The challenges of being coach and parent

by Hadrian Stiff

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

10 responses to “The challenges of being coach and parent

  1. Hi Hadrian, very well written and explained, I can relate to your experience and feelings from many years of watching, coaching and playing Bradley. As you know you have many years of this ahead of you with all the challenges of the emotional side of the game as well. I wish you and Elliot all the best for the future on and off the court.I still get great pleasure in watching Bradley play the great game.

    1. Hi James! So nice to hear from you and thanks for your encouragement and insights. Its such an amazing privilege for all parents, the key part is for the experience to be as successful as possible and I think that varies according to the initial vision of the parent. Ultimately, what do we want from this journey? Its clear you have succeeded in yours 🙂

  2. Hi there!
    This is very much needed food for thought. Being a parent of a 14-year old I recognize all your thoughts and a funny thing happened as I read your text.
    I could hear you say exactly what I have said and suddenly it became so clear how wrong that was. It was your last paragraph where you were on the train heading home and you told him how lucky he was and so on. Talk about putting pressure on him, and I’ve done exactly this! To support my son by investing money and time is not about his luck at all, it’s about my choice….it’s about me wanting my son to be happy and perhaps share my love for the game. It does however put a heavy load on his shoulders. I do of course appreciate what you write there, but if anyone is lucky it’s me. So lucky to have my son. So lucky to be in a position financially to be able to support him. Not easy.
    Oh, and another one which I have to mention where I differ in opinion.
    You suggest that you learn more from losing than winning. That is not my experience at all. You learn just as much from winning. This is my honest conclusion from both business and sports life. I have met so many people over the years that doubt their ability to win to the extent that they don’t really feel that they deserve to win. All too often this then has a negative effect on their overall appreciation of themselves. They lose self-confidence and over time that also affects their self-esteem, ending up in a very self-destructive circle, Balancing win and lose situations is, as I see it, a crucial part of a coach, leader, parent.
    Sometimes we also need to define better what we mean by winning. Is winning only about winning the match or can it be about how you played, how you behaved, how you felt……The more possible wins you can define, the greater is the chance to win as a person, and overall that is the most important win of them all.
    Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts – You got me thinking!
    By the way – I struggle with whether I shall coach my son or not. Is he best helped by me taking a step back? Is he better served with me just being his dad? A dad that offers unconditional love irrespective of whether he wins or loses matches.

    1. Hi Peter
      Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your comments. Just to clarify, the part about the parental investment was not delivered in a pressurised way but more to remind Elliott that he has a part to play and together we will both invest. Regarding the learning from winning, I totally agree! The point of this comment was to remind parents that losing is part of the process and should learned from in a productive way. Reviewed, processed and discussed so ensure progress and not a downward spiral into the next match.
      I think author post about ‘what is success and winning’ is needed 🙂

      1. We actually had a dad to son talk today about your post, and it was a really good one. Thanks for your additional thoughts, I think that we are pretty much on the same page on both issues.
        Take care and hope to come see you in Bristol one of these days.

  3. It is an incredible journey with ups and downs, twists and turns and some bumps and bruises. Along the way many life long memories are built and lifetime friends are made. Callan’s best tournament was u14 SA’s when as the #2 seed he lost his first round match and ended up playing in the 9-16 group. He spent the entire weekend playing on empty courts, interacting with u19’s as well as u12’s, hanging out with the players and making friends. His social skills gained momentum that weekends and he opened up to people – a big achievement for an introvert. I still rate that tournament as his best win because of the personal developments that he experienced. Enjoy the journey and thank you for sharing.

    1. Lovely story Liz, its so nice to have a perspective or a parent (and excellent coach) who has seen their child all the way through that junior journey. There are so many key moments and we often dont know how important they are until later on.

  4. I broadly agree with your view , and I’m glad that I’m not the only who feels the same way you do. Its just so difficult to watch your child lose especially when he/she has put in the time and effort to become a better player. I always remind them of the opportunity they have to train and compete (they enjoy it!) , and that they should make the best of it. It’s not meant to pressure them at all but rather to value the opportunity they have been given.

