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Challenges of Parenting an Elite Athlete

Robert Chiang and his wife Fumie made the decision to move their family from Malibu, Ca. to Ojai, Ca. when their youngest daughter Yuki was eight years old. The decision was made to give Yuki an opportunity to train with her then coach, Takeshi Ozaki at the Weil Tennis Academy in Ojai. In the following years the Chiangs settled in to Ojai. Robert bought a Giorgio’s Pizza Sports Bar and Yuki now 16 years old commutes two or three times a week two hours away to train at the USTA Training Center-West in Carson City. Yuki’s current coach is former tour player Lori McNeil.

In the next few years the Chiangs are coming to a fork in the road where their daughter will need to make the tough decision whether to continue to develop her skills by turning professional or accept one of the many offers she has received to play college tennis. The decision is not easy and the choices are not as obvious as one might think. Most successful singles players in women’s tennis skip college to hone their skills on the tour. The difference of playing, watching and learning from the pro’s by competing on the tour week to week versus playing college tennis is a completely different training experience. Young players who turn professional often depend on support from their countries Tennis Federation which provide training, coaching and at times financial support while the player is developing. The USA has a vast amount of promising juniors that are working to achieve professional level tennis. But due to selective funding players need to have a high ranking before the USTA will commit full timecoaching resources to a player.

SZ: You and your wife Fumie relocated from Malibu to Ojai so Yuki could train with Takeshi Ozaki at the Weil Tennis Academy. Is Yuki still training with Takeshi Ozaki?

Working towards a pro career

RC: No, she’s now training at the USTA Training Center-West in Carson City. Takeshi was a Japanese coach that my wife and Yuki felt comfortable with.

SZ: Is this why you moved to Ojai?

RC: Yes, I took an early retirement from my job as an airline pilot and there was no sense of living in Malibu so we moved to Ojai.

SZ: Who coaches Yuki now?

RC: Yuki is currently training with former tour player Lori McNeil. We drive 2 or 3 times a week to Carson City. We used to drive there everyday but now we are going at least two times a week to make use of the USTA player development training being offered to Yuki. From time to time touring pro’s Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish, Ryan Harrison, to name some player’s, come to train at Carson for a few days Yuki watches them. She has trained with Sam Querrey and he always teases her when they train together.

SZ: What are the decisions that you as a parent weigh to enable Yuki to continue developing her skills at a high level?

RC: That’s a dilemma right now. There are so many options. She was training with Ivan Lendl for about ten days at the Ivan Lendl Tennis Academy in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Day to day Yuki is training at the USTA Training Center - West in Carson City. But I think for Yuki to reach the next level she needs to just work with a coach who can be solely dedicated to her. A dedicated coach can see her development through and through in full detail and help her work through to the next level.

SZ: How do you sort through the different coaches to find the right relationship?

RC: I didn’t know how much it was going to cost to do these kind of things. It’s expensive and these coaches need to be paid. We need to travel. We have interested coaches in Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic, Spain, Japan, they all love to work with Yuki. There are many different options but it’s difficult to choose which road to take. It’s confusing. She can’t train with just anyone and expect to do well. She’s a top player at the USTA Training Center-West. Yuki’s quite athletic and we’ve worked with so many coaches. Coaches have many differences of opinions. At this point we’ve decided to pull back a bit and do some of the training ourselves.

SZ: She’s certainly gained knowledge working with the variety of coaches.

RC: It’s been good. It’s just that right now Yuki needs guidance to reach the next level. She wants the opportunity to play in the pros. Yuki is 16 and is still involved with the USTA. The USTA has been a great help especially giving Yuki access to Lori McNeil as her current coach there. Lori is a hard worker, as a player she fought her way through and up the rankings. But as a U.S.T.A. coach she works with many of the players. She is not able to dedicate herself soley to coaching Yuki.

SZ: Developmentally during the teens there are big life changes. What are some positive surprises you didn’t anticipate in the process?

