In Attitude


“Raising a classy kid”

Bjorn Borg was one of the most dominating tennis players in this last half-century winning 62 career singles titles that included 11 Grand Slams (5 French Open titles and 5 consecutive Wimbledon singles championships from 1976-1980). Most people who remember Borg recalls his unflappable demeanor and ice-cool temperament under pressure. His facial expression rarely changed. He rarely, if ever, showed emotion. He never pumped his fists after a great shot. He never threw his racquet down in disgust. He rarely questioned a linesman’s call, and if he did, there was never a hint of emotion in his presentation. Because of these behaviors, Borg was nicknamed the “iceman.” The “iceman” was truly a good sport and a class act. He was a true gentleman.

What you may not know about Borg was that when he first started playing the game as a 9-year-old he was your classic head case. He was “hot-headed” and would curse and throw his racquets after a missed shot. He questioned calls and would complain bitterly when things didn’t go his way. As he got older his tantrums increased until one day his parents laid down the law. They told him that if he threw his racquet once more, complained, or acted like a poor sport, he would NEVER be allowed to play the game again. NEVER AGAIN! Lo and behold, Bjorn’s behavior changed overnight and a real champion was born!

What’s your role in raising a classy kid? What should you do to increase the chances that your child-athlete will grow up benefiting from the best that athletics has to offer rather than being seduced by all that’s wrong in sports today? Well, the answer to that one is quite simple! Do what Borg’s parents did. Take an active role in shaping their character on the playing field. Set and enforce appropriate limits in relation to your child’s sport. Make it very clear to your child what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Continually let them know what you expect from them as far as sportsmanship, honesty, fairness, unselfishness, and attitude goes.

While you’ve heard me tell you never to coach as a parent, intervening when your child is having a temper tantrum, cheating, abusing an opponent or teammate, or otherwise acting badly is perfectly fine in my book. In fact, not only is it fine, it is a MUST! To teach your child how to be a class act you can’t just sit back and hope that it happens. You have to thoughtfully shape your child’s behaviors and be willing to go in and enforce limits when they are behaving badly. If you don’t, ultimately you are the one that ends up teaching your child how to be a poor sport.

A father recently watched his 10-year-old son play in the finals of a 12 and under tennis tournament. As the match wore on and the boy began to win, his 11-year-old opponent began to call the boy’s good shots out. When the boy called out the score, his opponent would at first say nothing, and then a point or two later, turn the score around by saying that he was the one who was ahead or had won the game. Repeatedly the 10-year-old had to call for a linesman. When the linesman was present, the cheating stopped. Unfortunately, the linesman did not stay for the entire match. He kept leaving to check up on other matches being played and as soon as he left the cheating and dishonest scoring continued.

The 10-year-olds’ father watched his son get “hooked” time and again and was fit to be tied. After the cheater called a ball out that was clearly two inches inside the line, the exasperated father turned to the cheater’s mother who was sitting right next to him at courtside and pointed out what was going on. He asked her what she thought of that last call and if she was aware that her son was cheating and changing the score. The mother’s reply left the father speechless. “I didn’t see anything!”

DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING!? HELLO? ANYBODY HOME? Were you too distracted by the knitting that you weren’t doing or were you watching a different match being played on your son’s court? Perhaps the fact that you were sitting a whopping 10 feet away from the action made it too difficult to get a really clear view of the action? What’s that you say? The fog was too thick to see-through? Was there a blinding snowstorm? Didn’t see anything?! And you didn’t notice that your son’s semi-final opponent was complaining about the very same thing? Oh….I see….I think I get it now!… This is that famous “three monkeys” version of parenting, “SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL.” Good job of setting appropriate limits Mom and helping your son really learn some important life lessons! After all, there’s no question that coming home with the winner’s trophy more than justifies blatant cheating and poor sportsmanship! No “challenged parenting” in their house! Totally disgusted with this mother and the tournament director, and unwilling to let the cheating go on any longer, the father pulled his son off the court forfeiting the match. Game, set, and match to young Mr. Cheater. Another wonderful parenting and teaching moment timely and effectively used. Bravo!!! In my book, this mother’s behavior is nothing short of SHAMEFUL! Then there’s the story of the mother who has consistently gone out of her way to enable her 14-year-old daughter’s inappropriate acting out behavior to continue on the basketball court. Last year she was behaviorally out of control, mouthing off to the refs, cussing out her opponents, putting teammates down, and not following team rules. The head coach appropriately sat her down for two games, explaining to her exactly why he was benching her. (Incidentally, this bad behavior took place right under the “watchful” eyes of the girl’s father).

The daughter, skillfully manipulative, then complained to her mother that the coach was being unfair and mean. After all, she was clearly one of the best players on the team and should be in the starting line-up. The mother then confronted the coach who calmly explained to her that when you violate team rules the way the girl had and continue to act inappropriately after being asked to stop there are (DUHHHH!) logical consequences, i.e. you don’t get to play! Unhappy with this response and outraged that anyone would try to set limits on her daughter, she went to the league director and pressured her into letting her daughter get back on the floor. Stupidly, (and I mean STUPIDLY!) the league director did not support the coach, forcing him to put the girl back into the starting lineup. (He has since resigned…now that’s curious…I wonder why?). And when the coach sought out the girl’s father for support, since he had witnessed several incidents of her bad behavior, his response was, “I didn’t see anything!”

What’s going on here? Is there something in the water that’s clouding parents’ vision and turning them into limit-setting “spaghetti spines?” Why do some parents deliberately look the other way and seem so unwilling to set and enforce appropriate behavioral limits with their kids around sports? This is not rocket science here! This is NOT how you teach a kid to behave with class. This is NOT how you teach a child to get control of his/her impulses. This is NOT how you teach a healthy perspective about sports and what good sportsmanship is all about.

If you truly want to teach your child to carry him/herself with class, then you have to do two things starting today. First, model the behaviors that you want to see, i.e. good sportsmanship, composure under pressure, being a team-oriented player, honesty, fairness, etc. Modeling is one of the most powerful ways that we have of teaching our children. Second, actively teach your child the proper behaviors by not being afraid to intervene and set and enforce limits. Do not collude with bad conduct. Do not ignore it. Take responsibility. Remember, your children are depending upon you. They may not yet have the maturity to understand appropriate behavior. Hopefully, you do. Be a proactive teacher so that your child learns to become a class act both on and off the field.


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