This has been tough, really tough to write. It is such an emotive topic and I found myself writing with too much emotion. It is unlike me to take a long time to write but in this instance this article has been edited more than all my other blogs put together. So here goes….
First of all, I want to keep this as much to the tennis court as possible but I feel all of these principles apply to everyday life. With that in mind I want to start by sharing some of my story.
I have been on the receiving end of attempted bullying at many stages in my life. The reason I say attempted bullying is I believe it is exactly that, an attempt to intimidate, to assert, to lean on and to influence unfairly another person. We can speak a lot about the bully but I want to stick to thinking about what we can do to change a bully into an attempted bully. We can become bully proof.
As I mentioned above, I have been on the receiving end of attempted bullying consistently through my childhood. The reasons for this were essentially I was small, a bit girly, I preferred the company of girls and I was extremely shy. I grew up in the 1970’s in the North East of Scotland when times and responses were very different. I clearly remember my first day of primary school. The approach for this big day could not have been more different from my mum and dad. My mother gave me advice that I still hold at my core to this day.
- Don’t say or do anything to anyone that you wouldn’t want said or done to you
- Make as many friends as you can
- If you don’t know the answers put your hand up and ask
My father also gave me some advice.
- look son, your small and you look like a lassie so fight anyone who tries to pick on you
I am very much a literal thinker and always have been so imagine the confusion at such conflicting advice. Of course, I did both. I didn’t say much as I was shy and I was quite happy in my own company. I did try to make as many friends as possible and a lot of these were girls. I preferred girls company as they were nicer and seemed more sensitive. Boys could be a bit loud and seemed to be showing off a lot. I was always the person who put their hand up in class. So much so that the teacher started to pre-empt this and said she would speak to me at the end of class. The groans from everyone were clearly getting too much.
So, this cocktail of traits of course led to certain boys believing that I was easy pickings for bullying. What they hadn’t banked on was the advice I had been given by dad. It must have come as quite a shock when the tiny girly boy turned into the Tasmanian Devil when picked on. Fortunately for me this seemed to do the trick and I soon became friends with some of these boys who tried to pick on me.
Things were relatively peaceful until secondary school and then it all kicked off again. I went from attending a tiny primary school to attending a massive academy with around 1,500 pupils. I remember being devastated when I found out that none of my friends were in my school house (think Harry Potter). This meant starting all over again with a new circle of friends. Unfortunately the growth fairy had not been kind to me and I was still amongst the smallest in the year. On the first day of secondary school I had four fights. Two of those fights were with another small boy (even smaller than me) who I felt had been given similar advice from his dad but he went on the attack whereas I never started a fight. I followed my dads advice to the letter ‘fight anyone who picks on you’. in time, this small boy turned out to become one of my best friends, not just in school, to this very day. I would do anything for this guy and I get the feeling he would do the same for me. Imagine that, two fights in one day and we ended up being great friends.
The same pattern emerged, I had quite a lot of fights in those early days of secondary school, but as with most environments, reputation goes a long way. People stopped picking on me and school life was relatively peaceful from then on. Then my battleground became……. a tennis court.
In 1985 I tried tennis for the first time after seeing Boris Becker winning Wimbledon at the tender age of 17. He was the first sporting person I had ever witnessed where I had the clear thought of ‘I want to be like him’. Me and my chums spent the summer hitting tennis balls back and forth and then as with most people in the UK the rackets were packed away and the football was back out. Not for me, I didn’t like football or more to the point, I didn’t like the type of boys that played football. High egos, no respect and very hierarchal and if you don’t know how I feel about hierarchy I will put the link to another blog at the end of this article.
In short, I became obsessed with tennis and in 1986, a horrible twist of fate occurred. My grandfather passed away at the tender age of 54. He had a massive heart attack. Urban legend has it he was talking dirty on the phone to his girlfriend. It would sum him up perfectly so let’s just say it is true. He was a legend!!
This tragedy meant that we inherited a bit of money and we moved from our two bedroomed tenement flat to a three bedroomed townhouse. This happened to be located 100 yards from the tennis club and the only thing that separated my bedroom with the tennis club was the river Cowie. I could run across the bridge and be at the club in under 10 seconds.
I started to compete in tennis tournaments in the summer of 1986 and was totally rubbish. Why would I be any good, I was tiny, had only played with my pals who were also rubbish (sorry boys but you were) and the players I was competing against had played since they were around eight years old. I lost 6-0 6-0 in the 1st tournament I ever played and I remember running off the court and telling my mum ‘I know I could beat that kid’. My mum just looked at me as if I was from Mars and told me to get in the car. Two years later I beat that kid 6-2 6-1 in the 1st round of the same event.
However from ages 13-17 I was a complete nutter on the tennis court. This was the first place where I felt like I could let all this pent up frustration out. It must have been a real sight to behold. This tiny kid, who looked like Purdy from The Avengers, and wouldn’t say boo to a goose off the court would suddenly turn into an absolutely crazy animal. This would go into overdrive if I felt I had been cheated but the real thing that wound me up was when I felt like I was being bullied. I was especially insecure and aware of not being from a typical tennis background. I didn’t have the newest of tennis rackets or the fanciest of gear. In fact when I think back to what I must have looked like it is clear why some tried to intimidate me on the match court.
