By the age of 17, Donald Young was regarded by many as the future of American tennis.
Young had won the Junior Australian Open title in 2005 at 15, the U.S. Junior National Championship in 2006 and the Junior Wimbledon title in 2007. When he won the Junior Australian open, he became the youngest junior ever to be ranked number 1. Young also won the U.S. Open Junior doubles title with Alex Clayton, and he was also the first American to win the Junior Australian Open title and end the year at number 1 since Andy Roddick did it in 2000.
Since then, Young has had a rocky time as a professional tennis player. In his eight years as a pro, he has not won a single ATP tournament. Last year he seemed to be headed in the right direction when he got to the fourth round of the U.S. Open, beating Stanislas Wawrinka and Juan Ignacio Chela on the way. But this year he has disappointed again. He has not won a match since February, getting knocked out in the first round at Monte Carlo, Miami, Morocco, Madrid, Rome and Paris. He has now lost 12 matches in a row, including his most recent first-round loss to Mikhail Youzhny at Wimbledon.
According to Howard Bryant of ESPN, during the match with Youzhny, Young turned to his mother at one point and hissed, "I'm about to boil over! I'm telling you, I'm about to boil over!" He screamed at lines people, flailed around and, according to Bryant, "looked beaten." At another point, after Youzhny hit a winner past him, he yelled, "Every time I get here, I play like a punk!"
How could someone with so much early promise fail to deliver that promise? How could someone with so many early successes not learn how to be successful? How could a young man who had opened so many doors, allow those doors to close? These are the kinds of questions that stir in me as a psychoanalyst as I watch him play now.
Young has been coached by his two parents--his mother, Illona, and father, Donald, Sr.--since he was 3 years old. It was under their tutelage that he achieved the successes in the juniors. It was also under their sway that he began to bump and grind on the professional tour. Sometimes parents can be great coaches. A number of successful players have come from parent-coaches, including Venus and Serena Williams, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal (whose uncle is like a parent). At other times parents can be less than great coaches.
Like stage mothers, tennis parents can get too involved in their child's career. Such parents tend to be somewhat dictatorial in their approach and to cultivate dependency. The child may flourish under this kind of overinvolved and strict parent-coaching for a while. But eventually a child grows up and needs to establish his own identity and individuality. The over-involved tennis parent cannot let go, and so the child becomes an adult who has not learned to think for himself, to set his own standards, and to build his own confidence.
Parents who clutch their children and aim them toward the stars tend to be narcissistic, and their children are their narcissistic extensions, chosen to fulfill their own frustrated dreams. They have unrealistic expectations and sometimes end up with children who, consciously or unconsciously, rebel. Sometimes their offspring want to be and play as their parents want them to; at other times the pressure is too much and they go into lapses where doubt seems to tug at their strokes like an unruly demon.
One of my patients had a stage mother, and he recalled that whenever he had a crisis of confidence, she would shake her head and say, "Lord knows you were blessed with talent; if only your head were as clear as your talent." His head was not as clear as his talent, my patient complained to me, because she had always set unrealistic goals for him and then been disappointed when he didn't achieve them--a fact that he could never bring up to her.
Young's parents had turn professional at sixteen, perhaps before he was ready to do so. He had just started building confidence as a junior, and then he was rushed in to professional tennis, where he was suddenly matched against superior players who took away that confidence. During his eight years as a professional, his parents have held tightly to the reins.
Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of United States Tennis Association player development, has been trying to get Young away from his parents for the last five years. He and others would like him to train under the auspices of the USTA. However, Young seems to be emotionally bound to his parents, and his parents have had a series of angry disagreements with the USTA over that span. They were quite upset when he was not selected as a wild card to last year's French Open, and Young later tweeted an expletive-laden message about the incident.
"We're certainly not going to reach out to them at this point, because we've done that for five years," said McEnroe, stated in an interview at Wimbledon.
Young's situation brings to mind another tennis player who had similar problems finding herself--Jennifer Capriati. Like Young's parents, Jennifer's father, Stefano, became her first coach and kept tight control of her. She won the Junior French Open at 13 (the youngest ever), followed by the Junior U.S. Open, and then was immediately rushed into professional tennis at the same age. By 17, she was already burned out. After a first-round loss at the U.S. Open, she lost interest in tennis. She started drinking heavily and taking drugs. During this period she was arrested for shoplifting and for possession of marijuana. It was only after Capriati had emotionally separated from her parents, hired her own coach, and found her individuality that she blossomed.
Will Young follow Capriati's path to a comeback? Maybe, maybe not. Let's hope he doesn't have to crash and burn before that happens.
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology and author of 20 books. He is also an avid sports fan.
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- Donald Young
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