Good shots, bad brain.
July 15, 2010 5:13 PM   Subscribe

My little brother is a great athlete but has a bad attitude. Help, please?

My 11 year old little brother is fantastic at tennis - he's won tournaments already and our coach says that he has tremendous talent and potential. However, recently, he's developed an awful attitude, and it seems to be worsening. The 2 most troubling things:

1. When he's on top of his game, he plays wonderfully. However, the second he hits a ball astray, everything tumbles down. Instead of focusing on the game, he starts finding things to blame. The sun is too hot. The spectators are talking too loud. His knee hurts. The mosquitoes are bothering him.

2. I play tennis too, but nowhere near as seriously as him. I'm also nowhere near as good. However, I've been training a lot more this summer, and I'm getting better. Our coach is noticing and complimenting me on my improvements. I think my little brother is jealous, because tennis has always been "his" thing. Whenever I get a compliment, he freaks out. He won't stop ranting about how all of the shots he gets are so much more difficult than my shots (which is true, but due solely to the huge difference in ability).

I'm worried about these recent developments. I feel like it'll definitely limit his progress as a player if he can't get his attitude in line. I also worry that this'll spill over into his everyday life and he'll turn into a cocky, insecure teenager. Finally, it's stressing all of us out - me, my parents, and my coach - and it's also embarrassing for all of us when he throws his temper tantrums .

How can I help to fix this? How should we react the next time he throws a fit on the court? What do we need to tell him to get him to truly believe that attitude matters just as much, if not more, than ability?
posted by estlin to Human Relations (22 answers total)
He's 11. This is how 11 year-olds think. You think you have it tough? Try being his parent.

Your best bet is to try to talk to him about this stuff outside of the court and model good behaviour for him.

Also, he may completely give up tennis next year regardless of how good he is. It's his life. So don't get too invested in fixing this problem because you can't fix it. Only he can.
posted by GuyZero at 5:16 PM on July 15, 2010

Have him watch old videos of John McEnroe playing tennis.
posted by dfriedman at 5:20 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound to me like he's got a bad attitude, necessarily -- just an immature one, which is natural given that he is only 11 years old.

Best thing you can do for him is to try to find ways to keep the game fun for him. It's his coach's job to work with him on control and keeping his cool. There's a good chance that he's freaking out when he blows it because he feels too much pressure to succeed. Lighten up. Enjoy the game, and help him enjoy the game.
posted by stennieville at 5:23 PM on July 15, 2010

The situation reminds me of this study, about the effects on children about praising for intelligence rather than effort. The gist is that the kids praised for intelligence became resistant to doing things they weren't already good at, were more afraid of failure in general.

I think the parallel to your brother's situation is talking a lot about his natural abilities/talent in general, rather than his effort.

There's nothing he can do about his natural ability, itself. He can't improve that. So if everyone is harping on his natural ability, of course he's going to get really defensive when it looks like he's playing badly. There's nothing else he can do. Of course he's going to get jealous when someone else is complimented. He can't improve himself so he has to tear the other person down.

I think if, when you guys talk about him/his tennis playing, make his effort the focus of your compliments, he might start feeling better. He can control his effort. He can always make more of an effort.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:27 PM on July 15, 2010 [17 favorites]

(This is an article about the study I mentioned.)
posted by Ashley801 at 5:28 PM on July 15, 2010

Also I think you guys should really try to stay far far away from comparing him to others, even (maybe even especially) positively -- other kids his age who also play tennis, other tennis players, things that don't have to do with tennis, etc. I think it's a lot of pressure on the one hand, and makes you psychologically weird/egotistic on the other.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:31 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Last comment from me: how invested are you/your family in him being a superstar tennis player?

It really sounds to me like he feels he has to live up to that and gets stressed out/scared and feels he has to protect his "great tennis player" status, or else the family will ... ? Think badly of him? Be disappointed/ashamed?

I don't know if you guys are mega invested or not. But it might be a good idea to let him take the lead on his progress in tennis, not have anyone else driving behind him to become great.

