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The Dark Side of Junior Tennis

On Saturday September 7th, 2019, the headlines across Canada and the global tennis world captured the incredible accomplishment of Bianca Andreescu, who at 19 years of age, became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title.  

Those who aren't familiar with what it takes to journey through the junior tennis world to have a chance of standing where Bianca Andreescu is today likely cannot imagine the dark side of such a trek.  

Here's a headline that you won't see from any media outlet:

Bianca Andreescu's Historic U.S. Open Win Causes Parents Around The World To Dream of Their Own Children Winning 3.8 Million US Dollars From A Single Tournament Plus Promises of Much More Via Tournament Winnings and Endorsements Over The Span Of An Illustrious Career

No, you won't see such a headline in mainstream media, but if all of us walked around with our innermost thoughts displayed in holographic bubbles over our heads, the world would quickly discover how damaging this dream can be to the countless children and families who get swept into the quest to realize this fantasy.

The Downside

Is there potential downside and collateral damage among children and families who buy into the dream of earning great financial wealth and a place at the table of professional tennis?  You better believe it, and this post is specifically meant to highlight some of the dark side of embracing this dream with hope that even one parent who stumbles upon this will give more thought to the long term well-being of their 10-year old child before going all in to chisel her into the next multimillionaire and global star.
 
As a recreational sport, tennis can be incredibly fun and a part of a healthy lifestyle.  To become a touring professional who earns many millions, there is a gargantuan price to be paid.  This price includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, high potential for development of long term health issues, and destruction of relationships within a family.  And the unfortunate reality of this aggregate price is that for every Bianca Andreescu, Serena Williams, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray whose families have paid their dues and managed to enter the kingdom of professional tennis, there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of families who don't get a seat at the table.  These forgotten families are often left with substantial debt or little in retirement funds, and perhaps more sadly, young adult children who may not have developed many skills off the tennis court with which to earn a living and thrive after the dream of being a professional tennis player fades to black.
  
Yes, the path to the tennis hall of fame and the dead end reached by many families share a common road.  It may be akin to a scene of zombies madly climbing one another to scale a huge wall, using and stomping fellow zombies for a chance to be one of the few who makes it to the top rather than one of the multitudes that fall to their death or devastating injuries.  

Why do sane and loving parents keep their prepubescent and teenage children on such a path?  The quest for substantial wealth is a primary motivator among those who don't feel much hope to achieve financial independence in another way.  Families that are financially healthy to begin with may be motivated by the glamour of being a tennis player on the professional tour.  The rare exception is a junior tennis player who is mostly or entirely self-motivated and simply loves the sport so much that they are willing to make all necessary sacrifices to pursue the dream of being a pro.  

Selling The Dream

Regardless of a family's motivation, there are often coaches in every tennis hotbed around the world who are eager to sell the dream of turning your child into the next Bianca or Nadal.  Such coaches know that they cannot command an hourly lesson fee that can be $100 or more unless families believe that they are making an investment in a future career as a top pro.  When you encounter a coach who regularly sells the dream by taking credit for others who have turned pro and talking up his resume, you should recognize that chances are that he cares more about his own agenda than the mental and physical well-being of your child.  To such coaches, every youngster who shows some potential on the court and who has parents who are willing to buy into the dream is a coveted source of good income and potentially a cash cow if they make it to the pro tour.

Yes, if you are a parent who cares more about your child's long term well-being than whether they make it as a pro, even if you deem the pursuit of professional tennis a worthwhile goal, you and your child will be well served in finding a coach who clearly cares more about the person your child will be for the rest of their life than if your child and you are willing to do all it takes to make it to the professional tour - coaches who have this mind and heartset do exist, so don't lose hope in connecting with one if your child truly embraces the journey and it won't break your finances or your other family relationships to allow your child to pursue their dream.   

The Financial Cost

Being a part of the junior tennis scene is almost like being a part of a travelling fair or circus.  Your child and you are necessary cogs in the giant wheel that makes money for coaches, clubs, and even your country's tennis federation.  The only difference from being a part of a travelling circus is that as a junior tennis player and family, you don't get paid.  In fact, it costs you substantial sums of after-tax money to cover court time, lesson fees, club dues, tournament fees, and all of the funds required to get to and from tournaments, including travel, housing, and food.
  
If your child loves being involved in junior tennis and your family can comfortably afford to fund the journey without compromising your responsibility as an adult to plan for your retirement so that you aren't a burden to others later on, there's no doubt that the monetary expenditure can be worthwhile.  And no, a responsible retirement plan does not take into account any inheritance that you are counting on from aging relatives.

The Cost On Your Relationships

Even if you can financially afford to have your child pursue junior tennis, you might ask yourself if you are paying an unquantifiable price in the quality of other relationships that are important to you.  Do you have a partner or other children who aren't really a part of the tennis journey, and if so, does this cause you to miss out on large chunks of their lives?  If you have a family of four or five and all of you can enthusiastically travel and soak in the experience together, this can be wonderful, of course.  But what if you have to spend many months each year over the prime years of childhood and parenthood with just one child while your other children and spouse are left feeling neglected or undervalued?  There is no easy fix for such a scenario a decade later.
  