    Thank you for the reminder that as long as there is improvement/learning then we are on the right path….wherever that path may lead.

    P.S :

    Great coaching videos! 🙂

  5. Thank you for writing this post. Vincent and I were wondering how your son fared. Congratulations to a big milestone! You provided so much food for thought. When we returned home from the UK this fall, Vincent played in a Silver tourney and almost won several matches, but not quite. He fought hard, but was tired and off time zones. The interesting thing that happened was that the head coach approached us and asked if he could coach Vincent. I was surprised because Vincent had just lost more points than he’d won. The coach said that it was *how* he managed the lost points and how quickly he recovered. He was so excited to see a young player with a good attitude on the court, that he wanted to invest his time to develop a program for him. Vincent lost matches but gained new opportunities!
    He learned so many things from you and your team at Elite Squash this summer. He’s told me how much squash is a game of strategy, as well as one of physical power and speed. He is obviously still reaping the benefits from Elite summer camp.
    So, this weekend we travel to New York for a tournament, and all of the things you mentioned have been going through my mind. We are at the beginning of an incredible journey!

  6. Hi Hadrian
    Its a pity that I only came across these posts now, a month later. Nevertheless, I would like to share my experience as a dad and coach and the emotional roller coaster ride it took me on. Firstly, I appreciate your candid view on your experience as a dad and coach. Secondly, I just want to mention that we are from Cape Town (SA) and it has been really difficult when you are from a previously disadvantaged community. Quality coaches were hard to come by 15-20 years ago and unfortunately we mostly learned from trial and error and watching the top players in our community. I have been blessed with 3 talented sons. You may have heard of my eldest son, JP Duminy (SA Cricketer) and I am aware that you have met my youngest, Jacques Duminy, about 2 years ago. I started coaching JP cricket as from the age of 9, but later realised that I am not qualified enough to really coach him and got an old school friend to coach him. I still made sure that I supported him and watched every cricket match possible. However, my favourite sport was squash and when my 2nd eldest, Joffvre showed an interest in squash it naturally got my juices flowing and I was keen to coach him myself from the age of 13 when he actually started. I found this very difficult as he was now at a rebellious stage and couldn’t really get through to him. I then asked a friend (Rowan Smith) to rather coach him which then turned out well. In the meantime I started coaching Jacques at the age of 10. At this stage I had learned a lot from my father/coach interaction with both JP and Joffvre. Rowan and I then also coached Jacques in tandem to accelerate his progress. Jacques was more receptive and willing to learn from me as his dad because I also watched and supported him during his formative squash career. We developed a close, trusting relationship and I always ensured that I maintained that father/coach balance as best as possible. We ended up being a very successful combination. However, I have to mention that the coaching instinct comes very naturally whenever I had conversations with each of my boys. This was one of the lessons I learned until about 5 years ago. JP told me on various occasions that I must stop trying to be his coach and just be his dad. This was very difficult to swallow because I was always the one that knows them best (their strengths and weaknesses) and could point out exactly where the problem was. JP had some of the best cricket coaches helping him so hence I could not argue. Joffvre again had issue with me because I was not there all the time to support him. He was 3 years older than Jacques and I felt that Jacques needed me more than he did. Well, when Jacques got to 15 years of age he was now also reminding me to be more dad than coach. So what did I learn from my dad/coach interaction with my 3 boys? Firstly, being the dad is more important than being the coach. You can only really coach them effectively in junior school. Once they get to high school you better get another coach for them. How did I bridge the gap of helping them overcome areas of learning/weaknesses? I forged a very close relationship with their coaches and rather informed them of my sons’ areas of learning/challenges (they obviously knew I am a coach so we agreed I would keep them informed and also record matches for analysis). Jacques is now 19 and I stopped coaching him since the age of 16. Richard Castle has been his coach for the last 3 years and has done a sterling job with him. Jacques does however come to me and ask for advice occasionally and that is how I can at least share my thoughts with him. Regards, John

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