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Dealing with Harassment from Spectators

Q. My son and his team are constantly harassed when they are trying to play tennis. This happens in USTA tournaments and high school matches. The harassment comes from people who think that their role is to help their kids win. It might be his opponent, opposing teammates, opponent's parents or the opponent's coaches. These people are rude, relentless and are damaging to the game itself. My son, his coach and I have tried everything, but we have not been able to succeed in getting a handle on these people. Applauding good play has been replaced with yelling and screaming. Encouragement has been replaced with noisemaking after missed first serves to try to get the opponent to double fault. Too many times tennis has boiled down to who has the most disruptive, obnoxious players, coaches and fans. Does anyone have any ideas, or should we just throw the sport of tennis in the trash can? It is no longer a ladies’ and gentlemen’s game!

From Paul Christian, chairman of the Texas section Discipline and Grievance Committee

While we do not have any jurisdiction over high school play, we certainly do for any USTA sanctioned events. Spectator intervention, poor sportsmanship and the like are not taken lightly, but we cannot act until a written grievance is filed with the Section office. It should be objective and to the point, and should be corroborated by written statements from witnesses. Event officials should be solicited at the first signs of a potential problem, and they should be able to control it. If for some reason this does not solve the problem, the grievance process is the next step.

From Peggy M. of South Carolina

Simple answer for the South - FILE A GRIEVANCE each and every instance with USTA grievance procedures for tournament play. They will soon learn their behavior has cost their players points, games or even being benched. As far as high school, have your coach contact the school's athletic director to advise him/her of the situation, and if he/she can't control his own school, contact the superintendent of the school board with a formal complaint. Also write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper naming the school involved. Bad press gets parents involved! Hope this helps.

From Jacques D. of Mesquite TX

I have a few insights as to how to deal with this issue. First and foremost, you can't control how other people act, but you can control your response to this behavior. So train your son on how to play with these interruptions. Simulate noise during serves, making the practices loud with noise or chatter. Change the way your son handles these sideline clowns. I bet once he starts to show that nothing will bother him and he shows no emotion to their antics and just plays his game, he can shut them up with his ice-cold demeanor. Change his response!

From Phil M. of Houston, TX

Wow, and I mean a BIG WOW! I cannot believe that this actually happens. As a fellow Texas resident, I am shocked. Although still a new player to the sport (about two years), I have never seen or experienced that behavior either in junior or adult matches, in sanctioned USTA events or otherwise. I assume you have had the officials involved but have had no luck (otherwise you wouldn't be writing). With that assumption, I would issue a formal complaint to the USTA and work it from there (I'm not sure of the governing body for high school tennis). I'd also try to capture it on video and get the names of the officials who obviously did not stop that behavior.

I wouldn't give up on the sport! From everything I've seen in my neck of the woods (Houston), the sport of tennis has gone above and beyond a lady's and gentleman's game. I wish you the best of luck, and I'm glad you got posted. This should never happen.

From Cary of Little Elm, TX

I am sorry if the atmosphere for your son is as crazy as you describe, but since moving to Texas from California, I have encountered too many people who are offended by anything more than a golf clap on a screaming winner down the line. Tennis, especially in a team format, can be very exciting, and it’s hard to keep those emotions bottled up. Does anyone remember John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors and the early Andre Agassi? People long for the days when tennis was so popular but forget that it was wild personalities like those players who made the game fun to watch. I say be excited that people are into a game that is still trying to stay relevant against the big sports (basketball, football and baseball).

From Ron Christman, USPTA, Head Tennis Coach, Waynesburg College, Waynesburg, PA

I'm sure it's hard to control a situation if there are no officials present. I've never understood why there are so few officials used in high school and junior tennis. Other sports wouldn't consider playing without officials.

We have a lot of crowd involvement in collegiate tennis, but there are strict ITA rules about harassment and verbal abuse. If a 'home' crowd is harassing the opponent, the penalty is the same as verbal abuse from the player. The crowd gets one warning, and then point penalties are assessed against the 'home' player or, in extreme cases, the player and the player's teammates. Let a player/team suddenly go down love-15 before the second serve is hit, and the player and his/her coach will put a stop to the harassment.

We actually encourage cheering at our matches, but we have the crowd verbal abuse rule right in the program and mention it before the match starts during player and official introductions. Our players like the added excitement that the crowd brings both home and away, but we want it to be positive. Some players (and their families) may not have experienced crowd involvement before. I just tell them it's more like Davis Cup than Wimbledon.

From CJ of Gaithersburg, MD

I would start by contacting your USTA Texas Section director, Ken McAllister, at www.texas.usta.com. He can give you feedback about your situation and whom to talk to about enforcing the rules of tennis in your local tennis association -- who should be doing it and how it should be done. I'm wondering where the officials were for the matches you described. Educate yourself about the rules by reading the "Code of Tennis," which is viewable at USTA.com, the national website. Distracting your opponents, interfering in a match and jeering instead of cheering are all contrary to the Code. Also take a look at Friend at Court, which is available on USTA.com, as well. It is a rulebook for tennis. I suspect there are rules in place that simply aren't being enforced for your junior tennis program.

From Bill L. of Illinois

I am a high school coach for both boys' and girls' teams in Illinois. I am completing my 38th coaching year. In our conference, and in all conferences that I have coached in or coached against, the coaches outside the court enclosure are able to enforce the point penalty system. This follows and includes the USTA tournament point penalty system that the official referees use and enforce. Refer to the Friend at Court publication for the rules and point penalty or Code violations that can be penalized.

