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Top Tips for Tackling Tantrums and Teaching Kids to Lose Well
Chances are you’ve seen tantrums thrown on court! Parents are embarrassed, many people look the other way. What is the answer?
A quick web search shows us that there is a tendency for the media to glamourise tantrum throwers in tennis. We’ve pulled out three typical headlines from mainstream media!:
- In tennis, no shortage of temper tantrums and tirades, in CNN
- Top 5 Tennis Tantrums and What You Can Learn From Them, in HuffPost
- Tennis tantrums quiz: how well do you remember these meltdowns? in The Guardian
These articles all feature tennis icons that we, and our children, admire – and they’re throwing a tantrum. It’s also reasonably well known that Roger Federer, who these days is a paragon of perfect behaviour, was an epic tantrum thrower as a child. To read more about his transformation this article describes his journey from tantrum thrower to controlled legend, “The Making of a Champion“.
Tantrum throwers in junior tennis
We’re willing to bet that as a coach or tennis parent you’ve seen your share of tantrum throwers too. Junior tennis has quite a few of them. Sometimes the tantrum thrower is our own child! The dreaded tantrum thrower has a repertoire that includes: to cry in the middle of the match, smash or throw their racket (drink bottle etc), refuse to shake their opponent’s hand, make bad calls, accuse their opponent of cheating… Parents are usually embarrassed and opponents get upset. Unfortunately coaches and tournament referees sometimes look the other way. What is the answer?
Managing a Tantrum Thrower in Junior Tennis
Despite it being pretty well known that temper on court is counter-productive, tantrums continue to be a challenge for the sport.
Mark Tennant – Coach, Parent and Director of i2c – provides guidance on managing tantrum throwers. Mark’s advice is relevant whether you’re a coach, a parent, or the tournament referee.
Tennis(24/7): What role do coaches have in teaching children to manage their behaviour when they are losing?
Mark: I think coaches have a role to educate players and parents in this respect. That can be done in so many ways. On court, I guess a lot of it goes back to whether they are more focused on mastery or ego. Ego-focussed children don’t take kindly to losing, will often go to extremes to win, and see winning and losing as part of their identity. Mastery-focussed kids are more accepting of results because they are more focussed on improvement and skill development and see winning and losing as part of the journey.
There are lots of drills and games to help children understand losing:
- Task or mastery activities where praise, points or prizes are given for effort rather than the outcome
- Having clear goals so that kids and parents see improvement through things other than just results
- Reversing the score in matches or by using cheat cards
- Strategies to deal with thinking time on the court between points and games, to develop pre and post-point routines and to forget about the previous point and focus on the next point
Much of human behaviour is driven by FEAR (False Expectations Appearing Real!). A player who fears losing, either because they have been told that losing is bad or because they believe for whatever reason that losing is bad, will try to find a way out to avoid the fear becoming reality. The solution could be to fight and try harder or to resort to cheating, or it could just end in meltdown if the player doesn’t know how to deal with the match going badly.
So much of what goes on in a player’s head is down to their upbringing and the way in which the children and their parents view and deal with competition and sport in general. It’s also to do with how the coach behaves and the environment which is created in the programme.
Of course it is possible to have mental strategies to address specific issues such as poor behaviour, negative self-talk or cheating, but many of these things are the result of an incorrect or warped view of competition and of winning and losing, and where emphasis is placed by the coach and the parents in the early years. Coaches, parents and kids need to understand the true meaning of success and ‘winning’, and at an early age, it isn’t defined by results.
Tennis(24/7): How well are coaches prepared for that role through training and experience? Is there any element of “this is just tennis/sport – get used to it”?
Mark: There’s some truth in that. It is a sport, and life in general, but those are tough messages for kids to understand. It’s covered very briefly in some coach education courses but generally, coaches are poorly supported in this respect.
However, there is pressure and expectation on everyone involved in sport. There are performance pathways for players, there are selections to be made for teams and there could be funding allocated for ‘talent’. These things create pressures because of the expectations and aspirations which they create in players and parents, and coaches are often expected to deliver.
All the time we hear coaches talk about their counterparts asking “who has he/she ever produced?” The implication is that the marker of success for a coach is results-based’ – either player results, players being selected for a team, or funding being received for ‘talented’ players. For many coaches, tennis is a tough results-based business. But let’s look at it a different way.
In my opinion, the first and most important marker of success of a coach is not the competitive results or rankings of a player, but whether the player started and stayed in the sport, and if they grew into a well-rounded and healthy person who enjoys sport and competition and who stays in the sport for a lifetime. We don’t promote and celebrate this marker of success as much as we should, and we should help coaches understand their true primary role in sport.
Tennis(24/7): What role do parents have in teaching children to manage their behaviour when they are losing?
Mark: If you drop the ‘when they are losing’ bit from the question, then ask yourself the same question, the answer is ‘totally’. The fact that we are talking about behaviour on a tennis court doesn’t excuse bad behaviour. But young kids can’t easily manage their own behaviour; even many adults can’t manage that! So we have to be realistic and we have to put in place strategies to support kids and their parents.
By its nature, competition is stressful, both physically and mentally, and kids have to learn to deal with it just like they have to learn about hitting tennis balls. Watching kids compete can also be stressful for parents; nobody likes to see their kids lose or taking a real hiding on a tennis court, but it happens. All parents have a huge responsibility to kids in that respect, through their general upbringing, setting boundaries, rewarding good behaviour (and maybe consequences for bad behaviour).
The answers to this don’t lie on the tennis court, but in the home, in the garden and in the car. I think you will find that positive ‘glass half-full’ people are less likely to show poor behaviour when the chips are down. Positive parents generally bring up positive kids. Stopping poor behaviour as it happens is almost impossible, so its about identifying the root causes. Clearly everyone is different, so no strategy will ever work the same for two different players. I think the key is to not have to deal with bad behaviour as it happens, but to work on managing the behaviour in a more proactive way. Some ideas away from the tennis court could include:
- “Tell me about some good things about your day at school” (the message here is “let’s focus on positives and what went well”
- Catch someone doing something well. We all like a bit of praise and kids are more likely to repeat something that meets with approval or which creates praise
- Praise and reward effort. Secretly most of us want our kids to win, but that’s not a healthy message. More important is to focus on what can be controlled – effort, application, honesty, integrity – and to praise them when they are displayed
- Relish the challenge. In any game you play with your kids (ie climbing frames in the park) , or any task you help them complete (ie homework), help your kids to find strategies to overcome a challenge. It send the message that solutions can be found to almost anything with a bit of effort, planning and a positive outlook
- Show your own failures. Let your kids see you fail but also let them realise that losing doesn’t define you. Show humility and honesty in defeat, and show pride in trying to be better every day
Tennis(24/7): Do you think that there is room to improve the way we support coaches and parents to deal with this behaviour?
Mark: Yes – definitely – and I hope this article goes a small way towards helping!
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