At the age of 10, I was caught in the middle of two tennis coaches. Or so I thought. During the first week of the first summer with my tennis mentor, Dr. R.W. Johnson, I was being taught the backhand by his son, Bobby. Halfway through the less I blurted out, "That's not what Mr. Charity (my former coach) told me to do." Exasperated, Bobby threw up his hands and said, "I can't teach you if you don't listen to what I say. I'm your teacher now, not Mr. Charity."
I called my father. He drove all the way from Richmond to Lynchburg, Va., just to straighten the matter out -- in my head. He simply said to all concerned but directly to me, "Dr. Johnson and his son are your coaches now. You listen to them and do what they say. Understand?" My father had driven 114 miles for a 10-minute conversation.
Some junior players today are not lucky enough to have a parent says explicitly and directly what is and what is not expected of them on a tennis court. Cheating, for instance, has become common in unofficiate junior matches where players make their own line calls. Some tournament officials are not sure what to do about it.
I recently talked privately and candidly to some sectionally ranked youngsters. "Do you ever cheat?" I asked "Sure , if I know someone is cheating me," came the swift reply.
Any other reason for cheating?" A paused and then one girl said, I have this girl friend who cheats because she's afraid of her father."
"Why is that?" I asked. She replied: "Her father gets real mad at her if she loses and really gets on her in front of her friends after a match."
The consensus was that while this girl's father was their only personal experience with this sort of behavior, they had seen it acted out many times at sectional junior tournaments.
Parental pressure on kids to win is overbearing, unjust and potentially damaging to their self-esteem. In talking to several teaching professionals of young players, they all cited "parental pressure to win" as their number one problem.
The kids are caught several ways: between their natural inclination to please their parents and their desire to win fair and square among their peers; seeing their parents say one thing at home and another at the tennis court; and sometimes having a parent assume he knows more than the coach.
Left to themselves, youngsters will usually do the right thing. But only part of the rationale in a child's head for cheating is the pressure at home; another part is that there is no rationale -- they just know they can get away with it. whereas Dr. Johnson totally and unequivocally forbade cursing and racket throwing, some parents today actually condone it, saying that their child is merely letting off steam or emulating his favorite pro player.
Another problem involves a young star outgrowing his hometown coach. My story about Charity and Dr. Johnson's son sounded very familiar to the father of a 13-year-old player whose local coach had taken him about as far as he could but didn't want to let go. The only ways for an ambitious, young pro to establish a national reputation is by being a touring player or coaching young champions.
From discussions with parents, players and coaches, several thing were agreed on:
Parents need to lower their exagerated expectations of both the advantages of winning at all costs and the ability of their child. After all, there are only 10 places in the top 10.
It is to the child's benefit that roles be established early between coach an parent. A candid talk between the two at the outset can greatly alleviate future problems.
Sectionally top-ranked juniors get away with bad behavior. Their local tennis committee think these players can always be controlled later, but it's not worth the tradeoff of a swift reprimand at the time.
There is no consistency in administration of junior events from area to area. The United States Tennis Association, which runs these events, should take a look at greater emphasis on uniformity.
USTA regulations and permitting coaching only between sets in junior tournaments must be more strictly enforced.
One mother told me, "It is a vitally important that my daughter grow up with a correct set of values. If she can't deal honestly with her strengths, such as tennis, how will she be able to deal with her failings?" I couldn't agree more.