The Orange Bowl is an exciting, very important tournament for junior players. So, as the 16s and 18s battle it out in Plantation, Florida I think about the high stakes matches that are taking place and the importance players, their families, and coaches place on results at the Orange Bowl. When the results matter greatly it makes for an exciting tournament, but also opens the door for cheating.
"If you are not cheating you're not trying." (attributed to former pro baseball player Mark Grace)
When the outcome is important you will have cheating. While cheating probably happens more often at tournaments where there are fewer officials it seems pretty clear based on my conversations with parents and junior players that cheating is rampant. Numerous times I have been asked how to deal with cheating; should parents allow the child to cheat them in return or try to take the higher ground? It is not easy question to answer, but I think I can offer a solution that is based on the player's reason for playing tennis - to play great tennis.
Playing great when your opponent is cheating starts with changing your view on the subject. Players are often sensitive to cheating because, well, they feel they have been cheated in the past. I would imagine nearly every seasoned junior player can talk about a match where they felt they lost because their opponent made suspect line calls. It becomes an issue when players begin to expect cheating and are quick to think that their opponent is cheating when, in fact, we know that juniors (as well as adults) are going to make mistakes calling lines. The older players are crushing balls near the lines, of course there will be mistakes! The other thing to keep in mind is that you are usually at a great distance from where the ball lands. So, if it is hard to call the lines on your side, how can you know for sure the lines on the other side?
Did you know that only 35% of replay challenges on the ATP tour and 36% on the WTA Tour are correct? Here are some statistics on the pros' ability to get the call correct.
Therefore, based on what I have written so far a player should not assume an opponent is cheating. This will help them stay focused on what is most important, playing good tennis. However, there are times that juniors blatantly cheat. How do you know when someone is cheating? Obviously when there is a pattern of it happening throughout the match.
I think what helps players stay focused when their opponent is cheating is to realize that the cheater cheats because she does not trust that she is good enough to beat you fair and square. As simple as that. To me cheating is a sign of weakness. A sign of not trusting in your game. When I see someone cheat I know that they are likely nervous, and definitely not convinced that they are going to win. Remember this in the heat of the battle. Cheating is a sign of weakness and a lack of belief. Use that to fuel your efforts to stay focused and play your game. Allow their bad line calls to reinforce that you are the better player and will come out on top despite the frustration of losing the point.
What benefits does a player gain from cheating? Obviously they get the point that the purposely cheated on. However, players that purposely cheat on line calls are looking to see your reaction. Are they getting in your head? Frustrating you? When the cheater sees their opponent getting frustrated, angry and making bad decisions it reinforces the fact to them that cheating works and well help them win.
You need to take away the reward that the player receives when cheating - winning, frustrating you, pulling you in to their game. This is one of the reasons why I say cheating them back is a bad idea. You are now playing their game! This is what they want, to play on their terms. You will be less focused and play less than your best tennis when focused on cheating. You will hesitate on line calls, and when the ball drops in you will be forced to either cheat or rush to hit the ball. This is not a good position to put yourself in! Your mind is no longer focused on the present. This is a great formula for poor performance.
Check out Why cheating a cheater doesn't work
Again, remember the ultimate goal, to play great tennis and win. When you allow the cheater to distract you then you are falling right into their plan. Don't let it happen!
What should you do when you feel an opponent is cheating... First, keep in mind that:
1. Maybe they are not cheating
2. It may not be personal (maybe they do this to everyone)
3. Cheating the cheater is not appropriate
4. Cheating is a sign of weakness, a lack of belief
Second, focus on solutions, not emotions. How? Take several deep breaths as you turn away from your opponent and focus on your strings. Attempt to get back in to your normal between points routine. If you are still thinking about the last point use the towel to wipe away the point as you count backwards from 10 or take a deep breath and count to 3 as you inhale, and 5 as you exhale. Why counting? It is a good distraction from the previous point. Do your best to eliminate thoughts of the last point before starting the next point.
If you are sure your opponent is cheating (there is a clear pattern of bad calls), then take these steps:
1. Ask your opponent politely if they are sure about the call or where it landed
2. If you are not satisfied with their response you can ask for an official to watch
3. Avoid getting involved in an argument with your opponent, for most players this serves to distract them not help them play better
4. Take deep breaths and focus on playing your game. If it helps let your anger motivate you to punish their weakness (make them run, play their weak side).
5. Play with more margin if necessary.
Again remember what the priority is when you step on the court: to be a good sport and play good tennis. Work on a plan in practice to deal with cheating and trust me you will be more confident and play your game the next time it happens!
For Coaches: Teach this kind of positive philosophy to your juniors. Teach them how to call lines and be confident, but not cocky. Teach the steps to objecting to a call. And, help them understand it is ok to stand up for yourself but do it with integrity and respect. See the USTA Mental Skills and Drills Handbook for chapters on sportsmanship, honesty and integrity (the Tennis Code) which provide a template for conversations about being a good sport and dealing with cheating.
For Parents: Don't put the thought in your child's head that their opponent is a cheater. Be the role model for expecting the best out of others and being calm. If your coach has taught the player how to deal with cheating then there is no need for drama. Allow the player to enact the plan discussed earlier and if you are upset go for a walk, do something else... Think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to play under adversity.