Saturday, February 27, 2010

In Pursuit of Excellence

Today I made a decision. I decided that I can no longer watch Jacob, aged just 11, play tennis anymore. It breaks my heart really that I will be unable to be there with him but the stress of watching him play is becoming too much. This morning whilst we were travelling to a tournament my left arm was actually aching and... well it's not a nice feeling that you might be going to have a heart attack.

It's surprising really. I've been in far more stressful situations, so maybe it's also age, weight, several years of underlying stress all rolled up into one. But I guess there's nothing more traumatic than watching your own child under duress. I've been building up to this for sometime; it's upsetting whenever your child loses but I guess, underneath, I'm even more disappointed at the approach of Lawn Tennis Association.

Tennis in this country is the remit of the wealthy or those with tennis connections, there isn't any room for grass roots players on a limited income like there is in football, rugby or athletics. So unless your lucky enough to have a parent like Andy Murray whose mum was a tennis player and coach there comes a point where continued development becomes unsustainable. Advancement is dependent on one thing - the size of your wallet.

Of course, that's why the UK produces so few tennis players of note. The pool of children available from which to select it is limited to those with lots of cash. It's sad that some children - including my own - will never fulfil their potential as athletes.

So anyhow, today I flipped out. Jacob lost on a tiebreak on a shot he failed to call "out" and the opponent claimed the match. It was seen by 6-8 people maybe more, including the referee. No one, not even the referee, said anything. Except me, of course. Loudly.

That's the way it goes in tennis. Today was an unfortunate incident and it was disheartening that the game ended on a sour note. But what disappoints me more, and I have witnessed it many times over the years, is how a child can cheat, lie and bully another child into submission on court and no one does anything.

I guess it is difficult for the referee as he/she maybe watching over any number of courts. The net result of this (because there are no umpires and linesman) means unless they have actually witnessed the play the cheater always has the advantage because the rules state that if no agreement can be reached on the point in question the score must revert to the one which can both players agree on. So you can get to a vital point, dispute the score to your own advantage and if you argue long enough the player at the other end will always concede because that is the only way of moving the game forward.

Let's not forget the the poor line calling, the racket abuse and the yelling. Believe me, at junior tennis level these days John McEnroe looks like an absolute saint.

There's several reasons for this behaviour; immaturity on behalf of the player, a genuinely unpleasant character and parental behaviour. Personally, in the majority of cases I blame the parents for their child's behaviour. A lot of tennis parents want to win and win at all costs. They don't care how their child behaves so long as their child is the victor. I find it so very demoralizing - I have seen children ( and not just my own) totally destroyed by the behaviour of other children to the extent that there are so upset they can hardly hold their rackets. Their game is so badly affected they cannot play to their best ability and the cheater wins.

Now some would say that if you can't cope with stress on court in those situations you're not mentally strong enough to compete at high levels. I'm not so sure because to my mind that abdicates responsibility for poor behaviour. I've taught my children to pick up their litter, to wash their hands, to say "please" and "thank you" why would I allow my child to have tantrums and cheat on court? It doesn't make sense.

Last year I raised this matter off court with a parent whose child I believed had behaved unacceptably. I queried why they had allowed their child to behave in such a way..especially when it has such a detrimental effect on the other player. The answer I received was that was the standard answer that I now receive from any parent... "the rules state we should not interfere."

I'm sorry I just don't believe that is an acceptable excuse. It strikes me that the parents who use this as their byline are the ones who have the most to gain. Let's face it, any truly responsible parent would correct a child who behaves poorly and cheats. If I saw my children cheating, having tantrums and just generally being offensive on court I would act immediately. It's more important to me that my children grow up to be honourable and considerate human beings than winning any tennis match.

So I finally flipped out today. It was too much to see Jacob lose that way. I raised my voice..."Call it out. Everyone saw it was out, call it out!" By then the opponent had claimed the match. No one not even the ref would speak out.

Rules are rules you know.

Today, from Jacob's point of view, this was but a minor incident. He has been in situations far worse. For me though it was the finishing line.... just a small cherry on the top of 7 years of observing poor behaviour, fighting to have my children recognised as genuinely gifted grass roots players, making huge financial sacrifices to pay for their coaching, the late nights, exhausting weekends.

And today I let myself down. I too behaved poorly. It was wrong of me. I apologized to the referee. But in my own mind the damage is done.

I guess I'll carry on the training and paying for my kids as long as they want to play tennis and continue to enjoy it. At the moment they do. Even in defeat, Jacob wants to be a tennis coach and Ben....well his coach thinks he has enough talent to become a national player although slowly but surely I know that prospect is slipping away from him.

You see, recent LTA guidelines say that as a performance tennis player Ben should now be doing 14-16 hours of tennis and athletic development a week. (Only 2 hours of that are what as termed "other" sports.) That's an increase from the previous guidelines of approx 9 hours a week. For Jacob the recommended guidelines are now 16-18 hours a week. Up from approx 11 hours a week. Apart from the financial implications this would mean, I'm seriously concerned at how this intense training would affect their mental well being and, yes, their physical well being too. We live in age of the super sportsman, the conquering hero, but part of me now wonders at what cost this is to childhood. What cost to family relationships?

So when you do stop pursuing excellence? Particularly when that excellence has become someone else's dream? I guess I've influenced my boys over the years. In fact, I know I have. It just snowballed with their burgeoning talents. I just saw gifts to be nurtured. I didn't see the harsh realities.

Very possibly, I made a big mistake.

Monday 1st March.

This morning I popped over to my good friend's Usha site Agelessbonding and read the post Two Little Eyes Watching You which echoes everything I feel about the poor behaviour I see on tennis courts. Usha is one of the best bloggers I have ever come across and if you've never been over to her site I sincerely recommend that you do so.


