Are you worried about your child choosing sport as a career?

Are you worried about your child choosing sport as a career?

Now that the dust has settled on the post-schoolies honeymoon period, and the exam results have been tallied and released, there will be plenty of nervy 18- and 19-year olds around the country sharpening their pencils for the next level of formal education, cursing the end of the break.

Some might have even commenced working on dad’s farm or for their uncle’s logistics company, and finally pulling in some decent coin, at least compared to the minimum wage they were getting at KFC or Maccas.

There will also be a substantial number of free spirits who decided to “take some time off from the studies” and will be furiously packing their bags for an overseas jaunt where the holidays, partying and a life of casual lawlessness in what must seem like Adult Disneyworld can continue.

But there is a world of youngsters out there – immensely athletically talented ones – that are caught at a huge crossroads: “Do I pursue my dreams of being an elite athlete as I am fairly talented, or do I come to terms with the fact that it is a road fraught with danger and lack of security and I should be realistic and rather opt for one of the options previously described?”

Instead of trying to postulate on the do’s, don’ts and what-ifs, we sought the advice from an expert. Jayne Leslieis an Executive Leadership Specialist and Behavioural Change Coach. She also is the mother of an 18-year old aspiring tennis player, Zavia Leslie-Adam, who has just completed his schooling and is in the treacherous transitional period described above.

Zavia has played tennis since he was 6 and has shown an aptitude for it ever since, and Jayne has been his biggest supporter ever since. Here’s what she had to say about this exciting but daunting time.

RF: So Zavia’s just finished school and presumably had some time off over the festive season; where to from now?

JL: There are so many different challenges that I face and that he faces too. It’s very different to how it was when I was a child, so I’m learning at the same time. There are so many different peer pressures from his friends. He’s asking himself the big questions in life, which are, “Do I really want to be a tennis player?” and, “Am I going to uni?” or, “Am I going to take a gap year?”

It’s tough to get answers from an 18-year old. The whole communication seems to have changed since he was 16, when I felt that he had more solid plans. Now I feel that he’s got plans, but I don’t feel that he’s completely letting me in. But I have noticed that he has decided to take a gap year and get a part-time job and going to train and play tournaments.

Serving up success: Zavia in action during training
Serving up success: Zavia in action during training

What assistance did he get from both school and the relevant tennis authorities in terms of the next steps?

Tennis NSW and Tennis Australia take on a very small bunch of kids (6 or 8) to support around about the age of 12. Most of those are still playing. Unless you’re in that group, it’s very hard. Zavia just missed out on that. So in terms of support from then to now, there really is none across the board.

In terms of support for tennis, there’s very little in the public school system. The support he has received has been from me and from his coaches. My advice for any sporting parent, and especially in the tennis industry, is that it’s really important to build up a support team around you of people who care about you and are going to stay for the long-run.

Do you believe that young athletes are aware of the difficulty in making the top level of sport and what the real success rates are?

Are any of us actually aware of the detail and the work we have to go through when we change careers? It’s such a big question and I would have to say no. Unless a child has been in an enclosed environment, like a tennis academy and stayed there for years, then they’d have a better idea of the work. Only now is he starting to see what it’s going to take.

It’s probably quite frightening for them when they get out of school and they see what it’s going to take and they think to themselves, “I’m going to have to get up every day and really integrate the whole of the training into my life and I’m going to have to put it not as priority number 2, but it’s actually going to have to be priority number 1.”

I think until they actually start putting in the work, they don’t actually get a really strong sense of what it’s going to take.

Are they aware of the performance benefits of studying alongside their chosen sport, or is there still a culture of complete sacrifice to that sport?

The young men who are focusing full-time on tennis, I’ve noticed that they have put schooling and education as a second priority all the way through their teenage years and their results from studies can fall. But the children who are not in with those organisations, they’re pretty clear that having a job and also studying at the same time is very important.

