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.