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Tennis Blog by T.A. Niles 9/15

September 22, 2008 03:00 PM


Tennis Parent Gone Wild

You may or may not have read the story about a Lake Worth man who was charged with assaulting a young girl on court for playing poorly, but my tennis bud Keith Dunlop tipped me off and I couldn’t believe what I had read.  Apparently the man was the young girl’s dad and he was unhappy with the way she had played against an opponent, and presumably in the practice session they were having.  Note: this was NOT at a USTA Florida tournament, nor did USTA Florida know this father or daughter. 

According to the reports, the man “slapped the girl, spit in her face, then ordered her to open her mouth and shoved a handful of clay inside.” The girl sustained cuts, welts and bruises from this incident. 

Ok people, this occurred in South Florida in July of 2008! Are you kidding me!  Yes, he was arrested and charged with “cruelty toward child-aggravated abuse,” and the case is pending trial. This is as extreme a case of tennis parent over the edge as I’ve heard of in my 30-plus years in the game, but there are some parents that I have seen straddling the line that isn’t all that fine between “over the edge” and wanting your child to succeed.

If your child is under 14 and you are obsessed with his/her sectional ranking, then you are just about over the edge in my book. Although there are a select few 13-year olds who are making some noise in the upper echelons of the national scene in the 14s and 16s divisions, those are the rare exceptions.

A parent of a child 14 and under in my opinion, ought to be far more concerned with the development of all elements of the child’s game, to include her/his psycho-emotional development. Is the child approaching the game in a way that is likely to allow her/him to be successful over the long haul? Is the child developing strokes, footwork, strategic understandings, that will allow her/him to win matches beyond the 12s and 14s?

So many times you see 10 and 12-year olds doing quite well in their sectional competition, only to fall by the wayside as they move to the 14s and 16s. Why? They were developing games that would win in younger age divisions, but games that wouldn’t hold up as they and their competition grew wiser, stronger, and faster.

I teach a 9-year-old youngster now whose natural attitude is that of a winner. He attacks the balls naturally, isn’t afraid to take risks on court, moves well, and if taught properly and allowed to grow into his natural game, could be quite good. His dad, however, is very concerned about his son’s sectional ranking in the 10s. That’s right, I said the 10s.

Excuse me, but what is even the No.1 ranking in the 10s going to get this young player? What would a No.1 ranking in the 12s do for him? Could such a focus on sectional ranking cause him to pay more attention to rankings than his game, thereby inhibiting his development? Only time will tell, if things continue to progress as they are.

In my humble opinion, instruction of players under 14 who aren’t obvious prodigies, but show promise should emphasize the development of a solid technical foundation, and a sound mental game. Proper care should be exercised to prevent overworking the developing physiology and psychology of prepubescent and pubescent young players.

I met and watched the young girl in question play, and she is certainly talented. Chances are, however, that when she is old enough to make her own decision to play or not to play tennis, incidents such as the one reported above will result in her decision to forfeit that talent. We, the tennis community, will have lost, at least for a time, another player to parental abuse. For some reason, I believe that a parent’s job is to raise a healthy human being first, and a good tennis player (or good athlete in any sport) second.

Game, set, match….
T.A. Niles

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Note: All comments are reviewed for inappropriate content before being posted to the site.  Additionally, due to space constraints, not all comments may be posted in their entirety.

Joan, Upper Darby, PA
I’m appalled at what I just read. I really hope that child will have enough support to help her to get over this. This man ought to be ashamed of himself; he needs some serious help.

Tim, Bradenton (comment edited)
After 35 years in tennis, and most of that in and around junior tennis, this is the best advice I can give to all parents:
#1 If you think your kid is going to be a professional...GREAT! (He or she will have to learn to play on their own).  That’s what the pro's do!
#2 Stay at least two courts away from your kid’s match. (It will make them less nervous and you too).
#3 Stay away from your kid’s opponent’s family and coaches. (Say hi at the beginning and leave it at that.)
#4 Win or lose, wait sometime to evaluate the match. Your kid needs some time to take it in before he gets all of your ideas.
#5 Remember, this is your kid; you never know how much time you will have with them, just love them and support them.  Hopefully, they will support and love their children in the same positive manner that you did.

