top of page
  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

On Sportsmanship

One of our tournament camp players this week played a magnificent point during a match, until the end, when he chunked an easy shot into the net. In his frustration and anger and disappointment, he bounced his racket off the court gritted his teeth and yelled. We talked quietly on the sideline about possible alternatives next time. Tommy Valentini has done a magnificent job setting the table for these kids to be as successful in their sportsmanship as they are in their tennis games.

I observed this camper later from afar in a similar point. When he missed a tough shot into the net after another great rally, he raised his racket as if to throw it down again. Then he paused mid air, straightened up, clapped his racket for his opponent, and walked back to the baseline. A small victory in some eyes, but a huge one for this particular player. We need to start where we are.


Steve Wilkinson founded Tennis & Life Camps 39 years ago, at the height of the racket throwing, umpire abusing, gamesmanship and player tantrums of the 1970’s. He believed there was a better way, thanks to two people in his life. Karen Gibbs, a 19 year old tennis phenom who lost her battle to cancer, but who won the hearts of everyone she met by never giving up, keeping a positive attitude through brutal chemo regimens, and treating her opponents with the utmost respect; and Arthur Ashe, who endured racism and prejudice but never gave in or responded in kind, instead upholding the highest standards of sportsmanship throughout his storied career.

Here we are in the midst of tournament players camp, teaching not only strategy and mechanics, but teaching sportsmanship. Contrary to what we might think, sportsmanship is not second nature. Much of the time we are not even aware when our facial expression, body language, negative self talk, failure to support teammates when they make a mistake, or failure to compliment opponents when they have done something well, has an adverse impact on others. These are habits, like anything else. And changing a habit needs three things:

1. Becoming aware of what we are already doing that we want to change.

2. Observing it, not judging it.

3. Making a choice to change that habit to a positive. And then making that choice over and over and over, falling down and getting back up again, until the new behavior – not the harmful behavior – becomes second nature.


So we are asking our tournament campers to set Three Crowns Goals on attitude, effort, and sportsmanship and checking in with them daily. They are remarkable kids who are “catching” their own behavior patterns, sometimes before they happen, sometimes after, where they have to readjust for the next situation that arises. To stand tall and calm after every point. To notice the good others around them are doing when things aren’t going their way. To compliment their opponent after good points, and also after every loss, tell them what they did well and why they deserved to win, and bite their tongues on any temptation to make excuses (“just didn’t have my game today”, “sun was in my eyes on that match point overhead”, “my grandma’s sixth cousin once removed’s dog died yesterday”). We all need help and reminders. The better way does not happen without a community of support. When that happens, we are lifted up to a better place, and so are our opponents.

Hopefully, TLC is that community for the campers who are here, and they will be that “community” for the tournaments they return to when they leave. It takes a village to raise a village.


bottom of page