I notice that most of them are going to university, either full-time or part-time, and they have jobs and they’re travelling. I take my hat off to them as they have to learn to manage their time and really have to be on top of their life and become responsible for many facets of life at such an early age. So I would say most of them are quite aware of the benefits of dual pathways.

What role do you think parents should play and what specifically are you doing to assist? Do you think he believes you're trying to help or interfere and where do you draw that line?

I’ve thought about this question deeply for about 12 years! As I am a Behavioural Change Coach, I do bring a different skill set to most parents. However, there’s been many conversations where I’ve felt I’ve had to switch hats. So sometimes I’ve had to put my Mum hat on, other times I have to put my Manager or Coach hat on. I’m hoping it’s been a real benefit for Zavia, but I don’t let him off the hook lightly. My focus is to assist him to take maximum responsibility for his choices, his choices in tennis and for his vision.

However, when you have a child who is involved in tennis, somebody has to set the vision in the first place, because it’s not something they wake up and say, “I want to be a tennis player!” They’re much more likely to join a soccer or rugby league team because there is so much more support in those industries.

I see myself as the holder of the vision and now I’m passing the baton on and really doing my best to empower my son to be able to take responsibility for this vision to the best of his ability at the age he’s at. So I have seen myself as a very important driver and holder of this vision because without me he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has gotten until now. At the end of the day, somebody has to get in the car, put petrol in it, finance the sport and drive the car across the suburbs, state and country.

Reward: all the miles driven by his support team and the sacrifices he's made are worth it when he gets his hands on a trophy
Reward: all the miles driven by his support team and the sacrifices he's made are worth it when he gets his hands on a trophy

I see the tennis player’s parent’s role as a very hands-on one, but at the same time you have to know when to pull back and when to request them to start developing high levels of discipline and to start setting their own boundaries around what’s right for them so that you can enable them to be able to self-manage themselves. Ultimately, they are the only ones who can win matches as they are the ones who are on the court.

Sometimes you provide really strong support, and then other times I have to take my hands off the reins and I have to allow him to fall and fail and hope that we’ve had enough conversations that he actually has the tools to pick himself up again and go forward confidently into the next tournament.

It’s a really tricky one, as they do turn around to you and they don’t want to know you at times; particularly with a mother and son, the relationship really changes when your son turns 18 and they have grand ideas about travelling around Australia on their own and moving out of home. So you have to ensure you keep them focused on building themselves as an athlete. And sometimes I just have to let them go and let them fall and hope that they’re strong enough to come back again and realise their mistakes and pick themselves up.

As a parent of an aspiring athlete, what is your biggest fear and what advice do you have for other parents of aspiring athletes with respect to that fear?

The current fear I have now would be peer-group pressure. The other current fear that I think is quite common for parents of aspiring athletes because of the internet and technology and the distractions they have these days, is a fear of them being unfocused and getting unmotivated because they get lost in distractions with technology. I’m constantly looking at how I can manage technology and how I can keep him motivated and focused on his sport and on himself.

All of his friends, they’re going out and partying and want to have a good time, and sometimes he misses out and I can see it. Sometimes he thinks, “I wish I could go, but I’ve got to get up at 6 tomorrow morning and warm up and train.” So I’m hoping he develops his strength and mental agility as an athlete that he’ll be able to pull himself through that towards his grand vision and he’ll be able to see the benefits as he moves through. Especially this year as he’s now got a car, he’s on his own, he’ll be mobile and he’s an adult. So hopefully he’ll make some great positive choices around going out, around alcohol, and around drugs. However, they still want to have fun as they are still only 18.

We look forward to following the progress of young Zavia and Jayne. After all, even individual athletes are part of a team.

You can listen to the full interview on SoundCloud:

Rob Flude

Rob is the Head of Digital & Communications for The Final Whistle. Born and bred in Cape Town, he has called London and Melbourne home and also travelled to 42 countries. He has a background in IT Projects and in Sports Media.
Interests: self-improvement, sport, health & well-being, eCommerce, travelling, reading, craft beer, social enterprises, writing, human behaviour.
First article: February 2016

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