The Tennis Parent’s Guide to Motivation: 9 Lessons

15 Jul

Completing hour after hour of difficult deliberate practice for a decade or more, and sacrificing play and leisure time to do it, requires a huge amount of motivation. The findings of Benjamin Bloom, Daniel Coyle, Carol Dweck, Anders Ericsson and others reveal the following advice about how top performers were motivated during their development:

  1. Observation. Children were observed closely from a young age to identify their areas of interest, then encouraged to pursue these activities.
  2. Love of the game. The most important role of parents and early coaches was to foster a love of the game. If they don’t love tennis, they will never work hard enough to be great. They might also love the satisfaction of improving, or the rewards of winning, but it must start with having fun!
  3. Early praise. Early praise simply encouraged further participation, which alone gave children an early advantage.
  4. Praise for effort rather than results. Vital because this encouraged them to try, to experiment, and attempt difficult things (the most effective way to learn) without being worried about consequences of failing or poor results.
  5. Capture their imagination. Future top performers were continually reminded of the possibilities of success in their sport, in order to develop a strong desire in them and encourage them to dream. Examples of such reminders were: young pros playing on the next court; a well publicised selection process for representative teams; and regularly celebrating successes. Coyle points to the flooding of female Russian players into the world’s top 100 about 10 years after a 17 year old Anna Kournikova inspired young Russian girls to be like her. It inspired in them a single thought: “That could be me one day”.
  6. Self motivation. Early on, parents were often the main driving force behind practice, but at some point the child became engaged in the pursuit and drove themselves. Tiger Woods agrees: “My dad never asked me to play golf. I asked him. It’s the child’s desire to play that matters, not the parent’s desire to have the child play.” If you review points 1 to 5, you’ll note that they are all aimed at triggering self-motivation.
  7. Keep the flame lit.
    1. Goal setting. We have already seen how setting specific goals for training is crucial for effective practice, but Bloom also identified goal setting as critical for motivation in his study of top athletes. The alternative of slogging away without specific goals led to loss of motivation.
    2. Hurdles. They arise in the form of plateaus in results, doubts of ability, lack of opportunities, and so on. Understanding that performance is not capped by innate abilities kills the idea that they lack the required talent or x-factor (commonly the fatal blow for tennis careers). Knowledge of the principles of deliberate practice also encourages the attitude that these challenges are beneficial because they force us to seek new ways to improve.
    3. Avoiding burnout. Ericsson in his wide ranging studies found that experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout, which is vital for maintenance of motivation over long periods.

Have your own ideas? Please share them in the comments…

One Response to “The Tennis Parent’s Guide to Motivation: 9 Lessons”

  1. Leland Sheaffer April 19, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Kournikova’s professional tennis career ended prematurely at the age of 21 due to serious back and spinal problems, including a herniated disk. She lives in Miami Beach, Florida.”

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