Tennis Parents On Sidelines

It was astonishing. Sixteen-year-old Jelena Dokic, ranked 129th, upset No. 1 Martina Hingis at this year's Wimbledon. In less than an hour, she went from unknown to unbelievable.

What happened next was familiar. Dokic's new fans learned her father, Damir, was ejected from a pre-Wimbledon tournament and later arrested for public intoxication. CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood reports on the relationship between parents and rising tennis stars.


Besides the newcomers, there are top players at this year's U.S. Open with notorious parents. The father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, Richard, is known for grandstanding. Fifth-seeded Mary Pierce's father, Jim, who has berated fans and his daughter, was banned from attending her matches.

"There's so much money, so much fame and so much glory that it's very, very seductive," says sports psychologist Jim Loehr.

"And the other thing about parenting is there's no owner's manual. You know, you really don't have much to go by, and you fly by the seat of your pants," he says.

Loehr has discovered that when athletes come to him with performance problems, more than 40 percent of the time there's a parent involved. He's on a crusade, begging parents and players to put the game into perspective.

"OK, let me ask the parents this one: How many of you are really in the back of your minds going, Â'This could be pretty cool if we could get a college scholarship?Â'" he asks as he addresses some of the best young players in Denver's InterMountain League.

They've just finished a junior season, which with lessons, equipment, tournaments and travel, costs the family a minimum of a thousand dollars.

"It's not unusual to be spending anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 a year on tennis at the highest level, to, say, in the competitive ranks," says Loehr.

"As parents and players, what you're doing in tennis is investing time and energy, precious time and energy in a life experience that you believe will help them develop into a more fully functioning person and bring them greater strength and resiliency and the ability to handle life forces," he observes.

"As soon as you see it is taking you in a direction that is compromising the very thing you got into tennis for, then a massive red light has to go on," Loehr says. "When the fun stops, trouble is not far behind."

Loehr himself was the child of a well-meaning parent. "My father wanted me to be a baseball playerÂ…and from the age of 3, I was out throwing balls," Loehr remembers.

"There was so much pressure. He didn't realize it at the time, but he wanted a baseball player in the family," he says.

"The pressure was too much, and one dayÂ…I was a pitcher, and I threw my arm out. And it was really for me a big relief. It got me out of the pressure," Loehr recalls.

Loehr says that parents simply don't realize thtremendous impact they can have on their childrenÂ's ability to control their response to stress.

There was no doubt Samantha Stevenson wanted her 5-year-old daughter Alexandra to grow up to play professional tennis.

"I was programming her to be a professional athlete from the time she was in my womb," says Samantha Stevenson.

"You know what's difficult though? The better they get, the more you have to back off," she says.

Now 18, Alexandra is fulfilling her mother's dream. She wasn't invited to Wimbledon, but earned a spot by winning qualifying matches. She was the first female qualifier to power her way to the semifinals.

Despite publicity about her famous father Julius Erving and her single mother, she plays with extraordinary talent, almost as if her life depends on it.

Loehr says parents should teach children to separate winning from self-esteem.


Pressure can start at a very young age.
"You equate winning with your value of who you are as a human being," he explains.

"So that what you're fighting for is your psychological survival," Loehr says. "Winning means I'm a good person, that I am worthy of all this attention that I'm getting. Losing means exactly the opposite."

The Williams say they learned from others' mistakes, but Richard Williams has been very hands-on with both his daughters.

Explains Loehr: "The coach should be the one who can really push and put the pressure on, really work the intensity." He adds, "And as soon as you start tampering with that, you create an imbalance in this triad."

The Williams have been very visible when their daughters play, and their daughters have a reputation for showing their feelings.

This could be seen in Venus Williams' professional debut in 1994 against Shawn Stafford and in the semifinals of the 1997 Open when she had a run-in with Irena Spirlea. And when sisters Venus and Serena faced each other in this year's Lipton finals, Serena acted out.

Tennis star Martina Hingis' mother Melanie is the only coach she's ever had. Hingis was reevaluating their relationship when she lost to Steffi Graf at this year's French Open and threw a temper tantrum. She asked her mother not to come to Wimbledon, and later admitted that was a mistake. Her mother has been courtside at the Open.

"Parents can help them so much, establish balance, have a life and an identity so much bigger than tennisÂ….It's a great opportunity to teach ethics and character," Loehr continues.

About 10,000 players compete for the top 150 spots in tennis, and when Loehr's son Jeff took up the game, Loehr hd to sit back and practice what he preached.

"It was a real challenge to do the right thing and not to put so much pressure on him," says Loehr. "He's literally the son of this guy who teaches mental toughness and parenting."

"Tennis taught him discipline, taught him how to be successful in school," he observes.

The University of South Florida gave Jeff Loehr a scholarship and he became one of the best collegiate players. After graduating, he turned pro. Although it involved $40,000 a year of his dad's money, this father and son made the decision together.

"We sat down and talked about traveling by myself, managing all my own affairs, you know, from getting cabs in foreign places, goofy things," says Jeff Loehr. "I was actually out in the real world."

Jeff Loehr played his way up from the bottom to No. 450 in the world computer rankings, quite an accomplishment. But a few weeks ago, he knew it was time for another heart-to-heart talk with his father.

Recalls his father Jim Loehr: "The most exciting thing for me is when Jeff Loehr said, Â'You know, I think I'm finished with tennis. I think I need to move on because I really can't make it....I've gained so much from tennis. I need to move on to the next phase of my life.' And I just went whew, that's pretty cool."

While Jim Loehr has his favorites at this year's Open, he'd rather brag about parents. He applauds Sam and Georgia Sampras, who weren't coming to see their Number 1-seeded son play.

"They've decided to stay in the shadows," Jim Loehr explains. "They will not step out for any reason."

He says their consistent approach will help their son deal with his disappointment about withdrawing due to injury. He knows what they'll tell Pete: "You're still the same person, you're just as loveable as you've always been. And so, come home. It's always here for you."

Karolji Seles, Monica's father, was another good example, and the exception to Loehr's theory that parents shouldn't coach.

"He would do anything he could to raise her spirits," says Jim Loehr. "He would create a cartoon on the ball and make her smile. The job was always to pull her off the court and to convince her to take some time off."

"Her mother is probably the greatest example of someone who is there for Monica no matter what, and has no intentions to be known," he continues.

"I think it kept her solid and strong because she knew she was so much more than a tennis player. She was truly loved," he says.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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