Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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During practice at the OSSA Tennis Academy earlier this year, Vince Pulupa noticed something strange. A parent stood inside the lobby near the court and appeared to be timing her child’s water breaks with a stopwatch. The woman later told Pulupa that her daughter spent only 37 minutes out of the hour-long lesson hitting a tennis ball.

“In 17, 18 years of coaching, I never had anyone tell me that until 2019,” says Pulupa, the academy’s co-founder.

At junior tennis tournaments, Pulupa has witnessed verbal abuse from parents toward their kids, referees, and other players. They routinely fidget and yell during matches. On rare occasions, he’s had to break up fights between parents.

It’s a scene that’s playing out in youth sports across the country. Overly involved, aggressive, or toxic parents are nothing new in the competitive sporting environment, but several local tennis coaches believe overbearing parents are becoming more prevalent. They see parents getting increasingly involved in the minutiae of their child’s daily progress and micromanaging their careers, sometimes at the expense of development.

Pulupa understands why it happens. Parents of young athletes can invest thousands of dollars in their children’s careers with the goal of a college scholarship, or even a professional career, in mind. According to The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in D.C., some parents spend upward of $34,900 a year on tennis per child, which is the highest of the 21 sports the organization evaluated.

Tennis is also unique in that it is an individual sport with minimal coaching allowed during competition. Limited barriers exist between a player and their parents, and external pressures, whether from coaches or parents, can lead to burnout. 

“The kids live with the parents, so they have them all day, all night,” Pulupa says. “Tennis, we hope, is sort of the escape, whether you’re taking it super seriously for tournament reasons or recreational … And I think that escape is more beneficial when you can kind of get away from the home life a little bit.”

***

In the second round of a 12-and-under tennis tournament at Anacostia Park several years ago, Ronnie Goodall sat nervously near the court as his daughter, Kai, engaged in a tight match against her opponent.

Goodall, a former varsity tennis player at Georgetown University, cheered and shouted words of encouragement at her: “Move your feet!” “Get ready for the next shot!” 

Coaching during tennis matches is not allowed, and the father of Kai’s opponent made a comment to Goodall, warning him to watch his words.

“I was like, ‘Watch what?’” Goodall recalls saying. The two got into a brief but heated exchange, before Goodall walked around the park to cool down.

Meanwhile, Kai maintained her composure on the court, but could hear the commotion. Between the ages of 7 and 12, the pressure she felt from her parents, especially her father, was constant, Kai says. One day, on the car ride home after a match, she broke down.

“I lost, and I was crying. He kept trying to talk to me afterwards,” recalls Kai, now 17. “I didn’t want to talk. I just needed to reflect. I told him, ‘I can’t keep doing this if you keep talking from the sidelines. I have to focus and it’s hard to do that. I appreciate you trying to help and stuff, but it’s more detrimental than beneficial.’”

Goodall understands the high-strung world of competitive junior tennis. He not only has experienced it himself, but sees other stressed and overly engaged parents in his role as the director of the Arthur Ashe Children’s Program and Junior Team Tennis at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation. “The parents are very, very involved” in the more advanced clinics at the organization’s 16th Street NW location, Goodall says.

And the better a child gets, the more money it’s going to cost, says Goodall, who used to work for the Mid-Atlantic section of the United States Tennis Association. Like with many competitive youth sports, tennis parents need to pay for travel, tournament fees, coaching, and equipment. This can lead to an obsession with results, for both parents and young athletes.

“When I got my daughter into tennis, I wanted her to follow my footsteps, which is not right,” Goodall says. “She has to do her own. I was thinking, ‘Wow, college scholarship, possibly pro.’”  

“A lot of parents are trying to realize dreams for their kids.”

Kai, a senior at School Without Walls, says her parents’ comments and behavior did not make her want to quit, but her passion for the sport wavered. “Some [tennis centers] I just didn’t like at all,” she says. “Having to go there after school every day just discouraged me, and eventually I lost some interest for tennis, and on top of that, the little comments [my parents made] on the sidelines, they were like an extra factor.”

Goodall eventually backed off, and says he began to leave a lot of teaching up to Kai’s coaches instead. His advice to his old self is to not take the sport so seriously. “It’s going to work itself out,” Goodall says. “Give Kai the best chances of enhancing and improving her game, and it will work itself out.”

As Kai reflects on her young tennis career, which began at age 5, she is grateful for her parents’ support. She knows that not everyone has that. But she wishes her father didn’t make her play tennis for his own reasons. And maybe, there could’ve been more barriers during tournaments.

