The art of spectating - A users Guide to watch your kids or family play sports. Ways you can actually help them improve and ways to get much more out of the experience for yourself.
If you are new to tennis you will inevitably find yourself in the situation at a tournament or league match and be wondering 'what can I and what can I not say here?' you may also wonder why other parents are getting away with murder on the sidelines and no one is doing anything about it.
This guide will answer those questions and more. Mostly it will give you a brief explanation of the world of junior tennis and a few tools to prepare you for the chaos and the thrill of competitive junior tennis.
First things first. What is your role? You need to understand this before you begin this voyage. Unless you are personally coaching your kid, your role is love and support and to be a champion LISTENER. not just a person who listens but a WORLD CHAMPION LISTENER. If you understand this before a match begins you will be better able to bite your tongue when things begin to slide and go south, and they will.
You are the single most important person in your child's entourage. Yes like the tv show, let it sink it, I know its crazy... Lets move on. No one knows your child better than you and no one has more power of influence than you. What you say and more importantly how you act is the strongest weapon for change that anyone on this earth has to move your child toward success and ultimately achieving their goals. So if you think its just about passing them on to a good coach on a good team, think again. A parent can either support the coaching system or undermine it, either way the tools the player is learning on the court will not transfer unless the parent supports them. Your support is crucial.
If your child has a personal coach then it's the coach's job to prepare the player for the match with a set of objectives. In Skyhawks Team Tennis matches our players all have objectives before they play each match. Some of the kids who are brand new to the program of course won't be as prepared in this way as others. It's helpful to ask the question before they play 'What are your objectives?' or ask 'Hey champ, so are you playing to win this one, or playing to improve?' Again if they have been in the program for more than a month they will answer the former to which you can ask "So what is it you are focusing on improving today?" by doing this you are essentially reminding them of what they are trying to achieve in this match. Think of it as perspective reminders. This part is so important that many athletes and just good old fashioned humans have tattooed these gentle perspective reminders on their body (Check out Stan Wawrinka's arm)
Note: some times they may answer the thing they are working improving is their ability to win. And if that is the response ask them to be more specific; in other words how? and in what way?
Now its time to settle in and watch the match. Imagine this. You are going to a gala art show, opening night. Champagne glasses, everyone dressed up, the art is on the walls for all to see. You are there to see your child's first gala opening. While people are mingling and viewing this is not the time for you or your child to be out there with a paint brush doing touch ups. 'Oh god this one is not right, lets just add a bit of pink to this flower' its too late for that. Its game time now. Let the match or the gala go off without a hitch. There will be criticisms for sure, some will hate the art. And it could be a very painful experience for your child (actually it usually is in the early stages, over and over again)
Note: which brings me to another point and that is you may be asking 'If they are suffering so deeply why in the heck do I keep funding this darn tennis thing' the quick answer is to realize that their version of fun has changed. They are problem solving now, and its ugly to watch, the problems are internal and the mind is complicated, its brilliant and wonderful, but its so darn tough to figure it out. Ask them if they would like to stop in these moments of what appears like inner torment and 9 times out of 10 they will say no. There is nowhere they would rather be, even though it seems like they are hating every second of it. Think back to the struggles you have had yourself in life, have they not also been the times of the most growth?
After the match if your child needs some time, let them have it. Let them know you are there when they are ready to talk. I tell players to go find a tree, have a cry and come see me when they are ready. I cried more times after losing a match than I can count. I also punched a lot of those trees I was supposed to sit beside. When they do come to talk to you, LISTEN. think of it as data collection time. Just ask questions and listen. Do not tell them what they did wrong, just ask if perhaps they want to know what you thought of it, what you saw that perhaps they were not able to see? And be patient, they might not be ready to hear it yet. If you take this time to show them just how smart you are and point out all the errors they were making you create a new opponent for them to now have to beat when they play the next match; you! Believe me when I say that beating the player on the other side of the net and battling their own selves is enough of a challenge.
This is the debriefing after the gala art show, so you can go back to the studio and make more art for the next show and learn from the mistakes of the last one. Now is the time to make adjustments. Humiliation and embarrassment are not nice, but they are powerful, no denying that. They act as motivators for us to avoid, just like joy and pleasure do the same in a positive way. Of course we would prefer to be motivated by positive feelings rather than negative ones, but we didn't invent this mind, we just got it and need to learn how to use it. Those negative experiences are our there, and they teach us to not take things personally, to develop tough skin in a way that joy and pleasure and winning can't.
These early matches you can expect them to be terrible, to play like someone unrecognizable to what you typically see in practice. I like the alien metaphor. It's like as soon as the match started an alien came down from outer space, entered my body, totally took over, played horrible, and then took off right after the hand shake leaving me standing there dumbfounded, like 'what just happened?' Give them about 10 to 20 of those matches. Unless you space the matches out every couple of months, then expect a lifetime of those matches. Consistency is king when it comes to performance based skill acquisition. They are not bad because of them personally, they are bad because they are human. If you played competitive tennis you know what I am talking about, if not trust me, it happens to the very best of em.
It may sound bleak, but the upside of this is that I am covering all the pitfalls here, and neglecting the shining moments. I do this because you need not be prepared for the times when you see them smile that smile that says 'I got this' and go on to finish off a match and bound off the court a winner. You don't need to mentally prepare for the rewards, they will come and you just enjoy them, breath it in. Its an incredible feeling to see a young person, especially if its your young person overcome what was once an insurmountable obstacle. Words cannot describe that, it's so wonderful. They didn't beat the player, they learned how to beat themselves out there and all the negative talk and inner doubts. That is what makes it so special.
