Tennis And “The Ugly Parent Syndrome”

There’s a syndrome in tennis circles that has come to be widely known as “The Ugly Parent Syndrome.”

It is one in which teenaged players, or even those in their pre-teens, are placed under enormous pressure by over-zealous parents determined to see their children scale the heights of tennis greatness.

The pressure these parents exert can come in many forms — from subtle psychological techniques that play one child off against another (“How come Johnny’s forehand is much better than yours? — Don’t you think you should practice more often?”) to threatening a child with a loss of some value if he doesn’t perform (“Forget about that new racquet if you don’t beat Johnny”).

It can involve becoming deaf to their child’s concerns if those concerns conflict with what the parent has determined to be in the child’s “best interests”. (“I know you’d rather spend some more time with your friends, but I know what’s best, and what’s best is that you spend two more hours practicing forehands.”)

And in some extreme cases, the pressure can even take the form of actual physical abuse.

On an international scale, the most (in)famous “ugly parent” of all is Jim Pierce, whose daughter, Mary, has been for a number of years one of the game’s top women players.

In the early 1990’s, Jim Pierce’s behavior became so threatening to his daughter that she hired bodyguards and took out restraining orders to protect herself from him.

In 1993, he was banned by the Women’s Tennis Association from attending tournaments, although that ban was lifted a few years later.

There have been many other documented instances of what can only be described as child abuse leading, in most cases, to premature retirement and the destruction of the parent/child relationship.

Bearing in mind that it is only those instances where the child reaches an international level of play that any publicity is brought to bear on an abusive parent, consider how much of this sort of thing goes on at the lower levels.

When I look at some of the tennis parents today — in contrast to 20 or 25 years ago, when most parents were able to draw the distinction between a supportive influence and an overbearing, constraining one — I can’t help but observe the same sort of unhealthy obsession with their child’s performance that characterizes the more notorious of tennis’ ugly parents.

Forgetting that the most important thing for a child to develop is a love of the game, these parents all but guarantee their child’s involvement with the sport will be short-lived.

As anyone who has competed at a high level of sport knows, there is nothing worse than having to deal with the added burden of unwanted pressure, particularly from a parent (or coach) who has zero understanding of what the game is about — but who thinks they do.

Living vicariously through their child, or attempting to impress other parents with their child’s ability, or secretly hoping to one day live off their child’s earnings, the ugly parent is driven by a compulsive desire to control every single aspect of his or her child’s career, often based on a groundless assumption that their child is destined for tennis stardom.