Fair play is something I’ve been big on even back as a child. N seems to be stricter about it even more than I was, but maybe that’s just me looking in on the way he believes and acts, as an adult who has learnt that we have to just let some things slide. We can’t let them bug us.  But it’s hard to let things go, especially when you’ve taught children to follow the rules, but then they also have to learn that others won’t.

I think it stems from us playing games, and always following the rules. Not letting him win for the sake of letting him win. But playing fairly.

N plays tennis, and was (inbetween lockdowns) back playing in a couple of match situations.  

Mini tennis matches obviously aren’t like pro matches.  Once they’re out of mini red where they do tend to have a parent or coach helping them score, they’re expected to run their own matches. They have to keep score between them, and it’s their job to play by the rules, check whether the ball was in or out, and report scores back to the tournament organiser or home team captain.

teaching children fair play in sports

Remember some of these children are only 8 years old (in some occasions might be younger if there aren’t enough scorers to help out). That’s a lot of pressure to get the information right, understand and remember all of the rules. Plus you might have lots of people watching, other players wandering around at the back of the courts while you’re playing. If you’re playing more than one tie break or game, it’s hard to remember the score from one to the next. I know I’d struggle without writing the scoring down…and I’m not playing at the same time.

The children are reminded of the rules and method of scoring before play starts. Whether it’s a single tie break, playing to 1 or 2 points clear, or if it’s first to 2 sets. Then there’s court layout – remembering that some children might play in one mini age group in lessons but play in another. N tends to play green on a standard court for training, but currently a smaller orange court for matches.

It’s a lot to learn and a lot to think about each time they step on court. 

But they’re also taught (or should be taught) the rules of fair play.

That the ball falling on a line is in (so many children don’t seem to know this, or ignore it). 

That the receiver is the one who should be calling the ball out as they can see it more clearly. But if there’s a clear disagreement, then state question it, and potentially replay the point.  But don’t nit pick or question every call just because.

Not serving before the opponent is ready.

If they’re not sure of the score between them, go back to the last point you remember to work it out, or replay the point.

Yes, mini tennis is competitive, but it’s also about teaching children match experience, and enjoyment. That means ensuring they all understand the rules, and play fair.

Children do make errors. A few times when N first started playing matches, I spotted him and other team members calling a ball out that was clearly in, when I was on court as a scorer.  I just pointed out that actually it was clearly in, and to replay the point or give the point to the right person as appropriate. But he’s learnt from that, and their coaches and the organisers usually reiterate that you should only call the ball out if you’re really sure. Given how hard it is sometimes to really see if a ball is in or out, the benefit of the doubt should really be played at this level.

But a recently matchplay match really upset N. Rightly so, because none of the other matches had quibbles over the lines, but one he played had 6 line calls or serves called against him, at least 3 which were clearly N’s point that I’d noticed (and another parent also commented on).

The opponent also seemed to be making up his own rules. N called a double bounce that the boy did, but the kid called out ‘play on’! Which bizarrely N did, then put the next ball nicely away in a corner and won the point anyway. But why the child called that out and thought it was ok to play on when the point was already given,, I had no idea. N was perplexed too, and that then puts him off  his confidence in the rules.

They really needed an adult on court to score, or at least keep an eye on the line calls. N was the better player of the two of them and was ahead, but each time he gained an extra point ahead, the boy seemed to call the next point of N’s as out or an issue. He also said N hit the ball after calling the ball out, and they should play on. But he’d called the ball out before swinging his racket, and was just hitting the ball back over for the server.

After losing a point to an incorrect line call that the boy refused to change (despite 2 parents saying it was in), N then fell right on his backside, losing the point, and then the next sudden death point for the match. As a child who plays by the rules and only asks that others do the same, the match really unnerved him.  He has to learn to live with some of these calls, or complain harder and ask for an adult scorer to come and support the scoring if he’s not getting anywhere.

As a parent it was frustrating to see an opponent playing so unfairly. In a tie break set, for 6 points of that to be incorrectly given to one child, and end up in a loss to the person who should have won if the scoring had been correct, was sad. It puts children off wanting to play, and questions their confidence in scoring or knowing the rules. Parents aren’t meant to get involved with the action on court, so apart from one point where a couple of us pointed out the ball was good, I didn’t want to get involved. Other than encouraging N to fight his point when he was convinced something was incorrect.

His fall put him off playing – he was in agony for his next match which he did ok in considering he could hardly move. Picking up balls was painful. So he retired injured rather than struggle through another 2 matches. I think a lot of it was him fuming at this opponent and how he should have clearly won the match but didn’t.

He’d played some great shots and rallies, and the good play he did has been totally overshadowed by a bitter match result

In that situation what can you do as a parent? The other child’s parent wasn’t saying anything. I didn’t want to look like a bad sport, and also didn’t want N being a bad sport and bad mouthing the other child. Mistakes happen, the odd line call being wrong is acceptable and expected. But to that extent was ridiculous, and someone really needed to pick the child up on it. If it had been N acting like that, I’d have pulled him over during the match and asked him to think before calling the ball out.

Now it looks like there’s going to be a long break before any further matches, so I need to build him back up. Get his confidence back again.  Help him put that bad match in the past and look forward to fun matches. And give him advice on what to do if that happens again. Remind him of the rules, and get his coach to work with him on how to let things go and move on the next point in the match, so it doesn’t impact the rest of his game.

This is where tennis is a harder sport than team sports. You’re on court on your own and you can’t just play your own game, you’ve got to think about a lot more. There’s no umpire or lines people, it’s all on you. For children that’s a lot to learn and take on board. And for quieter children, they need to learn to speak up and out, and be heard when appropriate.

How are your children with fair play? Have they come across rule breakers in sport and how do you get them over it?

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