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That Magic Finger

Originally posted in May of 2015

From the time our older son was a toddler, he has shown a disposition for sport. Though quite shy by nature, when it comes time to run and hit fuzzy balls, his eyes sparkle and he exudes the kind of joy that I imagine all parents wish upon their children.

As he has grown to love competing on the tennis court, as a family, we have struggled to figure out how to deal with those who blatantly cheat. It's the dirty little secret of the junior tennis world, only it isn't a secret at all. In this gladiatorial sport that often involves the one-on-one intensity of boxing, there are some families who simply don't mind their children cheating others for a win. Our son is now 9 years old and we have been witness to ruthless repeated cheating by kids who clearly know better, all while their parents stand by with their steely gazes, clearly not bothered that their children are robbing others of their hard work.

We're not alone in questioning our son's involvement with highly competitive junior tennis. Former world number 1, Lindsay Davenport, now a mother of three children, has this to say:

"Junior tennis, it's rough. People cheat, you get yelled at by other parents. I saw a dad walk on court and smack my opponent with an open hand, right in front of me. The sport beats up a lot of players."

If you come from a team sport like baseball, hockey, or soccer, you may be wondering how rampant cheating is possible and where the referees are. For the most part, junior tennis operates on the honour system. Players call their own lines. So when a point is played and Jennifer blisters a winning shot past Stephanie, if the ball is relatively close to a line and Stephanie fears losing more than she respects the rules, she can call the ball out and move on. If it's Jennifer's lucky day, a roving umpire or tournament director might be passing by when the bad call takes place and issue an over-rule, but this rarely happens. Jennifer is often left with little recourse but to ask "are you sure?", only to have Stephanie respond with a flippant "yup!"

We all make unintentional mistakes. And junior tennis players who are barely a head taller than the net are more prone to making inaccurate calls than those who stand higher off the ground. The issue is that some kids cheat their opponents repeatedly, almost to a point where after each "hook," there will be a mass rolling of eyes and sad, knowing smiles or chuckles by those looking on - families who make up a local junior tennis community know which kids are known for hooking.

There is one boy in our provincial association who has what some parents jokingly call the magic finger. On any especially important point, if the ball is close to the line, even if the rest of the stadium sees it in, this boy will raise his little index finger toward the sky to indicate that there will be no winners against him, that the ball was OUT! How lovely to have a magic finger that allows you to win whenever you so choose.

When our son started with tournament play at 7 years of age, there were times when he was so brutally cheated that in those moments, paraphrasing filmmaker Alexander Payne, I would want to whack the offending player's scrotum with a spiked bat. Please excuse the vulgarity of this image - I am letting myself go just this once to convey how livid I have felt as a parent to see my sweet boy, playing by the rules, get ruthlessly robbed of his sweat and grit. For the record, I am a pacifist and do not condone violence in any form.

I have given considerable thought to why some children are chronic cheaters. I believe it comes down to some parents being obsessed with the goal of their child becoming the next Federer, Nadal, Sharapova, or if they have more than one child, the next Venus and Serena. For this dream to materialize, most junior tennis parents thirst for their progeny to be one of a handful of children out of hundreds of thousands to be given support by their country's tennis federation. These coveted positions equate to somewhere around $80,000 to $100,000 of annual support, funds that are typically used by juniors to receive top level training and to travel to International Tennis Federation (ITF) events where they can regularly experience world class competition against the chosen few of other countries. If you're one of the few in Canada who gets to battle it out against the best kids your age from other tennis-loving nations, well, this is probably your child's best chance to become good enough to reach and stay on the pro tour.

So this is the mindset that I believe causes some parents to say nothing or even nod approvingly when their children knowingly cheat. That other kid that you just robbed is simply another mosquito to swat away while on your path to the pros. How dare you lose to that mosquito! No dinner for you tonight.

