My daughter takes tennis lessons twice a week and on Fridays, the kids are on their own. A supervisor is present at the courts but there is no official coaching. They divide themselves into age and gender groups and play pick-up games until dark. My daughter is 9 years old and has played, and fought, with the same group of five or six girls now for three years.
Oh boy, these kids can fight. When there is no adult watching to call a ball in or out, to call a serve fair or not, to regulate who plays against whom … battles ensue. Girls huff to the benches and hide teary eyes or furious teeth-clenching behind their water bottles. They shout and wave their hands and throw balls and kick rackets and make accusations.
The accusations are always about cheating.
My daughter is not innocent in all of this, but ever since she was a toddler, she has had a keen sense of justice, of right and wrong. She also loves to play tennis and just wants the match to continue, not to dissolve in shouts and lost balls. She is willing to concede her point just to calm the other girls, but then comes home in frustrated tears.
One day I suggested that I come on Friday afternoons and play with the girls, act as a mom-supervisor, or that she and I just play against each other. She refused. She said it would be weird and would make her uncomfortable, making her stick out even more than when I just come to pick her up. She also said it wouldn’t help resolve the issues if she simply started ignoring them.
I was proud of her.
But I also wanted to give her some useful tools for how to handle things when the breakdowns occurred, when kids started cheating and the yelling followed.
1. Consider why they are cheating.
I encouraged her to think about what motivated the girls to cheat. A sense of pride? Fear of losing? Pressure from parents? A drive to keep up with better athletes? A desire to impress someone who is watching? A feeling of being overwhelmed? Trying to enter their mindset might give her a better perspective that won’t make the cheating right but can provide empathy and a space from which to consider the behavior rather than simply getting angry about it.
2. Remain calm.
Getting hyper and screaming back won’t calm the situation down and will likely only encourage more cheating as the girls begin to play out of spite or revenge.
3. Take a water break.
Step away from the volatile situation, take a breather.
4. Stick up for yourself.
I don’t want her to be easily pushed around. This is a culture that generally respects strong-willed traits and I want her to be able to hold her own, to stay strong. At this age, that might mean calling on the adult supervisor to step in if need be, but not every time.
5. Don’t cheat.
Two wrongs won’t make a right. This is a hard lesson to learn! From Lance Armstrong to famous footballers, and new accusations against America’s top running coach Alberto Salazar … how can a non-cheater even hope to compete against others who flout the rules? But cheating won’t help, ultimately.
I would rather my daughter lose with integrity and character and dignity than win as a cheater, and I hope to instill those values. That is the pressure I put on her, not to win at all costs.