Recently, I had a very unusual encounter in my life as a squash referee. As you might imagine, I am often the person at whom daggers of the eyes are directed, as parents don’t like a call or set of calls I made ‘against’ their child. And while I am rarely approached by a parent to explain a call, a conversation I would welcome, I have been approached with the snide question, “So, tell me, have you ever played this game?” I understand the move: they feel as though their child has been hurt or wronged, and so they want to defend their child and direct anger at the person who hurt them. There are two problems with this scenario: the first is that they are taking their child’s temper tantrum at the call(s) rather than the referee’s line of decision making as the fuel for their ire, and secondly, they themselves don’t have much competitive experience, and therefore aren’t so clear about the best way to handle real or perceived adversity in the heat of the moment.
This recent event was different. I was refereeing a 17-year old boy playing in a local tournament against someone several years his senior. He lost the first few points of the first game, and then won one and came in to serve. “Foot fault,” I called, as his foot was well across the line when he hit his serve. As often happens when you make that call, I got an incredulous look. “Are you serious?!” He caws at me. “Yes,” I say. “Your back foot was well across the line by the time you struck your serve.” Looking at the gallery for a shared sense of outrage, and not getting it, he muttered, shook his head, and went to receive serve.
After the match, in which the 17-year old lost, I was approached by his father. While I braced for a verbal lashing about my call, the father surprised me and thanked me. He told me that his son was in a temper tantrum at the first game break about the call, asking him if he could possibly believe that he had been called on a foot fault and that I must be crazy. He told me that he responded to his son: “Yes, I believe it! He saw your foot across the line. Now your job is to accept the call, keep your foot in the box while you serve, and focus on what you can do to win this match.” He thanked me for helping his son get ready for the next stage in his playing career. (He is going off to college in the fall.) While I could go on to tell you the many other differences between this situation and the one I’m generally in when refereeing junior tournaments, the main one here is that this father has considerable experience as a player on the professional tennis tour. He went on to tell me: “On tour, one of the main differences between guys who made it and guys who didn’t was the amount of time the ones who didn’t spent in the locker room whining about calls they didn’t like.”
I’m not one of these “tough love” parenting types, but I will say that a parent does a child a great disservice when he sides with the rage of the child against the referee. Regardless of whether the calls are good or bad, learning how to deal with any and all calls is an essential aspect of being effective in competition. There is an array of skills you can help your child with when they are in this situation, but colluding with them in hating, or what I call enemizing the referee, will always yield bad results. Here are some skills you can teach your kid instead:
1) Radical Acceptance: encourage your child to accept all calls with grace, and move on to the next point. But, this means really accepting and really moving on. He or she can certainly appeal to the ref for an explanation so that they understand the ref’s line of thinking and help them avoid the same situation in future points, but they must generally accept all calls and keep the yelling in their head to zero. This may require the subsidiary skills of pacing and breathing. Remember: a player has 10 seconds to prepare for the next point. Use them to embrace reality and re-regulate.
2) Do not rile your child up by getting into an ‘enemy mindset’ vis-à-vis the ref. That is, don’t look exasperated and outraged in the gallery after a call. Your child will see this and it will only increase the complaining, whining, and feelings of victimization on the part of your kid. This mindset is not clean, it focuses the mind in the wrong direction, and often produces bad performance and worse conduct. Therefore: you, too, must engage skill #1 above, radically accept reality and self-soothe. Doing so will help your child do it.
3) Encourage your child to have a polite conversation with the referee after the match to explain his calls. There might be something that your child does not understand about the rules that will help him in future matches. It will emerge that the referee is not, in fact, a raving lunatic. And, having this conversation will also be an exercise in self-advocacy, an interpersonal effectiveness goal which will result in greater self-esteem.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the skills I’ve outlined here. Parents so often ask me how they can help their child in the fracas of competition, but they take “standing up for their kid” as so much a part of nature’s bargain that their default mode ends up being exactly the wrong track to take in the face of difficult, confusing, or even bad calls. Using the skills I’ve outlined here will help develop a resilient, interpersonally effective athlete whose attention can be focused on the correct performance goals at the right moment. Who knows, you might even be thanking a referee one of these days.