Cheating, Take Two: The Role Of The Parent

Posted on April 28th, 2016 by

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.borgmcenroe

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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  1. Jeff Stafford says:

    Hi Neal,

    I have shared this with you before, John McEnroe got me excited and interested in tennis. Not sure exactly why, maybe it was like watching a boxing match. Just like I enjoyed watching Muhammad Ali. Clearly Borg was competitive and passionate in a self-controlled manner. But as a kid, something about McEnroe got me on the tennis court and have been playing ever since. It is similar to going for a run just before a thunderstorm to enjoy the energy in the air.

    And after years of TLC I am still working on the 3 crowns, a lifetime journey. Let’s just keep in mind that people change and good things can come out of bad situations. I have established some of my best friendships from tennis.

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing, looking forward to another summer at TLC.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Hi Jeff, I’m with you on John McEnroe and his passion. His influence also got me excited about tennis. And, I’m sorry to say, his example got me to break rackets as a high school player. I actually wish someone had called me on it and pulled me from the court or sat me out the next match. I would have learned quickly from that. I think McEnroe’s energy would not have to be suppressed, just channelled so his exuberance was something that was a positive energy on court rather than one that often hurt others. I also agree that people change (although I saw McEnroe in a match last year swear at the top of his lungs and throw his racket on numerous occasions and once almost hit a ball boy, never apologizing). And my intention is not to paint McEnroe as a bad person, but an example of what happens to our behavior when we do not receive boundaries from our parents and coaches. The Three Crowns are a challenge under the best of circumstances (as my blog a few weeks ago pointed out the heartache I caused by not following them earlier this year). But I can imagine a McEnroe who would be highly demonstrative on the court, causing energy and laughter rather than vitriol and hurt feelings as a good thing for tennis (he doesn’t have to be a Borg). Or even a McEnroe who acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes would be a powerful statement. But I have not seen either or watched the wrong matches. When we are not given the boundaries of how to treat others, The Three Crowns become an even greater challenge. I love your thoughtful and challenging responses. See you this summer!

      • Jeff Stafford says:

        All good points Neal!

        Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control. The fruit of God’s spirit.

        I think love is since it is the most important and self-control at the end since it is so difficult and often over-looked.

        It is a daily request for God’s strength and grace.


      • Neal Hagberg says:

        That’s a GREAT point on self control. I’ve never thought of that. It’s the least sexy of the fruits listed, too, but when practiced maybe saves us from the most heartache… Thanks…

  2. Elly Black says:

    Ohhhh yes!! Another excellent article Neal!

    At the age of 53 I only play tennis with individuals that are gracious, kind and have excellent sportsmanship!

    Bottom line!!

    Getting older ROCKS!! YAAAAAYYYYY MEEEEE!!!

    Best, Elly

  3. David Sommer says:

    McEnroe blamed his bad sportsmanship on the chair umpires when he was starting out as a pro. They wouldn’t call him on his abuse of lines judges and the chair. He asserted that if they had, he wouldn’t have developed the bad habits. (Well-known tactic – blame the “parent”!)

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      There is certainly truth to that! But, as the “parent figure”, what if the chairs had booted him from tournament after tournament until he “got it”? Since his parents didn’t stop it when he was young, maybe that is the function of the tournaments. I sure would have loved, when I felt helpless, to have an advocate. (But I am fully aware that junior tournaments can’t function in that way, not enough line judges to help). Thinking out loud now. Usually bad idea, but I’ll press “send” anyway :).

  4. Anna Yarbrough says:

    Neal I have yet to email you which I need , but your blogs are always helpful and informative and always making you think. Steve would be proud of the work you are doing , the life lessons you are giving , through the work of the three crowns , and the power through the game of Tennis. It is a wonderful reminder we can control our own actions and we can’t control what others do by means of cheating or other wise. I am forgetting we can’t control certain things even if we want too, I suppose I was meant to read that as a reminder of what as you say can never be taken away unless given. The work that you and Cortney are doing still are making me a better person until this day , now 26. I teach my players the lessons that Steve, and the two of you presently teach me everyday. Of course since tennis is out of the question for along time , at least I can use it to grow myself and change myself . So yes Neal, the choices we do make , we do make are for a life time if we decide . I’m extremely fortunate to have the both of you in my corner. So thank you.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      You’re welcome. We are all muddling through this world together, that I firmly believe. Glad my thinking out loud and putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard :)) helps.

  5. Connie Kabrud says:

    Interesting and informative! Love it. As a teen, I stayed up late many nights watching the re-cap of McEnroe vs. Connors. My dad watched a couple matches with me and after a few antics by McEnroe, he began his discussion with “If you EVER…” You can fill in the rest 🙂

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      lol. Good that he was there to watch with you. (And I did fill in the rest :))

    • Alan VanDelinder says:

      My dad did the same thing. I was a huge fan of Jimmy Connors when I was a kid but because of what I believe to be good parenting, I was able to be his biggest fan but knew his behavior at times was unacceptable. He said “Jimmy Connors is a very good player, but if you ever act like he does when you are playing high school tennis, you will embarrass your team, your family and worst of all yourself.”