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Rafael Nadal's tough childhood lessons | ParentEdge


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Lessons in tough parenting from Rafael Nadal

A few days back, Rafael Nadal won the French Opens for a record eighth time. An incredible achievement for a young man who has been so injury proned!

His latest feat made me recall an excerpt of his autobiography that I happened to read some years back. Nadal recounts the role played by his uncle Toni who coached him in his childhood. Rewind to Nadal recounting his experiences as a six year old: “Toni was tough on me right from the start, tougher than on the other children. He demanded a lot of me, pressured me hard. He’d use rough language, shout a lot, he’d frighten me — especially when the other boys didn’t turn up and it was just the two of us. If I saw I’d be alone with him when I arrived for training, I’d get a sinking feeling in my stomach….. ……….Toni never let up. Once I started playing competitive games, aged seven, it got tougher. One very hot day I went to a match without my bottle of water. I’d left it at home. He could have gone and bought me one, but he didn’t. So that I’d learn to take responsibility, he said. Why didn’t I rebel? Because I enjoyed tennis, and enjoyed it all the more once I started winning, and because I was an obedient and docile child.”

Toni’s handling of Nadal goes against everything we describe as good parenting. Today we talk about not pushing children, letting children find their passion and not influencing their choices, reasoning with them, making them understand why something has to be done and so on. Are we missing something?

Read on “Maybe, but if I hadn’t loved playing the game, I wouldn’t have put up with my uncle. And I loved him too, as I still do and always will. I trusted him, and so I knew deep down that he was doing what he thought was best for me. I trusted him so implicitly when I was little that I even came to believe he had supernatural powers. It wasn’t till I was nine years old that I stopped thinking he was a magician capable, among other things, of making himself invisible.”

To me that’s the bottomline- if you can convey to a child the strength of your intentions, which Toni seems to have conveyed to a young Nadal, children do get it and do not resent the method as much. Sometimes, parenting also means being tough and relentless. Nadal’s upbringing is a case in point.


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Sudha Kumar is a marketing professional and runs a marketing services firm, Prayag Consulting. She has made her foray into publishing through ParentEdge. Over the last two decades, she has learnt a thing or two about being a working mom. That said, her views on parenting continue to evolve, as she learns from her experiences, reading, and now, from her children!

6 thoughts on “Lessons in tough parenting from Rafael Nadal

  1. Sukanya

    There is no one shoe that fits all. But yes I believe in the old saying, spare the rod and spoil the child. Being tough need not necessarily mean going all heavy-handed – can also be firm and fair in a ‘nice’ sort of way. We can choose the apt route but its important to send the right message across.

  2. Gayatri

    Agree Sudha. by mollycoddling our children too much, we make them unprepared for the real world, which is harsh and sometimes brutal. In some situations, tough love is called for.

  3. Kritika Srinivasan

    Great point Sudha. In giving into children for everything and not being ‘tough’ with them, we may actually do them a disservice – they may not learn essential qualities of resilience, perseverance and dedication. After all to achieve anything in life – academically, in sports or even in your career – one needs to be ready to struggle, compromise and never give up. And this is what tough parenting teaches the child. How to bend but not break!

  4. Sudha Kumar

    Thanks Sukanya, Gayatri and Kritika for adding to the discussion.

    Tough love is a good way to put it!

  5. Syamala

    Theories about parenting can be confusing and we tend to analyse each step, to see if our method is wrong. You are right in pointing our that there is no single method that is perfect.We need to convey intention, in the best possible way. Nice article, Sudha. Thank you for sharing this from his autobiography.

  6. Prashant

    I too agree ‘tough love’ is the way to go and the follow-on comments.

    I think many parents (or is it just me?) have not have cracked the code on how did Toni decide that Rafael’s passion should be Tennis or how did Sachin Tendulkar (son of a writer) decide that cricket is his passion and go after their passion like life depended on it.

    How do I make my son the next Rafael or Sachin or PT Usha?


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