RC: We try to give our children exposure to the things that they are interested in. We understand that when children are young they already have ideas of what they want. So we feel it’s up to the parent to support them. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. Yuki has such high motivation to participate in tennis. I can see she wants to be doing this. It takes 2 hours to commute to Carson and she is always ready to go. We don’t have to remind her to get her things ready. She’s ready. Yes, she is 16 and there are times someone is doing something that she wants to participate in from school and she says she is missing out. I remind her that there are sacrifices you have to make. Sometimes we talk about her travels and she’s been to so many places in the United States. I tell her few kids have had this type of experience. If nothing else happens she’s had this experience and she’s doing great. We keep plucking away and if it works it works.

SZ: Who arranges Yuki’s tournament schedule, practices, lessons, travel arrangements?

RC: I do. She has invitations to travel to Sweden and Latvia. There is a coach who used to train Li Na, the player from China. This coach is currently training his niece and they live in Sweden. He has invited Yuki to come and train with his niece and play the ITF tournaments. The coach has seen Yuki play and appreciates her style of play. I keep in contact with him. Yuki has shown some interest in going but I’m not sure this is the right choice.

SZ: You and your wife are not able to extensively travel with Yuki. Does the USTA provide a traveling coach?

RC: This past summer Yuki’s current coach, Lori McNeil traveled with her and other players to Georgia, and South Carolina. Some parents of other players went but my wife and I had other obligations here in Ojai.

SZ: Who helps you out with some of the big decisions regarding Yuki’s future and the path to take?

RC: I want to give the USTA credit for their help. We’ve been working with the USTA for two years but we don’t depend on them. You learn as you go. I learn quickly. I look on the computer for information and you’ve got to read the rules and understand them. Because the rules change. For example, the rules of qualifying for tournaments sometimes change. Sometimes I don’t hear about it. Now I am trying to learn the requirements for ITF and the U.S. to qualify for the WTA pro circuit. This year I am helping Yuki play some WTA qualifying tournaments. Some players travel to Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and other places to play some of the $10,000 entry level qualifying tournaments.

SZ: It sounds as though you include Yuki in the conversations regarding her athletic future. Has that become more prominent as she’s become older?

RC: Yes. Before it was like let’s just keep giving her training opportunities. Now we are coming to an unknown place of which direction to take. There is light at the end of the tunnel. But whether that light is going to college, playing on the tour, or life in general we don’t know.

SZ: Is there anything you would do over. I know it’s an ongoing process but is there anything you would do over?

RC: I wouldn’t do things over. I would do them better. Financially you have to be sound. If you are not you cannot continue this pursuit unless the player is extraordinarily talented or if you receive support from the outside. We are receiving support from the USTA, Lori McNeil is a great coach, and Wilson is her product sponsor.

SZ: Yuki is in the position of needing to win the opportunity to reach a place where the exposure is better to allow her to move forward with more resources.

RC: Right.

SZ: What general advice would you offer to parents making the decision to commit to their child’s elite athletic development?

Yuki is motivated to make it to the next level

RC: I think parents have to do whatever their kids are driven to do. If their child’s drive is to play tennis, don’t hold back. Take them to tournaments. You’ve got to have the finances, patience, tenacity and know there will be mundane things to do. At the same time you’ve go to help your child become independent.

SZ: Build self-reliance which connects to self-reliance on the tennis court.

RC: Right. Yuki knows she can play and win with or without me being at the tournament.

SZ: Do you have any favorite quotes, tips, or stories that have guided you and your family?

RC: I tell Yuki never give up. If Yuki wants to play professional tennis in the coming years that’s okay with us. If she wants to go to college and study it’s also okay. I have a contract with Yuki that say’sshe will at some point go to college. We will always be here to help and support her.

SZ: Robert thank you for taking the time out of  your busy schedule to talk with me. I look forward to watching Yuki’s career develop.

*Featured guests are not former nor current clients of Susan Zaro

*Photo credits to Tony Duffy

*This article can be read @www.examiner.com

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