Of course there are some basic rules of engagement when watching a match you must know as well. So here we go.
1. No coaching. That means you can't even say 'Run Faster Next Time' that is instructional and considered coaching. You can cheer, clap and say things like "Good Job, and Well Done" but that is about it.
2. Do not applaud unforced errors. If an opponent just double faulted gifting a point to your child, do not clap or cheer. Bad form.
3. Cheer within reason. If the whole place is rocking go ahead and lose your voice, if you are the only one piercing ears in the tennis club, take a look around and judge the mood, you probably already got some enemies, just not cool to be the one parent screaming for your kid when the mood is otherwise low key.
4. Do not make line calls unless asked. Same goes for calling out the score. They need to learn to do this on their own. Remember the Art Show comparison, it's not the time for this, wait for when we get back to the studio.
5. If a kid is cheating (and yes sometimes it will be your kid) go find a supervisor and alert to them to it. But one bad call does not mean cheating, everyone is entitled to one oversight per match, second one usually means that something is rotten in Denmark.
6. Don't be a ball boy. If a ball comes your way send it back, but do not be collecting balls the entire time and sending them to the kids. You might think you are helping speed up the play but really you are embarrassing your kid and yourself.
7. Avoid the caged Tiger body language. If your kid needs a calm presence on the sideline, be that for them. Have a chat with another parent, keep it light. Try and breath deeply.
8. Imagine you actually aren't there. Be there, your kid needs you, but in your mind imagine you are just watching a reply of a match that has already occurred, outcome determined. Nothing you can do to change this outcome. Its a neat trick that helps you stay calm and just there to support your child.
Note: You can even try charting or video. Both are great ways to gather information. The only thing I will say about these two things is that you will establish a reputation by doing so. The reputation is not a big deal but just know that you will then be seen as 'that parent who charts'. I honestly would do it for my child because I don't care enough about what others think of me, so if my daughter was playing hockey and I felt it would be helpful to chart her shifts or video her ice time, I would. But we are teaching the players how to do this themselves so often we have this information already. But the more information the better, the larger the data pool the better. And you do learn a lot from it. It has been incredibly helpful for me in the past when players I am fortunate enough to coach go play tournaments that I can't go to and have parents who video some of the match play or are able to present to me facts from charting. Charting and Video are not people's opinion, they cut through the crap and really are helpful tools.
So when they are playing that is your job, to balance their emotions. If they are too tense, be calm, take deep breathes. If they are too relaxed be serious and stern-like. (this is not a joke, you are here to play, respect your opponent, the game and yourself)
You are essentially playing a sport as well. The sport of professional spectator. You show them calmness, genuine calmness, not faked, they can tell. And just like it takes them years to get good at playing under pressure, give yourself that same time. Do not be too hard on yourself for your mistakes, it is not easy. You will feel your heart rise, you will feel sick to your stomach when you see an injustice occurring, these moments will challenge you. Life is not fair, can we all agree on that? If so be the Buddhist when you watch and ask for acceptance.
Times when you should intervene. Find a supervisor and alert them
1. Another parent is coaching. It might be in another language which makes it harder to tell, but you can generally judge coach talk compared to support.
2. Another parent is cheating for their kid
3. Another parent is calling lines, telling players the score
4. Another parent is intimidating your child; asking your child 'Are you sure that was out?" that is unacceptable behavior from an adult and grossly unfair.
Basically when another adult is crossing the line get in there and save the day. When it comes to two kids going at it, let your kid fend for themselves, talk to them after, lets collect that data and work on ways to improve in the future. Other kids will cheat. I promise it will happen. We need to arm our players with the tools to be able to deal with that.
Embody the message of 'playing to improve' with your own self. Focus on things you can control, which is your own body language, but more importantly your own thoughts. Your kid knows you extremely well, well enough to know you are not telling the truth when you say "I am proud of how you played today" So be truthful with them, but do it in a positive way. And tell yourself to keep looking at the controllable aspects of the game to which you give feedback.
If you really are not proud of the way they behaved, then that is fine, they need to hear that. But if you are not proud of them because they got too nervous and couldn't finish off the match, shame on you! That is not a controllable, that is a skill only required after years of practice and that practice can't be replicated in 'practice' hence this is why it takes so long and is so painful, there has to be much at stake, many spectators, many consequences for it to take affect.
If that situation actually happens to your child (choking is what its called) you should be extremely proud of them for going out there and braving the wilderness of that enormous task of playing for keeps, when the stakes are high and failing and being able to still hold their head up. That is courage, not something to be ashamed of. If they hear that from you, more importantly if they FEEL that from you, it won't take long or be that hard for them to get on that horse again and find more courage to put it on the line again and again. If they FEEL that from you, a pride in the process and a pride in being bold and brave regardless of the results they will quickly become a clutch player who loves pressure, a player who rises under adverse circumstances. But if you show them your shame in them falling apart at the seams (which again they will, many times, just how many times really depends on you more than you think) they will build up excuse after excuse after excuse and never be brave enough to play their hardest when it matters most. They will always have an excuse already in the waiting room ready to go. Just like all things in life, they will just get really good at doing it bad. The early stages of performance are so crucial and the direction your child goes is so much more dependent on you than you may have ever imagined.
The bottom line is this is very complex stuff, a short (even long) blog doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what is really at play here. This is so much bigger than tennis as a sport, this is about you and your child and the experience of life. For one to say 'use common sense' is hugely irresponsible, the sense you need to raise a tennis player is not common at all. It's specific and varied and forever dynamic, and it's not a one size fits all formula. That being said I do hope this is helpful to you in forging your tennis journey with your special little human.