“For the Love of the Game"
“Young tennis players often tell me that they don’t know if they are talking to their father or their tennis coach. Luckily, I never had that issue.” - Eric Butorac
My father loves the game of tennis. To qualify this, let me say that a lot of us really LIKE tennis….because my father LOVES it. His book collection is as good as any tennis library in the world. He works at his tennis club six days a week and goes in on his day off to play his weekly game, and to this day is one of the most respected coaches in the state. He told me that parents will occasionally call him for advice on how to raise a pro tennis player. His normal response goes something like this: “Well, I’m not too sure I’m equipped to give parenting advice.”
When I wanted to stop playing tennis at 12, my Mom said that I had to tell my Dad. I was a highly ranked player in the section. If I just quit, he would likely be mad, and surely disappointed, right? I was terrified of his response. I remember walking out to tell him while he was mowing the lawn. He saw me coming and turned off the old, overly loud mower and it was as if the world became eerily silent. As if the world was waiting for what I had to say. I mustered up the courage and said it: “Dad, I want to stop playing tennis.” His response? The response I was so terrified of? ”Sure, that’s fine. What would you like to do this summer? Do you want to play baseball? Do you want to go to camp?” Wait just a minute here…I didn’t have to play tennis? Maybe he was disappointed that day, but he certainly didn’t show it. How my father handled that conversation shaped how I would feel about the game for the rest of my life. In fact, he doesn’t even remember it that way at all. He remembers thinking that I was a little burned out and maybe dialing it back would be a good idea.
To this day, I can’t remember him ever pushing me, or even asking me to play with him. When I would ask him to hit, he would never turn me down, but it would have to be my initiative. He was patient enough to let me fall in love with the game that he loves instead of forcing it upon me. He now mentions that there were times when he thought I should have been working a little harder, but thought that it wasn’t his place to push me. He had a level of patience that very few parents have.
During my second year on tour, I called home from France looking for some advice. I didn’t know which tournaments to play, or if I needed a break. I was laying out all of my options. His response was simple: ‘Eric, I think at this point you know more than I know, so just trust your judgment. I would.”
My dad had knowledge, judgment and foresight, whether he knew it or not. And even though he would still hesitate to give parents advice on how to raise a pro athlete, he actually does have a tremendous amount of wisdom for parents of athletes at all levels.
I have now been on the ATP World Tour for 13 years. It has been a wonderful experience in many ways, but it is not an amazing light at the end of a dark tunnel. While it may appear that a player is on top of the world, it doesn’t mean that he or she is not dealing with some serious demons – see Open by Andre Agassi. I can tell you firsthand that some players, even good friends of mine, on tour are very unhappy. Despite being able to travel the globe playing a sport for living, they struggle to find joy and fulfillment. In many cases this struggle stems from having been pushed too hard by overzealous tennis parents. Seeing these players and reflecting on my own experience has led me to a huge realization for tennis parents: Don’t push your kids too hard. Let them lead the way by giving them support so they can gain autonomy and become self-motivated. This leads to fulfilling tennis experiences at all levels—including the ATP World Tour. Just ask my Dad.