Lastly, every player that made it on the pro tour with a crazy parent now has no or very little relationship with their child. Ask yourself, Do I Want That?

Roselyn, Miami
While I myself have not been very athletic, I am the proud grandmother of a 9-year-old boy who seems to enjoy playing most sports, including tennis. I have to say that I agree with T.A.'s viewpoint/opinion that overall development, that is physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological of our youngsters is key. Winning shouldn't be all there is to a game, whether it is of tennis or any other sport. A child needs encouragement and constructive criticism, not humiliation, insults, denigration and physical abuse to be a better player. We want to build upon what our children already have, not destroy their natural curiosity and desire to succeed.

Marilyn, Cape Coral
I don't believe your comments should have been censored. Facts are not always pleasant and the added description shows a parent that is way over the edge. That girl must have been terribly embarrassed...and if the father does this in public (and she obeyed), think what must go on at home. I don't see how that girl can grow into a mentally healthy woman living in that kind of an atmosphere. Additionally, I don't believe this casts USTA Florida in a bad light, but adding that it was not a USTA tournament and the father/daughter were not known was probably good. I would not want other parents to remove their child from tennis because of one irrational incident. BTW, I enjoy reading your emails T.A. 

Gary, Mooresville, N.C. (comment edited)
In the spirit of decency, the actual event can be portrayed using less shocking verbage as the same 6 to 14-year-old children who are ranking obsessed, will be reading the blog. Not that by simply googling (bad things), they have instant access to a world of hurt and the extremist of debasement. A single generational loss of decency will repeat forward endlessly, since these lessons must be instilled by the parent or mentor. 

Christine, Scottsdale
Great blog T! Only acquainted with tennis, I raised three sons and now parent two stepchildren. I am heartened to read so many comments below from you all regarding the loving development of whole children, including athleticism. I am saddened, but not surprised, to hear that parental mistreatment of young athletes exists in tennis too (my sons played football, baseball and soccer). In addition, I find it unfortunate T's blog bearing his signature was edited--1st amendment and all--albeit a repugnant quote of truth, as a writer, I don't like/want my words altered. And, without the caveat I still would not have connected the story with anything negative to USTA Florida. Thanks, and keep up the great reads!

T.A. Niles, Ft. Myers
Well, although we did ask you to express your thoughts, please understand that if those thoughts express dissatisfaction with USTA Florida, they may not be published. And just so you know, I don't have final say on what gets posted.  That said, I think it is great that so many were as outraged as I was about the way the child who was the subject of the original story was treated. Some of the stories you told in your responses were incredible and pretty appalling. I guess I am fortunate not to have seen some of the more negative episodes.

What do you think we can do as members of the Florida tennis community to decrease such incidents? I'll have to think about that some more myself.  Additionally, Susan makes the very important point that despite the few parents out there that are beyond the pale, the majority are caring, supportive parents that do the right thing.

Tori, USTA Florida
Mike, the quote was edited simply because it does nothing to promote the game of tennis.  You are more than welcome to look the story up online on another site and see it for yourself in full.  In addition, I would like to say that tennis is not the only sport that has parents overly invested in their child’s life.  As a tennis community, let’s not forget the great parents who are out there doing everything they can to SUPPORT their children’s dreams.  And if you see something like this going on, report it!  There is only so much we can all say or do to help change a parents’ perspective, and unfortunately, some parents will never take advantage of the opportunity to be a positive role model for their kids.

Mike, Fort Myers
I happen to know TA and think all of his writing is stellar. I am however a bit confused to hear that this blog was edited before it was posted. Apparently he took a direct quote from the paper and the USTA felt it was to graphic or that it somehow casts our affiliation in a bad light. Whatever the reason I think most people would have read the blog for what it is and should be allowed to make up their own minds.

Yevgeny, Boca Raton (comment edited)
Why do any of these parents think that tennis is the way to riches?  Why do they not understand that the odds are better to play the Lottery than to create a tennis champion? Now don't get me going on the ridiculous practice of NOT going to school and hitting balls all day and learning online (stunting emotional growth) for a few hours a day. You are only a child once; these kids need to embrace all that growing up is.

