An open letter to two men who could be potentially great.
Dear Bernard and Nick,
From a novice spectator’s perspective, it looks as if you guys could do with a break. It’s clear to everyone, and to you hopefully, that you are no longer leading a meaningful life through tennis.
Please don’t think I’m being flippant and don’t take my words as gospel. I am but a humble fan of the sport of tennis. However, from my many years of work experiences with young people and mental illness, I might have a perspective that is at least useful to you. I am also a coach and I care a lot about athletes’ wellbeing.
What I have noticed is that gradually but surely you are losing your passion and respect for the game and perhaps even resenting it. While you have both displayed this loss in different ways, it looks from the outside as if this could be the case. Now I don’t know you, so I could be wrong and you could say, ‘Fuck you novice spectator go back to your couch’. What would I know anyway?
I know this. Your behaviour is noticeable by everyone and whether you like it or not you have tumbled into the roles of the dreaded contemporary role model. I don’t think this anger, resentment, lack of motivation and tiredness is all your fault. You must take some of the responsibility but there is a sporting system around you that has let you, and other young athletes down, and tennis is but only one.
Let’s get some perspective here. The game itself is centred around individuals held up as heroes or villains and you are neither of these, despite what you or others think. To put it bluntly and crudely, you simply work in a job where you must push your body and mind every hour of the day. Just like doctors, nurses, teachers, builders, divers, fisherman and emergency service workers. I can’t name them all but you get the point; you’re not that different except you’re paid exuberant amounts of money for 2 hours of work.
The definition of a hero according to the Oxford Dictionary is: ‘A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. An example sentence – ‘As a nation, we ought to be thankful for the courage of unsung heroes who have sacrificed much to protect society.’ It is this very definition that makes me wonder whether sports stars deserve the title of heroes. We could probably debate this until the next Australian Open, but this is my letter to you and I strongly believe it’s a word bandied around far too often and in all the wrong places. Sports stars have a job like the rest of us. (full stop and new sentence starting with Sometimes) Sometimes the hard work and sacrifice go unnoticed but not as unnoticed as people who give up everything they have to support something bigger than themselves. So bluntly, in my opinion you are not heroes, but nor are you villains. The game is far bigger than both of you and perhaps you need to remember this each time you have the privilege of playing in front of a crowd who have paid hard earned money to see you play.
Taking all the bells and whistles away, you’re actually just two young Aussie men still trying to figure out what’s important to you, and trying to discover who you are within a public setting. Not easy for anyone, let alone it being played out in the fishbowl of social media. It was tough on Miley Cyrus, Justine Bieber, John McEnroe, Ian Thorpe and Drew Barrymore, just to name a few. Most of us get to make our major fuck ups in relative privacy, where only our nearest and dearest see how much of a dick we have been. You traded that privacy, as severe as it sounds, when you became a pro-tennis player.
Still, what’s not useful is people jumping to conclusions and labelling and shaming you in public. This, I imagine, either creates resentment, defensiveness and anger or change. Mostly it just feeds the resentment, anger and self-loathing.
So, what about having a look at how this system could work better for young sporting professionals.
- Mentoring should be about your wellbeing and your character development-Where are your mentors? Are they talking to you about balance in your life and about your mental and physical wellbeing? Why are they not challenging you on what you have agreed to in terms of balance and wellbeing? Who is providing you with an alternative perspective? Are they all afraid of you? If they are then, guys, you need to ask yourself if this is healthy for your growth as a human being in the world of tennis. You don’t have to take on all advice but you need to consider other perspectives. Your mentors must be wise enough to ask the right questions at the right time without fear of consequences.
