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Steve Flink: A short book long on substance

7/31/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

I have never met Jerry Hendrick, and until a few weeks ago I had no clue who he was. But after spending a chunk of this past weekend reading his impressive book published in 2011 entitled, “I Love You  (But You Should Have Won!): A Guidebook For Parents With Children Who Play Sports”, I now feel as if I know this insightful man reasonably well. He is the men’s tennis coach at Aquinas College, a position he has held for a couple of decades. Simultaneously, he has been an adjunct professor at Grand Valley State University.

Hendrick taught all three of his children how to play tennis, but clearly he has also guided them in larger ways about what really matters in life, including a daughter who was confronted by and dealt courageously with cancer. His book is only 60 pages long, and yet Hendrick has packed so much sound information and sensible advice into that relatively small space that no reader can feel cheated. There are merely seven chapters in the book, but the clarity of his thinking and the unmistakable wisdom of his words make the brief reading journey highly enjoyable. The way I look at it, this is an invaluable book for parents of kids who take a serious interest in sports, particularly those who have children deeply involved in tennis.

Spread out through the chapters are isolated workbook pages called “Questions for Thought”, designed to make parents clarify how they can best serve the interest of their kids. Hendrick thus encourages mothers and fathers of young athletes to find a way to be productive and unconditionally supportive, to avoid becoming overbearing and obtrusive, to guide their kids with wisdom and intelligence. He has plainly learned substantially from his own experiences as a coach and a father. Hendrick addresses parents with a forthright candor, without slipping into too much sanctimony. That is no small feat.

As he writes in his important foreword, “I have observed so many coaches and parents who have forgotten or perhaps never understood what sports, particularly children’s sports, are really supposed to be about. Their goals for their child’s participation have been warped by internal and external pressures and because of this they are unable to provide the education and support their child needs. If reading this book can help make a change for the better in this area, then my work has been worthwhile.”

I can assure you that Hendrick has succeeded in that goal. Consider what he points out in his chapter called “Parents, Kids and Competition.” Addressing the competitive “ wiring” that defines him and so many others, Hendrick writes, “ Children inside and outside of my own family have also been blessed and cursed with varying degrees of this competitive fire. For some it burns very powerfully and its heat can leave a wake of ash and cinder wherever the person goes. For others the flame is smaller and its warmth more manageable. Extremes on either end can cause a parent to become frustrated, but that’s really the parent’s problem and not the child’s.”

Hendrick backs up that point ably later in the same chapter, writing, “It is ironic that the greatest challenge in keeping competition in its proper perspective lies within the hearts and minds of the adults who are involved, and not with the kids who are actually playing. My own experiences have led me to believe that the kids generally have a pretty good handle on everything.”

Hendrick’s views on how direct he should be in speaking with tennis parents about their goals for their kids have evolved. He explains in the book that he has come to realize that there is no substitute for hard-edged honesty over sugar-coating. As he writes in his second chapter (“The Secret Formula for Winning in Sports”), “I now tell people right from the start what I believe about the making of a tennis player and I don’t hold back—even if the words I am saying might have the effect of tempering their enthusiasm about how good a tennis player their child might become. I don’t do this to be mean; in fact, I do it for the opposite reason. I speak more bluntly than I ever did before in the hope that I might discourage unreasonable and even unfair expectations that these parents might be inclined to direct toward their child. I have found that too many parents have ideas about their child’s potential that are gross exaggerations of their true capabilities.”

In a chapter called “Taming the Beast”, he writes, “A first step toward the process of taming the beast inside of us is to acknowledge that it is there. This is one of those times when you have to admit you have a problem before you begin your efforts to address it. Once you have gotten past this necessary first step, you must then begin the specific ways in which this beast manifests itself in you when your child is involved in sports. You see, the beast does not affect everyone in the same way, so you may see evidence of its presence in someone else more easily than you see it in yourself.”

Following up on that theme later, Hendrick writes, “Ultimately, the best way to prevent the beast within us from growing so strong that it affects our ability to love and support our child is to understand and accept the idea that our child’s participation in sports is not about us. We may have been the one to introduce our child to tennis, hockey, soccer or whatever sport he or she is playing. We may have also been the one to make significant sacrifices in time and money to help our child become as good at the sport as he or she is. None of that matters, though. It does not give us the right to claim our child’s game as our own and it does not excuse our thoughts and behaviors about our child that are related to how well he happened to play in his last game.”

One of Hendrick’s most crucial chapters is “ Knowing What Hat to Wear”, which is aimed at those who combine their parental role with that of being a coach. As he writes, “While there are probably many examples of a parent acting as their child’s coach where everything appears to have turned out well, there seem to be far more examples where these types of relationships have turned out badly. This has certainly been the case in the examples I have observed with kids who play tennis. Through my observations of these parent/child relationships, I have concluded that most of them appeared to go wrong when the parent began treating their little boy or girl as more of their student or protégé and less as their child.”

In the chapter entitled “Knowing What to Say”, Hendrick focusses on the need for parents to recognize how critical it is that they set the right tone and say the right things after their kid has lost a match. He points out, “Knowing what to say and when to say it is [as] fundamentally important as anything else I have mentioned so far when it comes to being the kind of parent a child wants to be around after they have lost. Being a parent who is able to make these good choices is absolutely vital.”

Hendrick elaborates on that point later, writing, “The lesson is that the parent must be honest, personal and sincere in what he says to the child. At the same time the parent must also be discriminating in what he chooses to say. Do not wrap statements of love and support with an analysis of the child’s performance. The two should never be merged together or even offered within a close time interval of each other.”

Near the conclusion of his book, in his final chapter called “The Big Picture”, Hendrick offers more cogent advice to parents. As he comments, “I emphasize the importance of never losing sight of the big picture. Remember who you are and what you have to offer your child. Remember who your child is and what they need from you.  Look past the moment you are currently sharing and into a future you hope will include an ongoing, lifelong, loving relationship. When your children are young they have no choice but to be with you and do as you say. When they get older these choices will be theirs. The love and support you show them now will come back to you later on in the form of a lifelong relationship you will cultivate together.”

“I Love You… (But You Should Have Won!)" is a fine book that should be read and taken seriously by every tennis parent.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.