Andre Agassi's father is arguably the most famous of all crazy tennis parents, as chronicled in Agassi's captivating autobiography, Open. Andre was one of the lucky ones. He weathered the trials of his childhood and made it all the way, as high as one can go in the tennis world with fame, wealth, and creating a legacy. But for every Agassi and Serena Williams that has made it to the top, there are undoubtedly millions of young athletes over the course of decades who have trekked through the junior tennis world and experienced the rotten fragrance of being repeatedly cheated by the same few offenders whose parents likely haven't lost sleep over their unsavoury values.

Yes, the sad reality is that the minority of kids who purposefully cheat on court are usually under intense pressure by their parents to win all the time. I have seen a few kids who are so innately competitive that they are naturally inclined to cheat, regardless of their parents' values, but I have found that there are more junior athletes who are good and fair by disposition but driven by parental pressure to make blatantly wrong line calls. For such kids, tennis doesn't appear to be a sport that they love playing with their friends; it's a blue collar job with no pay, and where their parents require countless hours practicing on court with insanely high expectations. In some cases, there is overt physical abuse like the father who was said to have struck his daughter over her head with a racquet after a loss at the Orange Bowl a few years ago. I have no doubt that this type of abuse happens in the shadows of practice courts all over the world more frequently than most of us can imagine.

I think that most parents who raise their children to be fair recognize when cheating is driven by moms and dads who prioritize winning over being honourable. Though we can have compassion for kids who are raised in such an environment, it's always tough to witness one of them repeatedly and knowingly steal from your child. But I can truthfully say that I no longer imagine spiked bats. As much as it can hurt at times, I have come to be genuinely grateful that at a young age, our son is encountering and learning how to deal with those who don't display much of a conscience. Such people exist in every walk and phase of life, so why can't he get an early start in discerning between those who strive to be fair and others who don't mind taking advantage of others?

Beyond learning what types of behaviour he should stay clear of and protect himself against, our son is loving the friendships he has formed with others who are in junior tennis for its inherent fun and excitement. Yes, one rotten apple in the barrel can spoil the whole bunch, but in junior tennis, our experience has been that over time, the sweet, crisp, and health-enhancing apples learn to recognize rotten behaviour and gravitate away from it.

Through most of my twenties and thirties, I had an almost unlimited well of compassion for others - if I got slapped on my right cheek, I would happily turn and brace myself to take two tight ones to my left because I thought I wanted to be Gandhi. Today, at 41, my heart still feels for others, but I've experienced enough to know how limited and precious our time here is, and that when a fellow human is consistently looking to take advantage of me, I would rather spend my time with others who believe in fairness and contributing to the greater good.

That greedy sibling who takes advantage of your parents; that employer or co-worker who repeatedly tries to make you feel small; that relative or supposed friend who looks to profit off of you without regard for your well-being - like it or not, these people exist in our lives, and no matter what kind of hurt or neglect they experienced in the past to create their lack of humanity today, we have to make decisions on how we use our time and resources, decisions that impact how healthy we are and how much capacity we have to experience joy and be of service to others. Our son is learning all of this from a misguided child's magic finger, and for this, I am grateful.


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Thank you for your article. I can totally relate. I am 45 and still feel taken advantage of (my whole life except for a brief period when I was completely selfish in my 20's. I realized that was who I did not want to be and did not want to be defined as such. To get back to my innocent youth is near impossible though.)

With regard to the cheating, I would dare say that once the opposing child cheats, that child changes the rules of the game. The game is now to make call for call. I would stand by my child encouraging him the whole way.

It would be better if there could be volunteers, may even two together per game to make fair calls, maybe just wishful thinking.

Here's to the non-cheaters in the end coming out on top and stronger!

If you were in business with a cheat, you would dissolve that relationship, no? Why would a parent encourage their child play tennis with a corrupt group? He could be misled to think that is how things work, and it could corrupt his budding character, certainly not worth whatever other benefit comes from that association. Why does he have to play intramural tennis? Prestige? Competition? Forget those things, they are not important. Play tennis as a family. End of problem.

Catriona, you make an intelligent and viable point. I have thought this myself on many occasions, that our sons do not need to be involved with a competitive tennis scene were those who are in charge do not prioritize ensuring fair play, at least not to the extent that most parents would appreciate.