“Looking back on it, if he wasn’t as involved as he was, then I might not have gone as far with tennis as I have now, so I kind of appreciate the fact that he was pitching in a lot, but sometimes, it’s annoying,” Kai says. “I don’t like that sideline stuff. That I could’ve done without.”

***

About 15 years ago at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Vesa Ponkka attempted an experiment. He closed all practices to parents during the winter. They weren’t allowed inside the tennis bubble while their kids practiced.

Ponkka, the academy’s president and senior director of tennis, says it wasn’t a response to problematic parents, but that he “wanted to create a peaceful training environment.” 

Parents at first balked at the rule, but over time, Ponkka says, they began to relax. It built trust. Ponkka concluded that since there were no issues during those winter months, he began to allow parents to sit on the benches inside the tennis bubble during practice again. But a strict barrier still exists: Parents are not allowed on the court during training, unless it’s a private lesson. 

On the outdoor courts, there are signs that stipulate that only coaches and players are allowed beyond a certain point.

To Ponkka, “90 percent of the parents are great people, great human beings. It’s that 10 percent that gives it a bad name.” He’s seen overinvolvement increase over the years. Parents, armed with more information found online about the sport and the pressure of getting their kids into college, have become more results-focused and impatient.

Coaches, in turn, have to do more to earn trust. 

“I think they’re worse than in the early days,” Ponkka says. “There was more respect right away. There was more trust, easily to be established. Now we just need to work harder to establish that trust and making sure communication works well. I think it’s more time consuming. I think it’s more work. But it’s something that needs to be done and it needs to be done well, because we all need to think about what’s best for the kids.”

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Ponkka, a native of Finland, says that while it doesn’t happen “too many times,” he’s witnessed the alarming and violent side of competitive youth tennis that has plagued other sports, as well. “I have seen fights. I have seen fights with baseball bats, all kinds of stuff,” Ponkka says. “I have seen parents ruining people’s cars. It’s just absolutely as ugly as it can get.” 

Tournaments can be a source of stress. Parents are aware of their kids’ rankings and important matches. To combat some of the issues that can arise at these tournaments, the USTA has a set of guidelines for parents, coaches, and spectators. 

All must remain a “minimum of 8 feet away from the playing area” and “any negative communication with tournament officials” can result in a code violation. Spectators can be asked to leave. The USTA also encourages players, parents, coaches, and spectators to sign an oath prior to the tournament.

But tennis coaches, parents, and players that City Paper spoke to say that spectators still struggle to keep their emotions in check at nearly every tournament—especially at the higher level events. That ranges from parents accusing their child’s opponent of making bad line calls to those who walk onto the court to stop a match.

Asaf Yamin, the director of high performance at JTCC, recognizes that youth sports parents can sometimes be over the top, but he wants to redirect the passion. In an individual sport like tennis, kids must learn how to problem solve on their own. It would help to give parents a distraction during tournaments, Yamin says, like having them attend mandatory seminars featuring guest speakers from the tennis industry.

“I think in the tournaments, there should be more parent education,” he says. “I think there should be parent activities—you keep them busy. Going there 10 hours, there’s literally nothing. What else are you going to do but be overly involved?”

In 2020, USTA Mid-Atlantic plans to hold 25 to 30 parent education sessions led by Rachel Kros, the senior manager of youth competition for the section. The sessions, which will be held during tennis events and tournaments, will educate parents on the junior competitive structure changes taking place in 2021, and also the parents’ roles in youth athlete development.

Yamin points to his native Israel as a model of how to create more barriers between the players and parents during tournaments. The Israel Tennis Association, he says, hosts tournaments where no parents—and sometimes even coaches—are allowed on site. At the beginning, Yamin says, it would be stressful for parents, but it allowed the players to grow and learn how to trust themselves.

He wants the U.S. to start implementing similar procedures. Yamin says there have been discussions to do so at College Park, but no concrete plans as of yet.

“I think it’s for the parents’ sake and for the kids’ sake, mostly, to be on their own,” Yamin says. “Tennis is an individual sport … It’s not so much against the parents, but it’s more to benefit the kids in some ways.”

***

The constant search for the “magic bullet” is what frustrates and angers Bob Pass. At 4 Star Tennis Academy, which he started in 1973, Pass sees a lot more parents who are overly involved in their kids’ tennis schedule. 

If a child isn’t winning right away, parents get impatient.

“You can’t control parents from being overly involved,” he says. “They do the driving. They pay the bills. You can’t prevent them. The only thing you can do is talk to them, and they can either accept the coaching or they do not. And most of them don’t take the coaching. And it’s worse, the attitude that they know what’s best is much more so than in the past.”