Of course, he may be less likely to become great that way. I think it's a tradeoff.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:39 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might pick up a copy of The Inner Game of Tennis. He's surely too young for it, but it's a good read and you'll pick up some things you can convey to him.

I would characterize this trait as a weakness in his game, and phrase it that way. My teammates and I used to refer to it as "denial" and considered it a coup when you could push an opponent into this excuse-seeking mental state, likely resulting in their defeat. "It ain't just a river in Egypt" as the 12-steppers say.

Perhaps watching some champions at work, and commenting on their response to adversity might help. Mental toughness counts for a lot in tennis and it is regularly on display in televised competition.

Winning Ugly is another good read about the mental game. It talks a bit about using this sort of behavior to disrupt your opponent's momentum. The key is to be able to control it, to turn it off at will and use it to your advantage.
posted by Manjusri at 5:59 PM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

he feels too much pressure to succeed. Lighten up. Enjoy the game, and help him enjoy the game. <>
Let him blow off steam.

He'll gain self-awareness by having a cool big brother who teaches through example more than through words.
posted by archivist at 6:09 PM on July 15, 2010

I don't know if I'd be too worried about this. It's immature and embarrassing for you and your family, but as long as his attitude doesn't bleed into other parts of his (and your) life, chalk it up to an aggressive attitude. You say it hasn't bled over be wary but let it slide. I know that a lot of successful people get that way, in part (small or large), by believing they are the best. When your brother is faced with evidence that what he believes is not the case, he gets angry about it. That's not necessarily bad, it could be just the thing to drive him all the more and become an even better tennis player. And if you give him a little time and space, he might very well come to realize he's being a douchebag and lay off the ranting in time.

That's the best case scenario. But if he's being a shit at the dinner table or on a family outing or something, yeah, you should all bring the hammer down. Perhaps especially you, being the older sibling. He probably looks up to you in some way.
posted by zardoz at 6:17 PM on July 15, 2010

Mental toughness counts for a lot in tennis and it is regularly on display in televised competition.

Singles tennis is a mad game, particularly for kids. Because, truth be told, not unlike Chess, it's about destroying your opponent. I played it to a fairly high level (tournaments all summer, a few trophies etc) from about age ten to fifteen and I was often amazed at how badly I could sometimes play. Yeah, I had the strokes, the coaching, the technique ... but sometimes my head would just fail me completely and I'd get beaten by a kid with clearly inferior skills, with nobody to blame for it but myself. This is sort of the definition of frustration, even for adults.

So, yes, I can feel for your little brother. But I don't really have any easy advice. Except maybe to say, he needs to get how much of the game is mental. Which isn't to say he's inferior mentally. He just needs to focus as much on how he thinks his game as he plays it.

Or he could do what I ultimately did to much greater satisfaction: focus on team sports.
posted by philip-random at 6:52 PM on July 15, 2010

He has to understand that his behavior is unacceptable and why. Then he has to have consequences for his bad behavior. Then your family has to enforce the consequences. Only then will he learn.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:30 PM on July 15, 2010

If your little brother should read an article, it should be David Foster Wallace's essay on the psychology of tennis, "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" .
posted by ovvl at 8:49 PM on July 15, 2010

Be a good example.
posted by Bonzai at 8:53 PM on July 15, 2010

Agree with the above statement that you should try to be a good example, praise his effort rather that natural ability, and try to ignore his whiny tantrums as best as you can- he is olny 11, after all.