- The Social Media Fishbowl and the Media – The media are reporting on what you are giving them and what you are showing them. Make your media advisors work hard for their money and help the media see not only your arrogant side but your vulnerable side. Most mums and dad sitting at home watching the tennis can relate to a young man who is upset and worried but they tend to react badly to those who are arrogant and angry. Also, do an Ed Sheeran; disconnect for a bit, especially at times of extreme pressure and extreme focus. The world won’t end and you won’t miss anything of value. Believe me, I came from a time when we had to turn on the radio to get sports news an hour later than broadcasted, it’s not the end of the world. Social media can be great when you’re feeling good, but really unhealthy when you’re feeling crap.
- Coaches and Support Staff: I’m really hoping your coaches don’t have a vested interest in your prize money because that clouds the already murky water. I hope they are fully invested in coaching you to first be the best person you can be and secondly the best tennis player you can be. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these coaches, then listen and learn. Consult them for their opinion. Your coach also needs to challenge you in ways that you respond. There is no point doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same outcome, I think that’s the definition of stupidity. Again, you need to ask yourself, ‘Is my coach afraid to ask me the hard questions?’ Like, ‘Do you need a break from tennis?’ One of my favourite coaches is Coach Wooden, an American Basketball Coach. He once said ‘Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.’ I hope someone around you is brave enough to challenge you on this very idea at this moment in time.
- Parents – The only way I can say this is to get straight to the point. Tennis parents back off a bit! As a parent myself, it is our job to make our children independent, well-adjusted, kind and useful citizens, regardless of what they do for a living. Our job is not to manipulate, drive or force our children to lead a life that we wanted. As parents, we can only influence and as hard as it is we need to let you drive and make mistakes. We should not publicly shame you or talk on your behalf, as tempting as it may be. The best thing we can do is challenge that you are living a life close to your values. We can also be the safe place to fall when the shit eventually does hit the fan. I know this is not easy and I too am still learning this dance, but tennis mums and dads, please just retreat.
- The system – The professional sporting system has appeared in some cases to fail those professional young people especially in tennis and swimming. Now I’m no expert here, but even I can see the transition plans for athletes retiring at an early age needs serious review or in some cases needs developing from scratch. Just as when older Australians retire, there needs to be a plan. We know from research of older retirees that this is a time of risk for mental health issues. Tennis Australia, Swimming Australia, and other professional sports should be taking note. Let’s do this well into the future; it’s not hard but takes some work and resources. People need help reinventing themselves again and finding where they fit into the new normal.
What’s the alternative then? All sports should be focused on meaningful sporting careers not just focused on the money, idealistic maybe, but worth exploring. Netball, basketball, cricket and rowing invest in giving back to communities; they give back to those less fortunate. They see the value of giving back to the community for not only the people but for the players’ personal growth. Ask these athletes which parts they remember most of their career and without a doubt they will mention someone they helped through the sport they love.
Tennis seems, from the outside, to be focused on vast amounts of money, cars, old ideas of masculinity and anything with material worth. If I were CEO of Tennis Australia for just one day, the first thing I would do would be to ensure all the professional Australian athletes understood the value of giving back. The professional athletes’ focus should be on creating character first through giving back to communities and people who do not share the same luck. Let’s be straight, yes tennis requires hard work and sacrifice but it also involves a whole lot of luck. If you think differently then maybe, ask the person born in a remote Aboriginal community who also has talent if they have started even with Nick and Bernard.
Bernard and Nick, without having spoken with you I will take a guess and say you probably need a sabbatical. That’s right, a year or two away from tennis and the fame. Go support those less fortunate than yourselves to reach their goals. Coaches and mentors, get them away from the glitz and the glamour and unplug them from the constant commentary of social media. Yes, the brands will walk away from them, but if they are of good character when they return, the brands will jump back on board.
So, Bernard and Nick, one last thing. If you were born 200 years ago, there’s a fair chance your elders would have gathered you up and had some stern words of advice for you, but they would also have devised a plan. A plan to help you navigate towards being a warrior not a whiner!
Wishing you well, Nick and Bernard.
Novice Tennis Fan xx
Image source – The Guardian Australia