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Andy Burns on the conflicts of being a parent of a future tennis pro.
/ 9 February 2017

Parental conflicts of a child athlete

Andy Burns, Executive Director of Capital Mass, is a parent of an exceptionally sporty son. Writing for the Sports and Physical Activity Network he discusses the parental conflicts he deals with, as his son is plays tennis. Does he allow him to grow up like other kids or go on and be a future Wimbledon Champion?

I’ve been asked to offer some reflections about parenting a sporty son and whilst I’m aware that my reflections can best be summed up as ‘first world issues’, they are reflections that cause me to stop and to think.

The context. I am not and never have been sporty, but I do love it … from the armchair! I love the drama, the theatre and the dedication, the highs and the lows, the sense that ‘this could be our season’ all from, as I’ve mentioned, the armchair or the stands.

In 2007, a little bundle of energetic joy came into our family life. Elijah was and is like most boys – full of beans. Around his fifth birthday we started to notice that along with his high energy he had great hand-eye co-ordination, so took him along to a pay-as-you-play session at our local tennis club. To cut a long story short he loved it and now at the age of nine, trains three nights a week and takes part in tournaments every two or three weeks across Berkshire. All driven by him – not his armchair or courtside dad.

Tennis is a huge aspect of his life, it forms part of his identity, it’s where he gains a sense of worth and achievement, the question that is up for discussion is, how far do we let it go?

Elijah and school are not the best of friends – this is not a critique of his school, which is a great place with great staff. It’s just that education can cause him to withdraw it’s an arena where he doesn’t win. Whereas tennis, he does win – not every game – but overall it’s his area of success. Interestingly, one significant but side observation for this blog is, the more Elijah grows in his tennis, it has a causal effect on the rest of his life.

But still, the question remains, how far do we go and what are my drivers in this? Behind every successful tennis star are their parents – whether positive and determined such as Judy Murray, or negative, if you have ever read Andre Agassi’s autobiography. I wrestle constantly with thoughts about whether I need my son to be a winner, so I gain some kind of reflective glory?

Do I need him to be a success so I’m seen as one?

Such question a demands a response as to where I find my security and sense of value, especially when sat courtside and he’s down by a set. I often hear athletes say that the negative feelings of losing are greater than the positive feelings of winning. Do I want my son to feel that empty that he’s driven to win? Most certainly not!

So does that, therefore, mean he won’t now make it? I do want him to be frustrated if he plays badly and to work out how to improve, for that’s how he learns. However, it does seem that the racket-smashers (those for whom it’s a matter of life or death) are the ones who get the trophies. Do I want a racket-smashing son, just so he can bring home a trophy? Again I say, no!

Where’s the navigation through wanting to be the best and simply being self-centred? I once heard an interview with Jürgen Klopp the Manager of Liverpool FC where he said: “The problem is that I’m Christian and that means I want both teams to win.” As someone who has never personally wrestled with the desire-to-win vs humility tension – where is the line? Does competitive sport take you over it and therefore is that a healthy personality for whole life development?

Some months ago Elijah lost in a semi-final. In tennis, the players make the line calls and he was playing a talented but emotionally charged racket-smashing nine-year-old (winning had to happen or …). Elijah correctly called the opponents winning shot out. Tiebreak!

The boy quickly and emotionally enquired “Are you sure?”

To which Elijah said: “Sorry, it was in”.

The boy struts off with countless fist pumps and whoops. In the car, Elijah tells me that he was just being kind, the ball was out but that he’s had a nice day and didn’t NEED to win, unlike the other boy who was getting upset. I’m shattered, there goes Wimbledon – yet I’m proud, that’s a great personality to have.

So here’s an odd question: Have we made life too loving for him, is he too secure meaning that tennis isn’t filling a self-worth gap meaning that winning isn’t needed? Can a family that instils in their son that they are a Child of the King, who is dearly loved by God – produce a Wimbledon Champion? Interestingly, there’s some research that shows faith is a positive motivator in sport – people using their gifts to glorify God, Michael Chang for example who won the French Open in 1989. But does that lack of “gap” remove the few percentages needed to be champion?

