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Soon, everyone will be super; and when everyone is super, no one will be.
This is my favourite line from the movie The Incredibles. When the bad guy says this, the point is clear. Imagine what it would be like for you to be amazing at something but not be recognized for it. What would this world be like if there was no recognition for being the best? There would be less incentive to put in extra effort in school, in sports, in anything. It is not hard to see how detrimental this would be to our society. So why are so many parents, teachers, schools, and sports organizations trying to create this type of environment? In our efforts to protect our children from disappointment, we are causing a far more damaging consequence. We are teaching our kids to be lazy, to expect something for nothing. They don’t learn to fight for what they want. We are crippling our children by protecting them from the realities of the world that they will eventually have to face and navigate through.
The biggest mistake we make for young kids is to ensure that everyone of them walks away with a prize. I am talking about the participation medals and awards that seem to be rampant in society. Whether a child is the best on the court or the worst, they apparently deserve to receive a medal for their effort. But have they really put in any kind of effort? If your child is the worst on the court, chances are they have put in the worst effort out of all the kids there. So, what are you teaching them by giving them a medal? That poor effort still gets rewarded! How does this prepare your child for the world of sports or more importantly, life after sports?
When it comes to professional tennis, only the highest ranked and best players in the world get to play in the grand slam tournaments. It is an honour to earn a spot in one of those draws. The organizers of these tournaments do not simply give out spots in the draw to players whose turn it is to play. People spend thousands of dollars to travel to these tournaments and watch the best players in the world compete. They deserve to see the best players in the world, not the ones who have patiently waited in line. So, if the world is so pragmatic and rewards only the worthy, why do we teach our children that they can have success without having to earn it? Why do we hand out participation medals? Why do parents have the attitude that their child should get a shot playing with the best players before they themselves are one of the best players? Because it is hard to look at your child and see the disappointment in their face. I know. It is heart wrenching. But if we want to prepare our children for the real world, we need to teach them this very valuable lesson: you must earn your spot on the team.
As a coach, I often get asked, “when does my child get a chance to play with the top kids in the group?” My answer is always the same: when your child earns it. I tell every athlete in my programs that we place kids in our programs based on their level. Not their age, not their popularity and not on how long they have trained with us. We aim to create a High-Performance environment at the club and the only way to do that is to place players on their courts with other players of similar ability. I don’t promise the kids that they will make the top court one day, but I do explain to them that their best chance to reach it is through hard work, discipline, and dedication. Fighting for your children to practice with the top kids in a program when they are not at the level teaches them that they don’t have to work hard and get better.
I grew up in a family that immigrated from the UK. My parents had next to nothing when they arrived in Canada. Their life was all about hard work and dedication and they bestowed that attitude onto their four children. By the time I had come around, both my parents had very successful businesses and so when I reached the age of 14, they were able to afford to send me to a tennis academy in Ontario. At that time, I was easily one of the worst players in the academy. I used to call home every week and complain to my parents that the coaches never gave me a chance to play with the top players in the academy. My parents’ response was to remind me that if I wanted to play with the top players then I had to earn it. I had to become so good that the coaches would have no choice but to let me play with the top players in the academy. It was that parenting that helped me become a 24-time Provincial Champion in Alberta and to become one of the top tennis players in NCAA Div 1 tennis by earning All-American Honors in 1993.
I have been coaching for 28 years and have worked with juniors of all levels from beginners to Nationally and Internationally ranked players. It has been my experience that children whose parents have the attitude that their child must earn their spot in the program, tend to become better than the other kids. Their kids try harder in practice. They know that their parent is not going to fight their battle for them, so they have to do it on their own. Children whose parents don’t have that attitude know that they do not have to put in a good effort in practice. Their parents will either push for them to get into the top program or move them to another club that will accommodate that attitude.
These children who are taught that they need to earn their spot on a team fight harder in matches as well. They know that the only way they get to go on the special international tennis trip or selected for the top team is to win more in tournaments. They tend to fight harder for their matches and thus win more. When juniors don’t have to earn their spot, they tend to give up when the going gets tough. I mean, what is the point in trying when you don’t need to?
We need to prepare our children and the kids we coach for the real world. If your child gets into the habit of not training hard because they know that their parents will pay the money or pressure the coach or both to get them into the top program, then they develop that same idle attitude their whole life. The problem is, when they grow up and get a real job, no boss will listen to the parents. Your child will be on their own and if they want that big promotion, they are going to have to earn it.
So, coaches and clubs, let’s stop handing out medals to every child that registers for a tournament. Let’s start showing kids that there is merit to putting in a good effort. That you will only be recognized and rewarded for being one of the best. And parents, when your child is upset that they didn’t make the team or get a prize in a tournament, use that moment to teach them the valuable lesson of hard work and determination. Get them to use that feeling of disappointment to motivate themselves to try even harder like all the professional athletes before them.