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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Controlling Cheaters: What I Learned From Steve Wilkinson


I saw it happen in the state tournament.  Two of our TLC campers were playing each other in the first round.  To my dismay, one was cheating the other. (Not everyone gets the message the first time around.  It’s a habit that is not instantly reversed).  The other knew it.  She had a chance to retaliate on multiple occasions.  She did not.  She called the lines fairly the entire match.  And lost.

When someone plays a match and doesn’t retaliate against an opponent who has obviously cheated them, the first thing I do is go up to the player who played with honesty and tell them how I am inspired that they stuck to a more powerful principle.  They may not leave with a title, but they will leave with dignity.  That is the person I want at my college, in my business, as an instructor, as a friend.

In dealing with being cheated, identifying what we can and cannot control is key.  Steve Wilkinson taught me this.

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  1. Can you control another person’s cheating? No, but you can choose not to cheat.

  2. Can you make another person be a good sport?  No, but you can choose to be a good sport.

  3. Can you control where a coach is going to play you in a line up?  No, but you can give everything you have every time you play a match, regardless of where your coach plays you.

Many things that are out of our control are painful, and it feels like we are being cheated out of something.  Illness is being “cheated” out of health; my coach’s decision to play my friend higher on the team than I am is  “cheating” me out of a position I think is rightfully mine; an opponent who cheats me is, well, an opponent who cheats me.

These circumstances out of our control are made much more painful when we think we can control them. When we accept them, then we can move on to do the things that we can actually control.

  1. Can you control the ugly actions of parents/coaches/players who may be cheating you or your child?  No, but you can start a movement in your community/school/USTA to address these issues so that fewer people are affected the way you or your child have been.

  2. Can you control advancing at state (or USTA sections) when your opponent cheats you (or even if your opponent doesn’t)?  No, but you can continue to give it your all in the face of the unfairness out there in the world and the court.

  3. Can you start a conversation with teammates about this, or with your coach, about how you want to behave as a team member (remember, you can’t control how an opposing team behaves), regardless of how others behave?  Yes.  I have seen it happen and I’ve seen that conversation and commitment change team cultures from distrust to trust.  From retaliation to fair play.


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I am not talking about standing around swaying with others with our eyes closed singing Kumbaya. (I secretly love that song, shhhh, don’t tell anyone).  Rather, it requires active resistance and tremendous courage to combat a culture bound and determined to cheat, and it requires a belief inside ourselves – stronger than that culture – which says, “We will change this through education, outreach and compassion, not retaliation.”

Will we get mad at times and want to cheat back?  Absolutely.  Do we have to act on that anger in a way that escalates any chance of positive, constructive change?  Absolutely not.

Will we make mistakes along the way?  Absolutely.  Do we have to give up just because we can’t do it perfectly?  Absolutely not.

If we did, I would have given up decades ago.  Or even last month.  Because I know the same instincts that are inside those who cheat me are inside myself.  Which is why compassion towards the cheater is as important as a commitment to change the system. There is no “us” and “them.” There is only “us,” which includes the people who are cheating us.

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Help your child (or your friend, or yourself) determine what they can and cannot control by continually asking the question: Is this something in my control or outside of it? Thanks to Steve, I ask myself this question daily. This enables me to spend my time more wisely, instead of wasting it on things outside my control.

The more we can learn to let go of others’ behavior and focus on our own, the more clearheaded we will be as we make steps to make tennis a more just sport, and the world a more just place in which to live.

Both of which we do have control of.

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