Keith, Boca Raton (comment edited)
The question is: Are these parents nuts because of the pressures of junior tennis, real or perceived OR are they just plain nuts and they would be nuts if their kids were not involved in Tennis? The idea of the junior tournaments should be about playing a lot of matches and not about playing two matches and going home. Some parents think that the only happy kid should be the one child out of 32 players that wins. The parents and pros who train these kids always need to understand that tennis is a GAME to be PLAYED.

MJ, Ft. Myers (comment edited)
All adults who are entrusted with the care of a child, vis a vis parenting, teaching, coaching, mentoring, etc. should be promoting the overall development and well-being of the child, not prostituting the child's talents for monetary gain or the vicarious fulfillment of their own unmet needs and desires. T.A., keep on calling it like you see it!

Susan, Sarasota
As an official, I have seen and heard of some physical abuse, but I have seen lots of emotional abuse of players by parents. This would include belittling, yelling, shaking fingers, looking away or even leaving in disgust, condoning poor sportsmanship (like telling the child not to shake hands), etc., with no encouragement whatsoever.  I remember hearing an 8-year-old saying as she was playing, "I can't lose, I can't lose."  She did.  Her father was not at all happy and let her (and us) know.

How sad that the game that so many of us love has turned into this because a match was lost. Fortunately for most junior players, they DO have the support of their parents, mainly because they are trying at playing a game, and not judging them on whether they win or lose.

Deb, St. Pete
I am very sad to hear that any parent would treat their child like that. Whether it's about a tennis match or any other part of daily life, those parents better get things in perspective. Very sad indeed. Some people should never have had kids.

Tim, Bradenton
Over 35 years, yes, a very big rug. Do I blame the USTA? Of course not! An aberration?

Unfortunately not. My hope is that by bringing this to the forefront, some parents might take I hard look at themselves in the mirror in the kids development. Just go to any tournament and watch the parent child interaction and you will see at least one example of which I am talking about. I would say that at I have seen it at least 60% of the times I am at tournaments. "Over the top" is one thing, and I think every parent is guilty of that at one time or another. It is when you cross that line into verbal and physical abuse (including growth hormone and steroids) that "over the top" becomes a sickness.

Let's focus on development of the player without growth hormone or steroids, and put a premium on school. Let's set up workshops for parents like the one in California to talk about positive and negative impacts on a child by their parents.

Cheryl, Ft. Lauderdale
This is very sad to read about! I'm glad someone reported this abuse.  I'm not excusing this so called parent, but in my opinion, our society teaches people that losers don't make it in life. Hopefully the parent will get some professional help! The children seem to always be the ones to suffer.

John, Ft. Myers
Way to go T.A. As usual, you are right on point. Keep it up.

Ronald, Ft. Myers
I believe that T.A.'s comments are "right on". The Tennis Community should step-up and address these outrageous actions. However, to do so, we must acknowledge that it happens and let it be known that it is unacceptable!

T.A. Niles, Ft. Myers
“I'm surprised to hear someone say that this sort of thing happens regularly. I know that some parents are a bit over the top, but I have not heard of anything this drastic before. That must be some rug we have to be able to sweep as much as you've seen under it Tim. I surely hope that this is an aberration and not the norm.”

Tim, Bradenton
Where have you been? This unfortunately happens many times in FL USTA tennis. Most just sweep it under the rug. We have junior players 13 and 14 in USTA FL taking growth hormones, and worse. We have parents letting children abuse their education in favor of tennis. We have violence, both physical and mental abuse happening all over the place. I have seen all too often. When will something be done? Probably never. I have been in tennis in FL for over 35 years, and nothing has been done yet.  The reason something was done in this case you mentioned is because people saw it and called the police. Most times, it is done in a car or at home. Shame on you parents for not letting kids be kids! Worry more about their studies.

Lou, Ft. Lauderdale
T.A., love your blog and especially the tournament report; please keep it up.






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