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The Bad Sport

Not-so-rhetorical question: How old does a child have to be before it is OK to dislike him or her? Don’t get me wrong, there are 3-year-olds I dislike. It’s just that when a child is hard to like at age 3, you have to assume the child is unhappy, off-schedule, stressed, or a normal 3-year-old depending on the unpleasant behaviors on display.

Age 10 is totally different though, right?

I hope so. Because there is a boy in Simon’s tennis group this time out who is working my last nerve. I first met Jon* at Simon’s 10 and under tennis tournament last June, where he immediately announced that he had won a tournament before. I didn’t love that, but I might have the child who bragged similarly, so I didn’t think too much about it.

Then he showed up for a week or two in one of Simon’s tennis clinics last fall, where he was a pretty bad sport. As I’ve explained before, Goldsteins are traditionally gracious winners and bad losers. Whitworths, on the other hand, are traditionally awful winners and equally bad losers in a way that counter-intuitively makes them pretty gracious at both. Which is to say, they gloat in victory, despair in loss, and clearly aren’t serious about either. It’s just part of the game.

Simon threads the middle. In public among his peers, he’s wonderful; alone with me and Matt, he can melt down with the worst of them. That tells me that he has a serious competitive fire in his belly, but cares enough about being polite and well liked that he can hold it together in public.

This kid, though? Jon? He is THE WORST. He pumps his fists and gloats every time he wins a point and cries and misbehaves every time he loses. And by cry, I mean literally cry: open mouth, wailing, the whole ugly shebang. Then he gets angry and hits balls over to other courts or kicks them into corners. If a coach reprimands him, he acts out even worse.

So of course, this session he’s in Simon’s group every week for the full 6-week run. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. The other kids are a competitive, fun, and sportsmanship minded group. They cheer in victory, fake wail in defeat, high-five each other, and generally bring out the best in each other with regard to tennis and social skills.

This past Sunday was a particularly rough session for Jon. I asked Simon what he made of the situation afterwards, and his answers were illuminating.

“What would you say to Jon if you could when he acts out?”

“I’d say, ‘Dude, you’re 10. You should be over this already.'”

“Does it ruin the fun at all for the rest of you?”

“Oh yeah. Sometimes we just give each other the look that says, ‘Maybe we should just let him win so he’ll not cry and we can go on with the game.'”

“Would you actually do that? Let him win?”

“Oh heck no! We just think about it and know it’d be easier.”

“Does Jon have any friends in the group?”

“No. He used to. But then everyone saw how he was, and now he doesn’t.”

Out of the mouths of babes, eh?

Here’s where I’ve landed on this. I think judging and disliking the child is probably a poor and presumptuous response. It’s certainly unkind. I don’t know if Jon has school issues, personality/brain wiring issues, family issues, or medical issues. I’m a grown-up and should have compassion.

On the other hand, his behavior is making things less fun for the five other kids out there, none of whom display the same poor sportsmanship and most of whom are younger. Given Jon’s position as the stand-out poor sport, I think group tennis is not the right place for him now. Someone, preferably his mother, needs to explain to Jon that if he cannot behave better in tennis clinics, he’ll have to stop taking them. There needs to be repercussions and limits, for his sake as well as that of the other kids.

I’m not holding my breath for that happen though, and I’m not sure how long wisdom and compassion on my end is going to hold out.



*Name changed.

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