Have you ever played doubles together? It might give him a chance to relax a bit and have fun playing with his brother in a lower-pressure situation. Then again, it might make you want to kill each other, but hey, it might be worth giving it a try.
posted by emd3737 at 10:13 PM on July 15, 2010

2nding the recommendations to simply model good sportsmanship. If he's your little brother, chances are he already looks up to you. Let him know that it's just a game, that winning and losing are just the breaks, and that the most important thing is that you give it your best. That, and make sure he's playing people that are better than him every once in a while. Nothing makes for a sore winner quicker than winning 90% of your matches.
posted by Gilbert at 10:32 PM on July 15, 2010

My son fences, which is similar to tennis in that the competitor is out there on his own, with no teammates to hide behind when things don't go right. And I've seen this behavior quite a bit, and in generally every case there was a parent pushing the kid too hard in the background. If he isn't having fun playing tennis no amount of world fame, or a 4 year scholarship, can make it worth the effort for him.

Talk to the coach too - he needs to back off too and focus on helping your brother have fun playing tennis. The world is littered with pre-teen athlete superstars that simply quit the game, or worse, fell into drugs and depression, because they couldn't handle the pressure of being so good at something. The Tiger Woods of the world, that can handle and thrive under intense competitive pressure as kids, as the exceptions to the rule.

Your brother is trying to tell you something. Listen.
posted by COD at 5:41 AM on July 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I played a team sport to a high level (winning the national championship at one point in time), and started playing when I was about seven years old. I have a lot of emotional baggage focused on how harshly I was forced to practice, and how harshly we were treated.

So I totally acknowledge that I have emotional baggage.

My initial thought, like others in the thread, is that your little brother is trying to tell you something. Maybe he's just flaking out like a normal eleven year old, or maybe he's got some larger internal struggles. The point is, you have to listen to him, not just try to find ways to motivate him. He's a very young person, not a problem to be solved. (Not that you treat him that way -- again, I'm sharing my emotional baggage just in case it resonates with your situation, not saying that it absolutely does.)

Maybe he has a gift, and you as a family just want to see him succeed, but he's not going to get to the upper echelons as a happy, healthy person without internal motivation and desire. If you try to provide a lot of external motivation while he lacks his own internal motivation, he may still get close to those upper echelons, but at the expense of his mental health and happiness.

In my opinion, try asking him what goes wrong, why he loses motivation, and then listening. Maybe he's afraid of looking foolish. Maybe he beats up on himself too much. Maybe he gets bored. Maybe he's afraid of the consequences of losing. Who knows. But you can ask. I do think it's then fair to explain to him that he may have a special talent, but that it will take a lot of hard work to develop that talent, and you'll help push him if he wants, but only if he wants.

I mean this as gently as possible, acknowledging my own baggage -- your AskMeFi question here is "how to I motivate this little boy?" rather than "help me figure out why this little boy gets unhappy". There is a difference there.
posted by lillygog at 6:06 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

(And I see that COD has put things far more succinctly! In total agreement with him or her.)
posted by lillygog at 6:09 AM on July 16, 2010

Along the lines of Ashley801's comment, you might find the book Mindset heplful. It is by Carol Dweck, one of the researchers in the article. She has worked a lot with athletes and includes many examples of their attitude, and I think reading the book will give you some perspective and understanding of where your brother is coming from along with some ideas for how to talk to him in a productive way.
posted by TrarNoir at 7:24 AM on July 16, 2010

In addition to seconding The Inner Game of Tennis, I heard that the number 1 thing that differentiates top 10 tennis players from top 100 tennis players is the way they react to losing a point. The top guys are the calmest.

If you can find a citation for that (or heck, maybe you don't need one), if you or his coach can point that out it may improve the way he deals with losing/adversity, or at least, give him a goal to keep in mind.
posted by Four Flavors at 3:49 PM on July 16, 2010

One more thought - he might be throwing temper tantrums to pre-emptively defend himself from criticism. If he's playing badly and is mad, other people will try to calm him down and appease him. If he's playing badly and is not mad, other people might scold him about his playing, criticize him, or even get angry at him.

So, I don't know what the coach's style is like, whether he's tough-love or not, but if he is pretty tough on your brother maybe a change in style might be a good idea.

I do think it is a really good idea to try to get to the root of this now, because using your anger to protect yourself from other people is a bad habit to get into and bad road to go down as an adult.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:43 AM on July 17, 2010

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