Being Competitive

Should I encourage being competitive and where are the limits? One of the issues I have in the church is, the overbearing statement ‘everyone’s a winner’. This frustrates kids like Elijah. Competition, the fear of losing, makes the game worth playing in his world, and also the frustration of losing can catalyse a developmental response. If you don’t have a chance to achieve, then the pleasure or drive to play is removed for someone like Elijah (who’s obsessed by league tables and rankings in all sports).

But if through competition, rackets get smashed, mothers get kicked (oh yes it happens), parents glaring in anger at their children for hitting the net (you wouldn’t believe the pressure placed on six and seven-year-olds) then we’ve gone too far.

I remember once umpiring a six-year-olds game (who get additional parent/umpire help), and the eventual winner hits the net. The child, in this case, was so wound up by his father, that he threw his racket to the ground and burst into tears. He then won the game 10 – 1 and that tournament. Was he joyful when he won or did he have to win for dad to be proud of him?

Should I add some pressure/expectation to Elijah? Does that not give him targets to aim for or a challenge to develop and grow into? Or should I just say: ‘play and have fun it doesn’t matter if you win’ … because deep down it does matter to him, and through saying this, I am suggesting, in life he doesn’t need to try, or dream, or aspire?

10,000 hours

Is sport simply for play and leisure or is there a case for seeing sport alongside other skills and gifts which in turn can become a vocation, whether as player, coach or teacher? Then there are questions such as, despite a world of great inequality, do we continue to dip into our wallet to fund this?

Matthew Syed said in his book Bounce, 10,000-hours are needed of exceptional and disciplined training to make it big. So in that case, he could fulfil his dreams. He could become very good and then who knows where that leads; but really 10,000-hours? Tennis isn’t cheap and I work for the Church of England! Is this a waste of money and are we putting our son on a pedestal where our world revolves around him and his goal alone? Also, does the 10,000-hour rule make sport elitist, where only those who can train for 10 years at about 26 hours a week, will then make it big? Where’s the plucky amateur? Is this too mechanised and am I therefore just funding an industry that widens a sporting inequality gap? Is that good parenting, giving him every opportunity or is this a form of idolatry?

We wouldn’t necessarily say to a family considering re-mortgaging their house so their child could go to medical school that they’re being foolish. So why’s it different with other skills and drivers? Why do certain profession or certain gifts have a higher value placed on them? I would argue, it’s how he’s wired, and he isn’t wired to become a surgeon.

Tournaments versus church

And then there are the constant tournaments versus church attendance tension. I’m often asked whether we’re putting tennis before God, as Elijah occasionally misses church. To which I reply a resounding no! This isn’t Sport versus God. It is how God has made him versus the day and time that a church service is on.

Sunday morning isn’t the only place where he worships and connects with God. Yet I would draw the line to every Sunday being away from our fellowship, as this isn’t healthy for him on many levels as well as in the forming of relationships with others of faith.

I remember hearing a mountaineer once say:

“They’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God than in church thinking about the mountains”.

I think it was Eric Liddell who said that:

“God made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure”.

So maybe the discipleship opportunity is to help Elijah feel Gods pleasure on him when he’s on the tennis court. Can you image that? Encountering God outside of a church building, whatever next?

I was asked recently: “What are you seeing that’s sacred?”

I paused and answered: “Watching my son play tennis. It’s because whenever I see him play, he’s in his flow, he’s fully present, fully alive. He can shake off everything that holds him back and express himself.  It can be a holy moment.”

Maybe I’m zealous for him thrive in tennis because it’s where I get to see this God-Created tennis dynamo fully alive.

So in conclusion; do I want him to win Wimbledon? Of course, I do!  Will he? Probably not (I can’t bring myself to say no, as it’s the hope that kills you). And before you ask; does that matter? No, because at the end of the day what I want for him is to be fully alive in who he is and how he’s been created and currently, among other things, that interplay happens through tennis and maybe that’s the real joy of sport.

Next year he might put the racket down and with it, all my dad dreams of Wimbledon – but as long as whatever he picks up next enables him to express how wonderfully he has been made; well that’s just fine for me, but hey a Grand Slam would also be nice.

Andy Burns is married to Catherine and the father of Elijah, as well as being a lover of Curry and Coffee (but not together), travel and enabling people to live the life they have been called to live. Living in Windsor but only on loan to the South East from his home in Teesside (according to his family).


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