  1. No, I don't think that you made a big mistake. We all have to learn the lessons the hard way, but if the child has a talent, by all means it should be nutured.

    Sometimes though, you do have to find a happy medium with everything. I speak from experience with my daughter, since she does both dance and figure skating.

    It does become a big drain on the wallet at times, but I try to look at the bigger picture: higher education.

    If my daughter can continue to improve, then I believe that she can get at least a partial scholarship (at least for the dancing) for college.

  2. Oh Jane. You are such a good mother. We lose our hearts to those little buggers and will do anything to keep them safe and happy. It so sucks that they have to actually learn what the world is really like.

    I am sorry you had such a low day. Pat yourself on the back for speaking out and loving your child so much.

    Sports in America are exactly the same. Parents are lunatics and they spawn mini-lunatics. Fuck 'em. Being a nerd pays better in the end. How many honestly go on to professional sports? They just become fat uneducated has-beens instead of, as in my case, an attorney and a, umm, well, a bartender.

    Have a lovely glass of wine, give the boys hugs and put your feet up knowing your mum is smiling down on you. xoxo

  3. When I was a kid, there were never any parents standing around shouting and telling the coach how to "coach" -- screaming out orders about who should play, etc. Now granted, I'm a girl and my sport was archery. But still.

    That tennis brouhaha was nuts. Is it just English custom to be passive? (And I hope you won't take offense at that query . . . it's just that everyone's uniform silence in the face of an obvious "out" and rudeness, to boot, seems bizarre).

    I say keep pursuing excellence until it's no longer any fun. And when it's not fun, well, then let your son quit if he likes. Life is too short and children are too dear.

  4. G,

    I am delighted to hear that daughter sounds a very talented young lady:)

    I'm afraid no scholarships over here for tennis. A player of Jacob's age in the national top 8 would recieve a grant of just £3,500. To put that into context the LTA recommends 1-4 (thats 4 then!) individual lessons a week for his age... average cost at a performance tennis club around 30-35 pounds per hr. That's £140 smackers a week - before you've paid for anything else for the remaining 14 hours suggested training. If I was following LTA guidelines I'd be paying for up to 9 individual lessons for both boys a week. Not realistic at all! Neither of my boys have ever received individual lessons from any performance centre, everything they have acheived has been at grass roots small club level- yet they can still compete with these performance nutured players. To my mind that is evidence of genuine talent.

    You are absolutely right, I think we do need a happy medium. I'm looking for that medium now. It's not a medium though that means we can ever follow LTA guidelines:)

  5. Yes, tennis in the UK does mirror real life. Perhaps more so that any other sport in the UK. It's totally ruthless. The pleasure I used to get seeing my boys hit a ball is rapidly dying. They will be prepared for the outside world though that's for sure.

    Yes, the majority will never go onto professional sports - in many ways its just the parents living out their own fantasies and breeding little monsters. (Not all of course, some children are lovely.)

    In this politically world we are not allowed (in pretty much every sport) to be proactive. In tennis you can just about get away with an occasional clap and "jolly good show son." In football, in for a team of 8 year olds the opposition can file a behavioural report on the opposition's parents!

    Of course, this is the excuse parents use when their child makes a wrong line call. "I can't do anything about it. It's the rules!"

    I wish I could pat myself on the back but I can't I was wrong to speak out in the manner I did. Over the last year if I've seen bad sportsmanship I've taken it up with either the parent or the referee afterwards. I feel morall bound. But you know I've just reached saturation point now:)

    Thanks for those encouraging words though Marie. My mum is indeed smiling down on me:)

  6. Lawyer Mom,

    You know Archery sounds a whole lot better! Of course, having a weapon in your hands does make things a little easier:)

    Yes...that passive thing really annoys me. If you have a number of people on the sidelines why can't they point out the obvious? Maybe they'd just start disputing amongst themselves? You see you just can't rely on honour anymore. Anywhere. It's all about the winning. Sad, but true.

    My thoughts entirely Lawyer Mom. I think that point will come very soon. These new LTA guideline mean we will no longer keep up with the monied and the however good my boys are they will not keep up with the performance bred players. At that point they will begin to lose more often.. and as the saying goes "all good things come to an end." They will have learnt much from their endeavours though. They will have mental strengh, physical fitness, discipline and will always be consummate players. They wull ba able to enjoy tennis as a socal game for the rest of their lives. All healthy products.

    I think we will be playing more cricket this summer. I do so enjoy my cup of tea:)

  7. Jane I really think it's time to send that blog post to the LTA.
    If no-one raises a voice of dissent then they can pretend all is well.
    The non-interference line def needs looking at for a start.
    YOu know I am currently engaged in a battle against the local train company - I was talking to someone at the station who said that most customers are happy enough to moan at station staff but just won't take it any further - wont complain to the company etc. So therefore the train comapny thinks that moaners like me are in the minority.
    I think you should raise the voice of dissent to the LTA and even copy the post/letter to any tennis publications there may be.

  8. Thank you for that Mrs A. I really needed to hear that this morning.

    You're right of course we should make our voices heard about issues that matter.

    There's so much apathy in the UK. It's disheartening.

  9. I am appalled to read this. I wonder if the same parents who advocate non-interference would stick to it if their son was losing to a bully.
    And many of these rules were framed based on the underlying assumption that people are basically decent which unfortunately is becoming so rare these days.
    Your sons obviously have both the talent and passion. Try to support them as long as it is possible and I do hope their talent is recognized.
    And keep raising your voice in protest and don't let the bullies win.
    And thank you so much for those kind words. Hugs

  10. Thanks for your support Usha:) I try to keep up my enthusasim but even for a nutter like me it is becoming harder each day. Oh for a simple life:)


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