Although we, as coaches, can shape how players develop resilience over time by, for example, setting manageable challenges for them and exposing them to tough experiences…how kids come to perceive and respond to training and match challenges over time is most strongly determined by lifetime interactions and communications with parents…
What Is Resilience?
Resilience is the ability to endure, overcome, or bounce back from adversity, obstacles, and setbacks.
For example, losing a match after being cheated…
Being exposed to a very tough training session by a coach…
Not being picked on a team they believed they deserved to make…
Unfortunately, although resilience is a vital foundation for mental toughness, in my experience parents generally have a poor understanding of their critical role in promoting their child’s development of resilience.
Here are several key points that are crucial for parents to understand…
The Vaccine Example…
Most of us have received vaccines to boost our immune defenses.
Vaccines act like small doses of adversity for our immune system leading to this system becoming stronger in fighting off disease.
Children’s difficult and unfair tennis experiences, such as being cheated, also provide the necessary vaccines that can help them develop resilience to face future life challenges.
The important point here is that the adversity and stress that children face during tennis challenges are distressing but not psychologically traumatic…
Supporting these ideas, children with moderate levels of early life stress show smaller physiological stress responses than those with high or low levels of early life stress.
Also, adults with a history of moderate stress encounters have the best long-term mental health and well-being outcomes.
With this in mind, let’s look at two crucial ways that parents can support resilience development in young players.
Exposure to ‘Positive Normal Stress’
It’s first critical for parents to encourage young players’ exposure to difficulties, setbacks, and unfairness common in tennis.
When they do this they provide their child with the required opportunities for development, growth and resilience building.
As mentioned above, it turns out the moderate stress that children encounter in these situations is a requirement for appropriate brain development, just like exercise is for physical and brain development, and health challenge is for immune development.
How Does the Brain Respond to Moderate Stress?
When we experience stress in small doses, like those faced in difficult sport situations, neurons, which are the brain’s basic building blocks, break down but then rebuild more strongly making the brain more resilient to face future demands.
Neuroscientists call this phenomenon ‘stress inoculation’.
Assuming it’s not too severe or prolonged (such as more traumatic life experiences that may occur throughout development), our brains become stronger as a result of stress making it a necessity for growth.
And so if parents can encourage children’s exposure to tennis related stresses such as being cheated, losing, or missing selection in a team, they are helping to build his or her brain’s ability to overcome adversity and develop resilience.
The Problem With Overprotection…
But this is not easy to do.
It’s natural for parents to have a strong inclination to be very protective of their child, and tennis evokes internal experiences that can make victory in the moment seem especially important.
But when parents are overprotective regarding difficult sport experiences, crucial opportunities to develop resilience can be missed.
I see tennis as the perfect place to intentionally promote the moderate, short-term stressful experiences that will allow children to function better in the future even though they, and their parents, will likely feel worse during the adverse experience.
Responding to Children’s Stress Effectively…
Also, while exposing children to tennis stress is important, just as important is how parents then respond to the stressful experience.
For example, in response to being cheated or missing a team they wanted to make, it is important for parents to express empathy for the child’s experience and encourage him or her when ready to discuss her own internal experiences regarding the experience (these communications will help the child develop a sense of importance and emotional intelligence).
But, it is vital for parents to also encourage children’s perception of having personal control over outcomes.
This means encouraging them to focus on controllable factors internal to him or her such as hard work, persistence, and discipline in overcoming difficulties rather than focusing on external factors such as being cheated, luck, or ‘the unfair coach’.
Alternatively, if parents can view perceived unfairness and difficulties such as being cheated or being left out of a desired team as an opportunity to grow, and successfully communicate that the child’s actions will determine his or her long term fate, not factors external to them, he or she will receive the message that they can affect future outcomes in their life.
The Problem with Focusing on External Factors…
If, however, parents communicate in a way that promotes a victim mentality, children will likely internalize the message that he or she does not control life outcomes.
This encourages ‘helplessness’ which is an innate human response that arises when we believe that we don’t have control over life outcomes, and leads to giving up more quickly when faced with obstacles.
The Resilience Equation…
So, by encouraging children’s exposure to ‘sport stress’, and communicating personal control in response, parents are effectively vaccinating young players to the challenges they will face throughout tennis training and matches.
This is a vital attribute to success in tennis that can only be developed through exposure to adversity supported by successful parental communications surrounding these experiences.
From this perspective ‘the cheaters’, or the ‘unfair coach’, provide the first part of the equation, and if parents are then able to meet the incredible challenge of stepping back from the extreme emotion of this situation and consider the big picture in choosing how to communicate to their child they can also provide the vital second part:
Exposure to ‘Tennis Growth Opportunities’
Parental Ability to Communicate a Personal Control Perspective
Increased Long Term Psychological Well-Being and Psychological Skills Required for Future Mental Toughness in Tennis