This lack of trust can manifest in different ways. Parents, Pass says, insist on making tournament schedules, instead of letting coaches handle it. They contend that their kids are ready for national-level tournaments, and get confrontational when he disagrees.

Parents are also more willing to have their kids attend multiple academies and bounce from coach to coach, according to Pass.

“There’s a lot more shopping around,” he explains. “I feel like that’s a detriment to the kid, because coaching success can’t happen without the element of trust, to develop that to the highest degree depends on loyalty in both directions. I don’t care if you’re the greatest coach in the world, you don’t develop without that. The parents doing that, in my opinion, are doing a great disservice to the kids. That is something new in the last 10 to 12 years.”

The helicopter parenting damages a young player’s growth—not just in sports, but in their overall health. Studies have shown that this type of parenting can affect a child’s emotional well-being. A study published last year in the journal Developmental Psychology concluded that children with over controlling parents may struggle to adjust in school and social environments.

“Our research showed that children with helicopter parents may be less able to deal with the challenging demands of growing up, especially with navigating the complex school environment,” Dr. Nicole B. Perry, the study’s lead author, told the American Psychological Association. “Children who cannot regulate their emotions and behavior effectively are more likely to act out in the classroom, to have a harder time making friends and to struggle in school.” 

Harrison Bernstein, a coach at the OSSA Tennis Academy, likens the helicopter parenting in sports to the recent college admissions bribery scandal, where parents were accused of paying money to change their child’s test scores or bribe college officials. 

“It’s an individual sport, and it’s the only sport in competition where coaching is not allowed,” Bernstein says. “That makes it really interesting. Which is kind of ironic—because you want to do everything for them, then they have to go out there on their own. When you think of training, wouldn’t you want them to do that more often?”

At OSSA, which operates out of Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, parents are not allowed on the court during practice. In tennis, parents sometimes act as the de-facto coach, and so “lines get blurred,” Bernstein says.

But once at the academy, strict boundaries are set. 

“We’re coaching, you’re parenting. That’s the thing parents have to realize. You be the parent,” says Bernstein, who has experience coaching in the NFL. “You have to let your kids be coached. That’s one of the things that’s not happening. The more you do for them, like picking up the balls, the worse they are. The development of the player, the players are worse off if the parents are helping.”

Pass isn’t sure what the solution is to overbearing parents. The “percent of crazies is higher,” he says, and he hopes that parents are able to allow their kids to make mistakes.

That, to him, is part of the learning process. 

“They don’t go into school and sit over the teacher’s shoulder and tell the teachers what the kids need, but in tennis they do, they come and watch every practice,” Pass says. “And the kids can’t perform because they’re worried about if they’re making a few errors, that they’re going to be criticized by parents on the ride home. It just creates a terrible environment. You can’t be successful unless you’re in an environment where you’re free, free to do well or make mistakes or whatever. You have to be free to make mistakes in practice, otherwise how can you grow?”

***

Like many of the kids he coaches and the parents he interacts with, Pulupa is a competitive person. When kids don’t share toys with his son, Dylan, at the playground, his blood pressure starts to rise.

Pulupa laughs. His son is 1-and-a-half. Before last year, he couldn’t quite relate to the overinvolved parents he sees. Now, he gets it. 

He understands the financial and emotional sacrifices parents often have to make for their child to succeed in an ultra competitive and expensive sport like junior tennis. He understands the thinking that they know what’s best for their own child.

“I see where the parents get a little bit crazy about their kid. It’s their kid, right? And like I said, most of these parents are successful in something, you know, living in this [Montgomery County] area,” Pulupa says. “They are competitive by nature, you’re adding sports to it … You start really throwing all your eggs in this one specialized sport, and it’s like, I can see it. I can see why it’s happening. I don’t condone it, but I get it.”

Dylan has shown interest in baseball and soccer, and Pulupa says he will introduce him to tennis eventually. But he’s apprehensive about entering his son in competitive youth tennis.

Pulupa knows that other sports have their issues and that tennis isn’t unique in that sense, but it’s different when you see the problems up close.

“I don’t know if I want my son to be a part of this world,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot. I know what it takes, you know, competitively. And I also know, it’s not the prettiest world, sometimes it’s lonely. I mean, it takes a, you know, a certain individual to play this. It takes a certain family to sort of support this and I just don’t know, you have to be a little bit crazy. You know what I mean? Like to work in the business, to be a kid, to be a family. You got to be a little off to do this.”