Something would just flip in my head, and I don’t take any pleasure in writing this, but I would just lose my shit. I would literally threaten the opponent and ask him for a ‘square go’ after the match. All of those earlier childhood emotions would come flooding out and in my mind I could not differentiate between what they were doing and what those playground bullies had done. Of course, this was not the done thing in tennis so I quickly developed quite the reputation as being a tad mental on the match court.
I was particularly awful when I played against someone who I didn’t like. These were normally the high ego, spoiled brats with lot’s of money. I was around 17-18 when I started to get a handle on this and I would like to share with you what the key areas are that helped me then and continue to help me now in my every day life.
- Have perspective
- Control the controllable – use your forcefield
- Use the rules
- Move on
I use this word a lot in my everyday work. I believe it should be at the core of everything we do in our life. In this context I will keep it simple.
- It is only a game
- Nothing they can do can influence you
It is only a game – tennis is an important part of my life but at the end of the day it is only a game. It does not define me, I do not attach my self-worth to being good at hitting a ball over a net and inside a rectangle. This helped me immeasurably as my stress levels decreased significantly and I could think clearly. It still helps me to this day as I do not attach my self worth to my ability to coach players, coaches or parents.
They cannot influence you – this is absolutely crucial, on a tennis court it is impossible for anyone to bully you. Literally impossible. Nothing they do or say can change how you feel unless you allow it to happen. This is way easier said than done so stick with me to the end for an analogy I use.
With this combination of having a healthy perspective and knowing they cannot influence me unless I allow them I am now in the right mindset to control the controllable.
Control the controllable
If you truly focus on process and regularly evaluate performance then there is little room for becoming embroiled in anything your opponent is trying to do to you. They can try all they like but you have your forcefield up and it is impenetrable. Think about it, what can they do? Give out a fist pump in your direction, big deal, what does that do, nothing!! Attempt to question your call, big deal, what does that do, nothing!! Speak about you in a horrible way, big deal, what does that do, nothing!!
There is literally nothing your opponent can do that can influence you…… unless you let it.
Use the rules
How you are when you implement the rules is crucial. How you call the balls, how you are when challenged, how you call the referee and how you engage with the referee. Unfortunately we have way too many examples of referees not appearing to know how to handle heated moments on the court. There are too many children (and adults) being allowed to get away with appalling behaviour during matches. What makes this worse is it is often the best players who are excused awful behaviour. There is hierarchy raising its ugly head again.
In these moments you must remain absolutely cool as a cucumber. As with my cheating blog, smile. Use your body language to show your opponent that what they are doing is ridiculous and it won’t affect you. This shifts the spotlight on to them. They are the ones being foolish and over time you can make them feel this way. Then you have a degree of control over them.
You have now done everything you can and it is time to move on with the match. Remember, nothing they have said or done can influence you, it is literally impossible unless you let it. You can go back into your process and move on with the match.
Now, the chances are you’ve read this and thought ‘yeh yeh, that is easy to say but really tough to do’. My answer is of course it is! What is easy when it comes to behavioural change? This takes time.
I start my parents talk by using a snowflake analogy. Individually a snowflake is amongst the most fragile things in nature. However we all know what happens when snowflakes gather together. When enough snowflakes pack together they become extremely powerful. If you start to roll snow it grows bigger but unfortunately it doesn’t take much to melt snow so it is extremely important that you remain cool at all times.
This analogy can be used for everything in parenting. Your children now have your ethics and morals by simply being around you as they have grown up. You have sprinkled snowflakes on them so subtly over time they have not even been aware they are landing. Over time you have sprinkled so many snowflakes they have started to pack and bind together. However with enough heat even the most moral of children can become immoral.
Parents, there is no shortcut to helping your children change their perception and behaviour when confronted with an attempted bully. All we can do is be the role model. Whenever we encounter these moments we have to remain cool. We have to remind them of how tennis doesn’t define their self worth. It is just a game. We must remind them the opponent is simply attempting to influence them and that can only happen when they allow it. We must help them understand to stick to their process and evaluate their performance. We must remind them that there is an option to move on and get on to the next point.
I’d like to take you back to my childhood for a second. Many of the people who I fought with when I growing up are now friends and one in particular is one of my very best friends. I believe it is important we do not define the entire character of a child by what they do when they are under the heat of battle. One of them may go on to become your child’s best friend and one day you will look back at it and laugh.
Wow, that has taken so long to write. I hope you got something from it. It took me many years to realise that I was in fact the problem and not the opponent. I have used these principles for the last 26 years as a coach and they have helped me immeasurably. I hope this article helps to start the process earlier for you or your child.
Remember, sprinkle snowflakes, do not chuck snowballs.
Link for others article