced in trying to support, coach, manage, encourage, console, celebrate and so on...I now understand what my parents must have gone through during my junior career and how they hid these emotions so well.
Having been a former player I am extremely competitive and it’s impossible for me not to want my son to win if at all possible. I want to give him every chance of success and create a mental and physical environment which can bring the best results. But at the same time, I know from experience there is a very fine balance between making a purposeful, competitive mindset and that tipping into too much pressure and intensity from parent and / or coach which then crushes the child, especially if that child is not naturally competitive, which Elliott isn’t.
My conclusion, in amongst the turmoil in my mind as I watched points come and go and wished I could step into his shoes and play those rallies for him, was that: HE MUST ENJOY THIS EXPERIENCE. He must enjoy the fun on and off the court, mix with other kids and make new friends, see new places, enjoy hanging out with his dad! He must also enjoy the pressure, learn to understand what is happening inside his young mind and see how the toughest experiences will add to his character making him stronger and more successful, and on some occasions a winner. In other times he will lose then he will learn much more and use this to become better. As painful as it was to see him lose some matches and feel the temptation to blame him for not doing what I had said, I had to resist this and first show him that he is safe, and I am there for him win or lose. This is what brings true confidence and security for children, to know you have got their back no matter what.
We returned to Bristol and on the train back I explained that he is extremely fortunate to have this opportunity and it’s expensive to travel, stay in hotels etc. I explained that we will invest in this for him but he must repay with massive efforts to get better and give his all in training and matches. He smiled and said yes and, in his eyes, I could see fear and excitement. A great start for a first tournament away from home.
By Hadrian Stiff