How (Not) to Raise a Prodigy
Three short stories
Every morning, I hit tennis balls against a wall at a local park.
A few times a week, I see a young girl of maybe 10 or 12 practicing on the adjacent courts with an older Eastern European man, who I assume is her father.
The girl hits the ball well for her age, though without the easy power and extra-snappy footwork of a surefire future pro. On every other shot, the father barks instructions at her in a language I don’t comprehend.
I’ve witnessed this for a year and haven’t seen her improve much. I wonder if she’ll ever get good enough for her dad to stop yelling at her every single day.
I wouldn’t bet on it.
Some coaches yell, but coaches who yell invariably get fired.
Dads who yell are trickier to deal with. Nobody wins when there’s a restraining order.
I work on an individual basis with a number of very talented young hockey players, whose parents are regular readers of this newsletter.
Broadly speaking, I feel like I have a bigger impact on the parents than on the kids themselves, which is entirely by design.
Of course, I make sure that the kids learn something new every time they get on the ice or watch video with me, but more importantly, I aim to establish new and more productive expectations.
Instead of “he has to play U18/Midget AAA at 15,” the priority now becomes “what we need to add so that he can keep playing at a high level at 30. Or 35. Or 40.”
“People tend to overestimate what they can do in one year but underestimate what they can do in ten,” says author Mark Manson.
The corollary to that quote is that, by lengthening the time horizon and focusing on more relevant milestones, parents give their kids more opportunities to hone, deploy and profit from their gifts.
My favorite story of the week is that of Leolia Jeanjean, a French tennis player ranked outside the WTA Top-200 who won her first tour-level match at Roland Garros.
I first read about Leolia in a French tennis magazine around 2006. She dominates her peers and regularly wins against older and stronger opponents.
At 11 Leolia is a can’t-miss prospect. In the video below, she is playing at Les Petits As (the most prestigious U14 event in the world) against Sloane Stephens, a future US Open champ two years her senior.
Not too long afterwards, her tennis future is in doubt due to a devastating injury that forces her off the court for two years.
Later, instead of competing on the ITF Juniors circuit and building her professional ranking, she leaves top-level competition entirely and heads for the United States.
She splits her collegiate tennis career between Baylor, University of Arkansas and Lynn University, eventually completing a graduate degree while playing tennis only an hour a day.
Degree in hand, with a stronger body and driven by her own ambitions, Leolia re-enters competition in 2020 and surprises herself by playing inspired tennis at lower-level events.
Earlier this year, she earns a French Open wildcard by virtue of placing first in a national-level “open tryout.”
On Monday morning, she beats the 45th-ranked player in the world to score the biggest win of her career, at an age when many female pros wind down their careers.