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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Cheating, Take Two: The Role Of The Parent

I was playing junior tennis and was literally a hick from the sticks who nobody knew (I am still a hick from the sticks who no one knows).  I played the #4 seed on two consecutive occasions and was fortunate to play some of my best tennis.  Both matches went to three sets, 6-4 in the third.  At critical junctures in each match, he blatantly cheated me.  And I lost both matches.  Other players came up and asked why I didn’t cheat him back (Surprise surprise, I found out he was not well liked because this was a frequent occurrence).  I would like to say I had a highly developed answer, but I didn’t.  It just didn’t seem right, and I had been vaguely taught not to do so, but I couldn’t articulate why at the time.

It can be deeply discouraging, frustrating, and angering – to the point of wanting to quit – when we are faced with a person actively cheating us.  I know this from experience.  So do you.

As I have gotten older, I’m able to reflect and ask what was he lacking that was worth giving up his integrity for?  There is always a reason behind it.  Fear. Need for approvalInsecurity.  And it often (but not always) lies with the parents and their skewed expectations of the child, or lack of setting boundaries, or plain ignoring the child and shuttling him/her off on someone else.  Let me add that we all suffer from fear and insecurity and make choices we wouldn’t make in other situations if we were grounded in trust and self worth, but that’s for another blog.  This is about blatant cheating and poor sportsmanship.

What we forget sometimes is there are ways we can help our kids when they either cheat or continue to show poor sportsmanship (continue reading for how the two are connected).  But they might hurt.  Bjorn Borg’s dad took his racket away for a year when he was around 10 years old because he was such a brat on the court.  When he came back, he knew the ground rules for keeping his racket and became one of the great sports – and champions – of tennis.  Borg’s dad was not tied up in his son becoming a champion.  He was willing to risk his son never picking up a racket again, in order to help his son in a much greater way.

What would have happened if John McEnroe’s dad or mom had done the same?  Think of how many fewer kids, opponents, umpires, and people in general would have been spared his bullying.  Because that’s what it was.  McEnroe was often just a bully who happened to be talented at tennis.  And when we let our children cheat (or we ourselves cheat) we are condoning and facilitating bullying.

"You cannot be serious!"

“You cannot be serious!”

Think of the benefit McEnroe’s parents may have given him as a human being, with a different set of tools with which to deal with his competitiveness (make no mistake, Borg was every single bit as competitive a personality as McEnroe).  We do not let bullies get away with bullying in school or at home or on the streets, why do we let it happen on the tennis court?  And not only does the cheated person suffer, but so does the cheater, through lack of trusting relationships, through tenuous friendships, and through having to live with their actions.  (As my wife says, it takes a lot more energy to be a jerk than to be kind.  Knowing when I have been both, I can confirm this).

Unfortunately, too many of us parents try to live vicariously through our kids, which is one reason why our kids get off track. It’s hard enough for kids to live their own lives, let alone the lives of our unfulfilled dreams.

Like Borg’s dad, I know of parents who have taken their child off the court in the middle of the match when their child is displaying poor sportsmanship or cheating.  (I would recommend that you wait until the match is over and then take away their privilege for the next however many matches, so the child isn’t publicly shamed, but take it away nonetheless).  You do not do it to shame them, you do it to love them.  It’s hard emotionally, and it takes time, but you give them tools, such as apologizing, making amends, and practicing good sportsmanship behaviors before they take the court the next time.


But, we say, what about that other parent who is not taking their child off the court?  Well, Borg’s dad did not say “I’ll take the racket away from my child if you take it away from yours.”  That was not in his control.  What was in his control was loving and setting boundaries for his own child.  If he waited for McEnroe’s parent to take away the racket first, we would have had two poor sports in tennis, not one.

We will never fully eradicate cheating or poor sportsmanship in tennis (and isn’t poor sportsmanship just another form of cheating?  You are cheating your opponent out of a good experience on the court), just as we won’t eradicate it in life.

But that’s why tennis is such a good life testing ground for situations off court.  We get to teach our kids – and ourselves – that life is not always fair, that sometimes we will lose to cheaters, but there are some things no one – and I mean no one – can take away from us unless we give it to them.  Namely, our own integrity.  In each situation that arises, we get to choose: Do I give my integrity away?  Or do I keep it?  My choice.  It seems like a small thing in the heat of the battle, but the impact of each choice we make lasts a lifetime.

If we can help each other choose wisely, the world will be a better – not a perfect, but a better – place.

Next blog: Cheating: Take Three: Controlling What You Can Control When Faced With Cheaters…


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