Also know that referees, or in our cases as coaches, can penalize a parent or friend of the player by asking them to leave the site area if behaviors are beyond normal, and if they don't leave, the player on the court who is associated with the fans or teammates will be penalized according to the point penalty system. Coaches that have teams or players competing against each other need to agree to use the point penalty system. The coaches should have a ball park agreement as to what a Code violation is that can be penalized, and they need to enforce the point penalty system in good faith and as neutrally as possible.

The home coach is responsible for keeping the conduct of his/her players in order. The opposing coach should be very supportive and help keep the matches as sportsmanlike as possible and be willing to also deliver the consequences if needed. Pulling players off the court if bad behavior continues or has become a habit over a period of time is also effective.

No coach or player should be subjected to bad sportsmanship. Tennis is a game that has been a model of how a person should behave in a non-officiated contest. The ethical conduct of players is tested and a chance given to show the honesty and sportsmanship of a person who is playing the game. This opportunity is rarely given to the player alone in most sports.

Developing the right attitude and effort on the tennis court is the primary job of the coaches. Also, giving direction to fans and parents concerning this topic is part of the job. Good luck in keeping tennis one of the premier sports that allows players to be their own referees most of the time and in the process expose the players' good or bad sportsmanship.

From M. Rinker of San Antonio, TX

I have heard the same inappropriate yelling and screaming at my daughter's matches. Their teammates are sometimes only meaning to joke and show off, not thinking how unsportsmanlike-like their behavior is. The parents can be brutal too, coaching from the sidelines, talking bad about line calls, etc.

When I arrive at a game, I immediately try to find out who the other parents are in the stands around me and compliment their child or team in some way, starting a conversation. That usually prevents them and surrounding fans from acting up, since "we've" been so nice to their team. I'll also say "good shot" to the opposing team loudly whenever applicable.

For worse situations, my advice would be to complain to the tournament director or coaches. If they do nothing, I once stood up in front of the stands and said, "Hey, all the teams here are trying hard and have talent. Don't insult them by hassling the other players. Clap for good shots, but let them play with pride." Then I yelled, "Go (their team) AND (our team)!" It got pretty silent after I did that, but it wasn't easy for me to speak out like that.

I feel the tournament director or coaches should be doing that job. Courtesy and sportsmanship should be the FIRST thing taught to any athlete, and parents should sign an agreement to abide by the same rules at the beginning of the season. Coaches can address it with a crowd better than one parent, so I think both coaches and/or the tournament director should correct it together.

From Edward W. of Rowland Heights, CA

It is too bad that these so called supporters put so much emphasis on winning and not sportsmanship. I suggest that you talk to the tournament director in USTA tournaments about disruptive behavior of players, coaches and fans. In high school matches, I suggest complaining to the opposing head coach. If that has no impact, I would file a formal complaint to the Athletic Director of the opposing school and escalate to the opposing high school principal and state high school federation if necessary. As you said, tennis is a ladies' and gentlemen's game. It should not be spoiled by obnoxious and uneducated fans.

From Lindy of Bensalem, PA

Welcome to junior tennis! I am the mother of a junior player who won her state championship twice and received a full scholarship to the University of Iowa, ranked No. 45 in the country. This is just to let you know I have been there and know what you are talking about.

The first thing is that this kind of behavior is not tolerated at any sanctioned USTA tournament. You must go to the tournament director at once, at the first sign of bad behavior, and the director will observe and in most cases put a stop to the problem. In extreme cases he/she might ask parents to leave if they do not stop the rude and unsportsmanlike behavior. Also, any USTA official or line judge can be asked, also.

Now, high school tennis is another story. Most high school matches are played after school, and I am wondering how many parents actually come to those. Of course, the bigger ones are held on the weekends, and I guess that is what you are referring to. Perhaps the high school coaches can get together and request a meeting with parents and ask them to sign a list of behaviors that are tolerated and those that are not. This has been done with problem parents in soccer and basketball.

In the end, here is how you could look at the situation. Encourage your child to play through and ignore the catcalls, clapping on double faults, etc. Tell your child that this is the "Challenge of the Day" and he must rise to the occasion. Believe me, this will develop mental toughness, one of the hardest things to develop at any level of tennis. So if your child can get through a match and not be bothered or be bothered minimally, that is a victory in itself. If he can get through that, he can get through anything. Each time gets a little easier, you will see.

From Ethel B. of Santa Barbara, CA

I have been involved with junior tennis for many years as a tournament director and spectator. It is advantageous to have one or more USTA officials on site. There are USTA rules of behavior for spectators, and they should be enforced. If the school administrators (in the case of a school match) or the tournament personnel (at a junior tournament) cannot control the crowds, you have a serious problem in your community, and it should be addressed at a more global level.

From Don S. of Southold, NY

This is in my opinion a reawakening of the Ilie Nastase school of distraction when nothing else works. Stop it, just stop it. Have an umpire or other official inform the non-players that interference will result in a loss of one point, then a game and, finally, the match. If that had been done in the Nastase/McEnroe match, we would have been saved years of acting out by players. Stop it now!

From Mari of Los Angeles, CA

I think this is a very big problem. One of the attractive things about tennis is the class of the game, which includes quiet when people are playing. I so detest clapping when someone makes an error. I think all of us in tennis should set the standard to applaud positives and keep quiet during negatives, otherwise this just degrades the game. Maybe the high school and tournaments need more strict rules for this kind of situation. It’s definitely worth it to keep tennis a classy game.

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