What about time spent with other loved ones?  Family gatherings with aging relatives, siblings, cousins, and dear friends.  If you are all in with junior tennis, you can expect everything and everyone else to be a distant priority.  Will you be okay with this a decade later?

The Mindset Of A Top Junior Tennis Player

As an elite competitor in junior tennis, you are participating in a zero-sum game.  You eat what you kill.  You begin tournaments with a field of a few dozen other players and only one person walks away feeling like they won.  What did this young person just win other than a momentary feeling of victory?  What has this young mind and spirit learned about life?  No, this isn't a call to do away with all measures of achievement and to give everyone a participation trophy instead.  If you are a parent who hopes for your child to grow into an adult who feels true fulfillment that can only really come from being a source of love and light to others, you might ask yourself if the mindset required on the junior tennis scene supports such development of the person your child will become.  As a top tennis player, generally, it's accurate to say that everything revolves around you - your practices, your fitness training, your recovery, your food and hydration, your support team, your equipment, your schooling, your overall schedule.
  
Your child will often compete against children from families who are obsessed with going pro.  In most parts of the world, junior tennis players call their own lines with little to no recourse for purposeful cheating.  Often, it's only at high stakes national and international tournaments where there are umpires and some system of warnings and penalties for purposeful cheating, but even with roving umpires walking from court to court, a child who knows that he is setting up to be verbally or physically abused by his parents if he loses will find ways to cheat on critical points when there is an opportunity to do so.  If you're raising your child not to steal from others, what is the silver lining in repeatedly encountering such opponents who are under immense pressure to win at any cost to justify their parents' investment in future riches that they are under pressure to deliver?

Professional tennis is a multibillion dollar industry, and it does not work without an enormous roster of players.  This roster includes those who have achieved global recognition, the lesser known "career journey-players" who experience occasional moments of triumph but are mostly fodder for the top whales, and the thousands of players who struggle through the minor leagues - the futures and challenger circuits -  with hope that they can earn enough points to break through to the main tour where they can have a shot to earn more than they spend and possibly make millions as a top 50 pro.
  
And then you have the millions of children and families who are needed along the way through junior tennis to allow for the roster described above to have the framework and experiences they need to reach the futures, challengers, and pro tours.  Remember that everyone in the junior tennis circus pays about the same price in money, health, and missed opportunities to be with other loved ones.

So there you have it, some of the dark side of the journey that can culminate in a historic win like Bianca's, headlines that you won't see via Apple News or your Google feed.
  
This isn't to take anything away from Bianca Andreescu and her family for an extraordinary achievement and for setting her up for a spectacular career as a professional tennis player.  Rather, it's to hopefully encourage a parent of a top 12-year old junior tennis player to take a step back and ask him or herself:

Do I need to be yelling at my young child to split step every time and to fight harder on the court?

Is this journey truly helping my child develop into a decent human being?

Is tennis at this level healthy for my child's joints and soft tissues long term, and is it really healthy for my child to be chasing the scorching heat of summer around the globe 9-10 months out of every year?

Is all of this time spent with junior tennis causing neglect and possibly irreversible damage in other relationships within my family?

Can we comfortably afford this journey while still being responsible in saving and investing for our retirement years?
  
The Bright Side of Junior Tennis

Young children and teenagers who devote a good portion of their years developing their tennis skills and general athleticism can create a foundation of good physical health that can serve them well for the rest of their lives, but only if they understand the importance of getting enough recovery time and the perils of playing through injuries.  

Developing into a skilled athlete can create self belief that can serve them well in all other areas of life.

Witnessing some of the maladaptive behaviour that is rampant in junior tennis - purposeful cheating, crazy parents, and coaches who care more about money than the well-being of their students - can allow junior tennis players to see life as it is, full of all sorts of characters with varying motivations.  To see things as they are is necessary to learn how to be a thoughtful friend and choose thoughtful friends in all walks of life.
  
In learning to recognize differences in personality, motivation, and thoughtfulness, it helps that the junior tennis player will almost certainly encounter and spend time with other kids, parents, coaches, and volunteers who value healthy relationships more than they do achievement of specific results.  

And perhaps most pragmatically, being a high level teenage athlete can be a healthier path than one that involves snapchatting and texting day and night, though the reality is that many junior tennis players are no different from most teenagers in how tethered they are to mindless scrolling to assuage boredom or loneliness.

The Road Ahead

What if your child and family have already travelled down the road to a point where you cannot imagine altering the path ahead?

I sympathize with this scenario, as I personally know good families who have been in this situation.  All I would say is to remember that we often learn our most valued lessons through our struggles, and when parents embrace humility and strive to make their parenting more about helping their children discover who they are and what they want to experience in this world, there is always great potential for healing and healthy years ahead.  And there is certainly room for junior tennis in a healthy and balanced life, with healthy and balanced being the operative words.
  
If you have family or friends who are embarking on the junior tennis journey and you feel some of these thoughts may be helpful to them, please consider sharing.  

 
 

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