Despite having to face a few bad apples here and there, our older son gets so much joy from being involved with competitive tennis. His closest friends are there. And he is seeing the relationship between work ethic and improvement in skills and performance.

If he ever tells us that he prefers just to play recreationally and as a family, we will be for it! In fact, our younger son told us just this about a year ago, and is happily immersed in TaeKwonDo; he still enjoys coming out with us on occasion to hit some balls. :)

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

I was the kid who never cheated. At 71 years old, I still like myself and have peace because I know I am right with God. It broke my heart to see any one of my children hurt by a cheater (adults as well as peers), but they held their own, and are well-adjusted, well-liked adults.

I love your writing, Ben. I was so happy at the end of your article to read that everyone has to make choices in life as to whom they spend time with and why. So true. I have to disagree on a point. I can never be robbed of anything unless I say so. If I keep a persistently cheerful and happy attitude about whatever it is I'm doing and keep in mind that I do it in connection with Source, then my experience will mostly be one of giving and receiving appreciation. Since we live in this world, with all kinds of folks in it, there will be a lot of contrast for us to wade through to find the appreciation. In order to have a mini, even better version of themselves, parents will always try to control their children whether it's to cheat or not to cheat. That is not the question, in my opinion. If I don't cheat, am I doing it because my parents tell me not to, or because in my OWN experience, I feel good when I don't? What I want to do is to take my focus OFF what is WRONG and look for everything that is right. As a child, I was tutored thoroughly to look for whatever was wrong and I lived depressed mostly. Now, I seek to find what feels good, not in a pleasure only driven way, but as a way to know that Source loves me unconditionally and that NO CONDITION outside myself can hurt me. I am in control of my own mind, thoughts, feelings. This has changed my whole life. I can say that I feel happy most of the time, even though my 25 year old daughter hasn't spoken to me for 2 years. I used to be very controlling in a well-intentioned sort of way. Now I know that it is impossible to control anyone.

Just read your posting about junior tennis cheats and was first incensed then saddened. Unfortunately the parental pressure happens in any sport where the stakes are high. In Spain, a friend told me that parental tempers run high in the junior football that her sons are keen on.

Would it be possible for you to surreptitiously film known cheaters and maybe OUT them on Youtube, possibly anonymously? The camera doesn't lie and if done properly could clearly demonstrate the cheating, index finger and all!

Another effective measure might be for all the honest kids to band together and raise their index finger while chanting "Cheat, cheat" every time the rascal passes. I can understand that you may well disapprove of this, as being a sort of bullying, but sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. That kid is never going to have any real friends unless he learns the error of his ways.

Unfortunate as this is for your family, these same little crooks go on to politics! I have witnessed this all my life. The rewards here are fleeting. Accept the bread of life (JESUS) or be toast for eternity!

In response to your article on cheating junior tennis players, my first thought is this. Let me start out by saying that I do not know what the rules in tennis are...
Since you know who these 'repeat offender' kids are, why not take a stand against them. When the kids that do have integrity are set up to play against them, just don't play. Forfeit the game. Take a stand that way and get others with integrity to do the same. Just a thought...

I'm 71 and have seen this type of behavior many times throughout the years. As an RN and school teacher, I witnesses occurring in both fields.
When teaching I caught students cheating and had to deal with parents. Many times I would be told, " My child would never do that", which was calling me a liar and the poor child was either to scared of the parent to say anything or was glad that I was "shown" to be the one wrong by the parent. The student still got an F for the test or paper.
I have seen my children and grandchildren cheated against and it hurt them momentarily. But they learned there are people out there that are amoral.
I believe amorality catches up people sooner or later in their lives.
I would just say that if your son loves to play tennis and enjoys the game; encourage him, teach him about amorality, and as he continues playing he will arrive at the point where there will be judges to make the game fair. Teach him to persevere and stay " in the game ".

