It’s not all fun & games
With the tennis season starting again after a long break caused by COVID-19, the time away from the sport has given me the chance to reflect upon my own experiences. Throughout my junior career, I competed all over Ireland, ranking No 2 in Ulster Under 18s and trained 5 days a week with Ulster Tennis Academy.
Whilst tennis has given me a lot of opportunities, it has also been detrimental to aspects of my mental health and emotional development during my adolescent years. I have struggled to recover from the bullying and homophobia I received in the game, however I am finally ready to share my story and highlight the toxic masculinity and classism prevalent in this sport.
I hope to highlight the barriers the working class and children who don’t fit the status quo face in the tennis world. Through coming to terms with my sexuality alongside the challenges I faced being from a working-class family, I struggled to thrive in this elitist sport. Subsequently an integral element of my tennis career was facing bullying, homophobia, toxic mentalities and classism on a daily basis.
My experiences in tennis led me to develop deep resentment towards myself. All throughout my career I felt the need to present a façade in an attempt to make a place for myself within the community. I felt I was never truly accepted among the other players and, shockingly, some of the coaches.
‘If you want to improve, you need to toughen up'
When talking about the issue, one memory immediately jumps to mind. On a Saturday morning at training, my coach pulled me aside and lectured me for playing with two girl players. He was convinced that I would never reach the next level unless I ‘toughened up’. Hurt is still the prominent emotion I feel even now thinking about it. It badly affected me that I could no longer play with my only friends at training and had to force myself to train with the ‘lads’. I had never felt comfortable around these boys and this was the start of my love/hate relationship with the sport. I struggled to consolidate my own emotions and experiences as to why I wasn’t like the other boys. Alongside this was the confusion surrounding the explicitly gendered element. Why was I being shamed for playing with girls who were just as good as, if not better than me?
At competitions, the other kids made it clear that I was an outsider. There was a pack mentality, the toxic atmosphere which bred tension, giving the impression they were ready to tear up anyone who was different. Every tournament I played in, no matter who it was against or what court I was on - the tension was palpable. There would be thirty kids at the back of the court clapping and cheering for every point I lost, mimicking my voice, laughing at me hitting it in the net. All of this would happen whilst parents and coaches watched idly by and dismissed their behaviour.
You may be thinking as you read this, isn’t this part of any sport? My response is, how would you feel if you were thirteen having to go through all this? These experiences stick with you. You may enjoy the sport, have a passion for it, but every time you step into the court, you are having to deal with the anxiety and stress that is fostered under this toxic atmosphere. At only thirteen years old, you already begin to accept that everyone is against you and your success. No one is fighting in your corner or is paying attention to the damage that this sport is causing.
I want to make this clear, this is not a plea for sympathy. Rather, it is an attempt to show that this was my reality and to highlight the issue. I know that I am not an isolated case. In this sport unless you conform, you will not be accepted.
Why are there no gay male tennis players?
I often wonder if my personal experience of tennis as a junior be different if there were safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ players in the tennis circuit. Whether that be a specific coach who was highlighted as a wellbeing mentor, having the opportunity to report behaviour honestly, regularly checking-in and focusing on respecting others and appreciating the differences among other junior players. In short, creating a healthy respectable tennis environment.
This is symptomatic of the sport's wider heteronormativity. Currently and historically, there is a lack of openly gay professional sports players. This exacerbates the problem as without a visible presence in the sport on a wider level, there are no examples of ‘people like me’ excelling within the area. A figurehead for the LGBTQ+ community within the high-profile tennis circuit would go a long way to show that these barriers to access can be broken down and overcome - that members of the LGBTQ+ community do belong in the realm of sport.
You buy your way to the top in tennis
There is no doubt that tennis is a sport for the rich.
Previously, I have faced several complaints from Ulster Tennis for talking about my own experience. Specifically, I had spoken out last March about these issues and the toxic environment young tennis players face. It was hard to accept that my hours of dedication, hard work & commitment were not enough, and that my experiences were not valid. I had to learn and accept the hard way that you buy your way to the top. On top of the challenges surrounding classist attitudes, practically a lot of the sponsorship and support goes to the already advantaged upper class.
The classist attitudes and monetary inaccessibility of tennis contributed to my inability to progress further in the sport. It prevented me from reaching the next level, essentially maintaining the toxic environment of elitism by creating barriers for disadvantaged groups trying to access the sport. Tennis has a massive dropout rate, and we must ask ourselves why that is? It is due to the culture of the game, or it is down to to economic issues?
The governing bodies in sport must do better to support players from disadvantaged backgrounds and actively seek to diversify the key figures within the sporting realm.
Never give up
I don’t want this to come across as a cry for sympathy. It is true that my junior career has not been a walk in a park. Yes, it is infuriating that I still feel like an outsider in the tennis community here, but I don’t let it define me. I am determined to continue to challenge the powers that be in sport and call for change. My hope for this article is to serve as an encouragement to other athletes who suffer from similar issues. To other players in the tennis circuit who don’t feel like they fit with the pack mentality of toxic masculinity; to players who are not born into the rich elite tennis families. I am with you and understand you.
I have enjoyed a break to find myself away from the tennis community. But it is a sport I still love and a community I strive to improve. By getting involved with the community I hope to help improve the system from the inside. I have been so grateful to have had the opportunity to coach tennis with LoveTennis NI these past two years, a tennis and sign language camp for young people in the Bangor area.
To conclude, we need to present positive role models. Coaches who are prepared to change the culture and call out the bullying, focusing on promoting a team approach.
NO child should have to face homophobia or bullying in any environment, especially not in place of the passion and enjoyment of a sport.
Peter Galt is studying French & Spanish at Queen's University Belfast and working towards a Level 2 Qualification in British Sign Language. His passion is tennis and he is looking forward to getting back competing post-lockdown.