Tennis is the Gentleman’s Sport – Except When it Isn’t

There are few sports who’s participants are themselves entirely responsible for keeping track of scores and deciding, on their own, the quality of play (are the shots in or out?). Soccer, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, rugby, cricket, racing sports, and even boxing have umpires and judges to ensure fair play.  But tennis, at every level other than the very top, demands that the athlete police himself.  This policy of honesty works pretty well most of the time. It’s a testament to the sport that players honor it enough to not cheat.  Think about the chaos that would ensue if players were not generally honest with each other.  We’d be dealing with constant bickering and players trying harder to deceive than simply playing good tennis.  I’ve seen adults call balls out that I saw as in, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it done intentionally (I actually probably have seen it, but it’s so rare that I can’t remember the last time I witnessed it).  The errors, in other words, have been almost all cases of mistaken eye to brain processing, not deceit.  However, and you know what I’m going to say next – juniors are a different story.

There are Cheaters Among Us

Let me begin by stating clearly that 90% (a completely fabricated number but one I feel is true based on my experience) of junior players are honest.  In fact, if I were to point to one trait in juniors that drives me crazy more than cheating it would be not calling balls out that are obviously out (sometimes by as much as a foot!).  You can tell a kid loves tennis when he goes out there to just hit balls and doesn’t care if they’re in or out – just keep running around like crazy and hitting the ever loving snot out of it, right!

But there are always the cheaters.  The kids who, when under stress and finding themselves losing control of a match, will start making intentionally bad calls.  Tennis is mentally draining.  When a kid starts to feel it all getting away from him it is not unusual to see him trying to regain some control by cheating.  It can be infuriating as a coach or a parent to watch it happen.  I sometimes want to walk right out onto the court to straighten it all out myself, but I can’t.  All I can do is let the kids try to sort it out themselves.  If things get bad enough either player can summon an official to oversee the match, and I’ve seen it happen many times.  But, while it is occasionally necessary to get help, I don’t like it.

Coaching Sportsmanship:

It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent or a coach; your job is to ensure that your student/child learns that it is possible to learn more in defeat than in victory. To get a victory by cheating, before it is time to win (to everything there is a season), is not a victory.  You might be surprised if I told you that sports are 90% mental (Not a fabricated number – there is research to back it up which you can read in books like Peak Performance and Finding Your Zone).  Thus, winning falsely creates mental barriers that do much more harm than good.  Cheating actually makes it more difficult to win in the future, not less.  Failure, on the other hand, strengthens our resolve to win.  It is the stone that sharpens our blade so to speak.  Mental coaching is vital in any sport but especially tennis.  There are a lot of players out there who can beat you, your student or your child on a good day; as players we have to be mentally strong enough to believe we’ll win but also strong enough to learn from defeat when it happens after our best efforts to win.

To win requires the absolute confidence that victory is yours.  Imagine how hard it is for a kid to reconcile his emotions when defeat is near.  It is natural for him to have an immature reaction.  That’s what growing up is all about after all.  But, our job is to foster confidence in players without creating win-at-all-costs attitudes.  Coaches and parents exist to provide an atmosphere where the player knows he can win without cheating.  Cheating is a player’s worst undermining agent.  The pressure to cheat is nowhere as strong as it is on the tennis court.  If a growing player can learn how to pull victory from the jaws of defeat the right way then he/she has become a real player.  They say cheaters never prosper.  It’s true not because of cosmic retribution, it’s true because cheating stanches progress — Stops it right in it’s tracks, and that’s not good.