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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Trusting Your Second Instinct

This morning, outdoors, at 6:45 AM CDT, I was destroyed on court by my buddy.

He played brilliantly. He set up shots beautifully, and executed put-aways as effortlessly as if he were strolling down the Champs-Élysées .


My own racket felt like a trampoline. I considered at one point stopping play, placing it between two benches, and bouncing on it for awhile just for fun. I was looking at my bracelet – one which we will sell in the pro shop this summer and have proceeds go to scholarships. It has the Three Crowns on it and the words Attitude – Effort – Sportsmanship. As I looked at it, I was flooded with so many thoughts. My first instinct was, “Turn this bracelet inside out and scream, throw a tantrum, and start cheating!” I did not succumb.

Instead, I pondered. Why have I stayed at Tennis & Life Camps all these years?

Yesterday, I got a call from Vance. Vance has been retired for years from his decades-long job filing papers at the VA. He comes to watch from his bench on Saturdays and Sundays where I often play.

I have occasionally taken him to grocery shop at Cub or get crickets for his lizard or medicine at the pharmacy. When he was assaulted and robbed of his social security check money a couple of Decembers ago and didn’t have money to make it to Christmas, a bunch of us tennis players collected and helped him get on his feet again. We stay in touch. But I have not seen him at his bench lately.

His voice on the phone meant, I thought, another Cub run, which I was not wanting to do, because I am desperately trying to get prepared for summer camps. Instead, he said, “I got hit by a car crossing the street a couple weeks ago. I broke my ankle in three places, my pelvis, and my shoulder. I was in the hospital nine days and now am in a nursing home rehabbing, trying to get back to my apartment. Tomorrow’s my birthday and I’m lonely. Do you think you could come visit?”

I will tell you what my first instinct was to say: “I have to be at camp.” I am not proud of this. It is a lie. I do not have to be at camp. I have to prepare for camp and don’t want to be bothered. So often, my first instinct is not towards generosity but towards selfishness of my time and money. I didn’t say I have to be at camp. But I didn’t say I would visit, either. I said, “I will see if I can get there.” Wow, such a generous commitment. Vance gets run over by a car, is lonely on his birthday, reaches out to me, and my answer is, “I’ll see if I can get there.”

I believe, if we are lucky, we often go into jobs where we are forced to practice “second instincts”. During my 25 year career as a singer/songwriter with my spouse Leandra, people would ask how I came to write the songs I do. The answer is I’m trying to work out my life on a sheet of paper and add musical notes. So, when I write a song called “Rich,” which is a reminder that it is not money that makes me rich, but relationships, I am writing it to myself. Because I often get the priorities reversed. (Click here to listen to “Rich”)


Karen Gibbs


And, in tennis and in life, my first instinct is not to be a good sport, it is to be competitive and win at all costs. Which is why I am at TLC. It is where I need to be to remind me there is a better way. It is where I learn to better live my second instincts. Steve was one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. I saw in him some of the same qualities, which is, perhaps, why he was drawn to Karen Gibbs and her philosophy of, above all, treating your opponent the way you would like to be treated, and why he started TLC partly in tribute to her.

Since it does not come naturally to me, I have to practice daily.


Dave Aasen


So, as I stood staring at the Three Crowns bracelet on court this morning, I looked up and I heard the voice of Karen Gibbs say “Every time you make an excuse for how badly you played you are taking away from your opponent’s accomplishment. Every time you show body language or verbalize frustration on how you are playing, you are telling your opponent, ‘You are not beating me because you are any good, you’re beating me because I’m having a bad day.’”

I heard the voice of David Aasen, one of the greatest instructors TLC has ever known, say, “The grass is green, the sky is blue, it’s a great day to be alive.”

I heard the voice of Steve Wilkinson say, “Three Crowns, it’s all you can control.”


Steve Wilkinson


Then I complimented my opponent today on his amazing play and bit my tongue when I wanted to make an excuse for my play, not because I am such a good sport, but because I am learning to be a good sport.

And I am going to visit Vance today with birthday cupcakes, not because I am a generous person, but because I am learning to be a generous person. I am rich in relationships. And I will keep putting myself in uncomfortable situations to remind me of where my true priorities lie. I will continue to practice my second instinct. Both my tennis, and my life, depend on it.

Then, if I have time, I will prepare for camp.

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