Tennis is a sport littered with examples of abusive and badly behaved parents who have altered their child’s career path by their own actions.
The time it takes to transition and develop from a talented junior to a professional athlete is increasing. Gone are the days when you see 16-year-old Martina Hingis lifting the Wimbledon trophy or 15-year-old Shane Gould sweeping all before her at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Each sports star takes a different path to reach their goals. For every athlete we see make the grade and reach the top, there are millions who never will.
Why does this happen?
For many junior athletes, it seems the path to success has already been chosen – by their parents. The idea of being the parents who guided their child to success is so appealing to them that it can lead to sabotaging the development of their child.
Nobody remembers how many first place ribbons Ian Thorpe won at his school swimming carnival or how many tennis trophies Roger Federer won as a junior. Sport seems to foster the idea that if you aren’t winning every race or match, you aren’t going to be successful further down the track. The truth is the way a junior athlete performs shouldn’t affect how parents interact with their child. In some circumstances, this isn’t the case and unnecessary pressures are placed on an athlete from a young age.
For many the pressure is too much and kids drop out when they reach an age to make decisions for themselves while others push on in fear of the repercussions that might come as a result of giving up.
Andre Agassi provides an example of a father’s determination to create a tennis star against a child’s will. Agassi’s father, Mike, subjected him into hours of facing the fearsome ball machine he had created, dubbed the “dragon” by Andre, which fired ball after ball towards him at frightening speeds.
In Agassi’s autobiography Open he speaks of his hatred towards both his father and tennis.
“I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon because I have no choice.”
While his father shaped Agassi into a tennis prodigy, he later abandoned his education to train full-time at the Nick Bollettieri Academy and broke away from his father’s overbearing coaching. Agassi turned professional at 16 and went on to win eight Grand Slam singles titles.
The Agassi story gives life to the argument that a pushy parent can lead to success but for many, more parental involvement leads to negative performance.
Take Jim Pierce for example; Jim was the abusive father to French star Mary Pierce, who could be heard instructing his daughter to kill her opponent from the stands and his behaviour led to a ban from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), with Mary filing a restraining order out against him.
Many Australians will know the name Jelena Dokic, but even more would know her father Damir. Throughout Dokic’s career her father, to the detriment of her tennis, physically and mentally abused her.
Mr Dokic was imprisoned for 15 months in Serbia for threatening to blow up Clare Bergin, the Australian ambassador in Belgrade, unless she stopped the nationwide media reports about his abuse of Jelena during their coaching relationship.
These are extreme examples of parents creating a toxic environment in which large amounts stress is placed on an athlete, leading to a drop in performance. However, this doesn’t just happen at a professional level, with junior athletes experiencing the same issues.
Consultant psychologist, Hamish McMaster has worked with many top junior athletes and their support networks. His work is aimed at minimising the negative effects outside influences can have on performance levels.
“Parents tend to intensify and increase anxiety in their children based on their own interests in their results,” Dr McMaster said.
“For many young athletes they are forced to deal with increased distraction, prior to and during competition from their parents wanting to get involved in the process.”
Callum Beale works for Tennis Australia as the National Academy & Talent Development Manager in New South Wales and sees first hand the key role that parents play in the development pathway for a junior athlete.
“First and foremost the parents’ role should be to facilitate opportunity and provide financial, emotional and psychical support in order to provide the best chance for young athletes to develop the necessary skills to be successful,” Mr Beale said.
“It is key that the role of the coach, parent and player is clearly defined so that everyone understands their role in the development pathway. It is generally when the parents don’t understand their role that they can interfere with the process to the detriment of the athlete.”
The appeal to become a successful athlete is what gets aspiring youngsters out of bed in the morning or into the car to go to training.
They should be doing it at their own accord, without any added baggage from their parents to hold them back. – Photo and report by Luke Cullen