The whole question of whether to continue to allow yourself to be walked over, or avoid people who like to walk over you, or make a stand to prevent them walking over you. In various situations the best answer may be any one of these. I have done the first and second most of my life, but am learning, that maybe it is better to do a bit more of standing up. I've often avoided that, not wanting to be overly assertive, but am realising it is possible to make a stand gently, calmly and point out to the person what they are doing, and that if they continue there will be a consequence (which may be that you avoid them ... but at least you have stated why).

I have four grandsons who competed in Water Polo, Basketball, and Volleyball. I've watched these sports for 15 years at the High School, College and Club level. I was so surprised to see how blatantly biased the referees can be toward their favorite school, coach,or player. I can say this objectively because I watched many games where I didn't know any of the players. Many of the players, especially in Water Polo, were just plain dirty. Sometimes there were serious injuries that sent kids to the hospital. Referees many times ignored what was going on. I've seen coaches and parents totally berate and humiliate the kids in front of the stands. I've often wondered how the kids take it. I'd rather have kids who lose and grow up having values about fairness and kindness than an obsession to win.

VERY well written. I understand and humorously forgive your 'spiked bat' reference.
I very much appreciate your summation.....that our children learn how to deal in real life, by the things they face in their youth. Too many parents try to protect their kids from unfairness, rather than teach them how to deal with it.
Thank you for being such a Ghandi in my eyes.

Thanks so much for all of your encouraging comments. I wasn't sure it was appropriate to share this part of our family's journey here, but a good friend of mine encouraged me to let loose and write from the heart. So all of your comments bring me comfort in a big way.

I am always thankful to read your honest and sincere posts. Your experience is an encouragement.

It can be so disheartening to be a parent watching our children learning "the hard way". A large portion can be blamed on the coaches also. My junior high son enjoyed playing sports even though he was not at the aggressive top with the best players. His 8th grade year the football team was winning every game without the other team scoring. Coach became obsessed with the record being set for all the games to be won this way, and he started to only play the first string even though we would be so far ahead the opposers could never catch up. Well, he finally did send my son out and try hard as he could, he wasn't able to make a tackle and the other team scored! We still won by way too much, but in the locker room my son was shunned and harassed for letting the other team make a touchdown. It went on at school too, but was years later before I found out. Where was the coach? Hopefully not in the locker room, but somehow I think he knew what was going on and by not stopping it, he was encouraging it. My heart still aches for what he had to go through. What message was this sending?!

Thank you Dr.Kim for articulating a bewildering drama in my own family. I now have a completely new aspect of knowing why my father had little time for me and yet admired my sister who achieved success by dirty deals and using others for her profit. I am 68 years old and for the first time see clearly on this painful topic. Thank you

I have searched your product list diligently and cannot seem to locate the spiked bat you mentioned...just kidding. Nothing in this article was vulgar, by the way, except for the behavior of some people who are possibly bringing up monsters to be, all equipped in some form or other with their wonderful magic fingers.

As for me, I do have to laugh ruefully every time Anderson Cooper comes on the tv screen encouraging victims of bullying to "tell a teacher." Some of the worst bullying that I, my children and my grandchildren have endured in school was done by just those people. My mother was a teacher, and fought a long hard battle against her family's engrained culture to achieve that dream. Good for her, but bad for me in that she refused to believe my teachers ever did anything wrong. Like many victims of peer bullying, I was on my own when teachers were unfair or downright cruel. My children and grandchildren weren't, I can tell you that much. But I am sure that what I heard was less than 25% of what they went through, day after day. And I and my family are visible proof of the changed lives that bullying can bring about--not all those changes are good, either. What you have discussed is just another venue for bullying, albeit more highly focused and visible, viewed as "socially acceptable" by some, I'm sure.

And-speaking of karma-what goes around, comes around. Sometimes that is the only solace I have in all of this. We do what we can to defend our children, but especially to defend their self-esteem, in that we equip them to deal with the collateral damage of such behavior in a manner that is healthy and in their best interest, and the interests of society as whole, long term.

Thank you for your candor, and for offering this forum as a place to finally be heard. I'd still like to have one of those spiked bats on hand, though....

Thank God for you.