When things go wrong between players

Local Tennis Leagues seeks to provide a supportive context in which to play friendly, competitive tennis. But occasionally things go wrong. Here we offer some advice on dealing with difficult situations and resolving conflicts, and outline the steps the we are likely to take when tackling disputes.

Conflict between our players is, thankfully, very rare. Around 30,000 friendly, competitive matches are played every year and finish without any problem at all. But very occasionally, something goes wrong and when it does, the distress caused to the players and also to us as organisers, is enormous.

It can be the smallest thing: a bad line call; someone not apologising for being late; a misunderstanding over booking a court. Whatever the initial trigger, arguments between two players can escalate very quickly.

Not infrequently, the argument lands in our inbox with two people feeling extremely angry and upset. Since we were not there, it is not possible for us to know exactly what happened so here is a guide to what we can do and what we cannot do.

We can…

  • make a call based on our rules (eg whether or not something meets the criteria for a walkover)
  • make sure both players understand the rules and ask that they will abide by them if they wish to continue
  • follow up a formal complaint (but please see the information below before you make one)
  • We can tell players they can no longer play in our league: this is very rare but it will be applied if there is a breach of our rules
  • We can insist that the courtesy rule about treating other players – and us – with courtesy is adhered to and refuse to let someone play if, among other things, they use threats, violence or abusive language
  • We can rule that a match is:

Complete: though if there has been a dispute, this is unlikely
To be continued: the most common outcome
Void: very rare as we always want to acknowledge the tennis that has been played.

We cannot…

Sometimes players have unreasonable expectations about what we - or tennis officials in general - are able to do to help resolve issues. We can not, among other things...

  • take witness statements! We are not a court of law!
  • ask spectators what they think; no umpire in a professional tennis match canvasses opinion for other people’s point of view. Nor do we!
  • pass a definitive judgement on what happened during a disputed incident when we were not present
  • conduct a forensic investigation about what happened asking, for instance, players to submit all their emails, texts or any other message.
  • intervene in an issue that has been referred to the police or other statutory authority or ignore the rulings of individuals or organisations that have jurisdiction over courts and venues
  • pursue a complaint after we deem it closed
  • agree to entry into future rounds based on avoiding playing particular individuals

What to expect if you raise an issue with us

If things do go wrong in a match and you raise the issue with us, we may:

  • ask you more questions about what happened.
  • ask you for permission to share what you have told us with your opponent.
  • ask if you want to make a formal complaint.
  • offer you the opportunity to resolve the issue by contacting the other party "after the dust has settled" and refer you to this page on our website.

Often the other party to the issue will also raise the issue and may also make a complaint.

When we pursue a complaint we will seek to resolve the status of the match, award points accordingly and discipline any player if necessary.

As part of the any disciplinary process we will seek reassurances that players understand and agree to abide by our rules. If a player can not assure us that they will abide by the rules, or if in our judgement the incident is sufficiently serious to warrant it, they may be removed from the current and/or future rounds.

The details of any disciplinary process are treated as private and are between Local Tennis League and the individual player.

Players should have reasonable expectations about what we can and can not do. We can not punish players beyond the scope of the rules of the league.

Resolving conflicts, what you can do

Ideally, of course, any difficulty would be resolved amicably between players themselves. Often just making sure you understand the rules and etiquette of the game is enough to prevent problems. We know, however. that this is not always easy and that we all fall out with people sometimes. The good news is that conflict resolution is a learnable skill and it is an extremely valuable one to learn.

If you are in dispute with another player, please read the following. The information is drawn from the best selling book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters and the best we know to resolve conflict. It has been used to train oil rig operators, the US Dept of Justice, in the White House and on the International Space Station (there is nothing like being in a confined space with other people many miles from earth to find your nerves are fraying). 

Here is a very brief synopsis or The Essential Guide to How to Resolve Conflict Before During or After Matches (or at any other time in life). 

All difficult conversations are really three conversations:

  • What happened – who said or did what? Who is right and who is to blame. A lot of time is spent here!
  • How we feel – every difficult conversation involves feelings
  • Our identity – what does this situation mean to us, how does it effect our self esteem?

In each of these conservations, we make predictable errors that cause trouble. There is, however, a way to navigate them – and it is a great skill to acquire.

First a bit of background

  1. Why we argue and why it is a bad idea
    We think they are the problem; they think we are the problem.  In the What Happened part of the argument we vigorously argue our point of view and our whole argument is based on one assumption: I am right. As the authors say in the book: “What am I right about? I am right that your comments were inappropriate. I am right that you drive too fast. I am right that I deserve a raise. I am right that the contractor was at fault. The number of things I am right about could fill a book.

There is only one hitch: I am not right. The point is this: difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values.

They are not about what the contract states, they are about what the contract means.”

The urge to blame is based on two things:

  • a misunderstanding of what has given rise to the issues between you
  • on the fear of being blamed

Blame is a bad idea, because it means you get stuck. If you accuse someone of something, you put them in the position of ‘the accused’ and when we are accused of something, we defend ourselves. If you get into the blame game, the argument will get more and more heated, each person will dig their heels in and the insults will start flying.

What to do instead
There is another way! It is a process and while it may initially seem unfamiliar and even uncomfortable, it works!

  • Stop arguing about who is right.
  • Move from certainty about being right to curiosity about why things went wrong - we all have different information, notice different things, have different interpretations and apply different implicit rules.  
  • You know what your story is but what is their story?
  • Dis-entangle impact from intention. We assume someone’s intention from the effect something has on us. So if someone doesn’t respond to an email, we assume they are ignoring us. In fact, they are probably busy getting on with their own lives and did not intend to be rude. Meanwhile, we treat ourselves much more charitably! If your partner forget the dry cleaning they are irresponsible. If your forget to book airline tickets, it’s because you are overworked and stressed.
  • Crucially, move from the idea of blame to the concept of joint contribution. What did you both contribute to the problem?

Initially, we have found, hackles rise at the idea of joint contribution. It is important to bear in mind that joint contribution is not about apportioning blame. It is about understanding how you got to where you are.
Blame is about judging and contribution is about understanding. It is about what did we each did or did not to get to ourselves into this mess. 

Putting it all together
Walk yourself through the three conversations;

What happened Where does your story come from? Where does theirs come from?  What might you have contributed to the problem?

Feelings Feelings disguise themselves in judgements. Next time you attribute a quality to a person, ask yourself what feelings lie behind it.  If you call someone ‘rude’ for example you are probably feeling ignored or unappreciated. Become aware of why you feel what you do and share how you feel. Do not share the judgement!

Identity What is at stake for you? Everyone wants to feel competent, that they are a good person and likeable. What feels under threat?

If, having thought about this, you want to get in touch with us or the other person, first check your purpose, and decide whether or not you want to raise it. If you raise it with the other person, say you want to hear their point of view and share yours. Finally, approach it as a joint problem to solve together. What solutions can you both come up with? What would it take for you to say yes to what they suggest? What would work for you both?  

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen £9.78 Amazon