Thankful for the Pain?

Posted on November 25th, 2015 by

Can we be thankful for the pain in our lives?

Last week, our swimmer daughter, Madeline, found out she might be pulled from her relay team (which she had swam on all year) and replaced by a teammate, literally the day before section finals.  This was a relay team destined for state and a Minneapolis record.  It had been a dream of hers she had worked for since the end of last season.  And now she would have to wait overnight to find out if she would even swim in what had been up to this point a sure thing.  This girl who is usually unflappable was devastated.  So were we.  It felt like we had all been physically punched, because it came out of the blue. We all went through every emotion in the book.  Sadness.  Disappointment.  Anger.  Confusion.

After crying her eyes out that night and talking about our sadness and all having a conversation (not a lecture) about the Three Crowns of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship and what we could control and what we could not, she went off to bed.  When she woke, she emerged from her room and said to my wife, Leandra, “I’m good, Mom.  I’m ready for whatever happens.  If I’m chosen, I’ll be happy.  If I’m not, I get an extra week off of swimming.”  I was at our Tennis & Life “I Have A Name” retreat camp with 24 kids and 6 chaperones.  All this was playing out live with the 8th graders there as we were discussing the Three Crowns and how it applied to this real-life situation (including asking the kids for advice as to what I should say to my daughter in this situation.  They mostly said, Tell her you’re proud of her.  Tell her you love her).  They all wanted to know how Madeline was doing, blow by blow.  So I called her that morning (when she still didn’t know the outcome) and asked her what she would do if she didn’t get chosen.  She said, “I’ll cheer for my teammate who did.”  You will? I asked.  “That’s what you do on a team, Dad.”

She didn’t find out until she was getting on the bus that day for section finals that she was, indeed, going to swim.  But Leandra’s and my reaction was unexpected and unsettling.  While we were happy and relieved for our daughter, we were deeply sad for Madeline’s teammate who had had the possibility extended to her the day before and then had it yanked back. We thought we would just be elated that Madeline had been chosen.  But there was another child involved who was feeling pain.  And a coach who agonized over the decision.

So where does this leave us?  It leaves us having to be able to hold both joy and pain at the same time.  It leaves us in a state of understanding that for every joy we have, someone else experiences pain.  For every pain we have, someone else experiences joy.


It leaves us knowing we do not have control over a lot of things in our lives:  a coach’s decision; our own emotions; playing (or swimming) well or poorly in the last match at state (or section, or subsection).  And these things hurt.  A lot.

How, then, do we go on?  By acknowledging that pain, by crying with (and for) each other, and by doing our best to eventually – and this is very hard for me – being happy for someone else’s success which we felt we deserved.  But if we do not acknowledge our pain first, if we gloss over our disappointment by jumping to the Three Crowns too quickly or glibly, we short circuit the process, and don’t get to the deeper meaning.

Without working through our pain in life (and it will come often), we do not get to the point of the real Three Crowns in this messy life.  We do not have that conversation as a family as to what is important.  And we do not get to say, “It’s alright to cry.  And still cheer on your teammates.”  And, “I love you.  I am so proud of you.  Whether you swim or not.”

Happy Thanksgiving.  I hope your pain produces clarity.  And compassion for others.  And that leads to a deeper happiness than you might have otherwise had.

How Can I Contribute?



  1. Jim Turner says:

    I have come to treasure your blog, thank you, I am grateful for having TLC in my life.

  2. Glenn says:

    You have shared that Madeline does not have a competitive bone in her body but this story demonstrates her amazing love for team and support of her swim team, whether she is in the finals or not. She is living out Steve’s wish for everyone that the 3 crowns become, and remain, a part of their life.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Well, Glenn, she is certainly unusual. We’re finding out she does have a competitive streak, but it is not at the expense of others. I still need to learn that. And see my comment to Kathy below for what I was thinking about when we were going through this. 🙂

  3. Jennifer Kirby says:

    Thank you for this wise message. Your timing is better than you might know. Hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I am so glad, Jennifer. And I hope we see you and Shelly and your crazy buddies this summer!

  4. Kathy Nelson says:

    Thank you for sharing this! Neal, you and your family are exceptional people! 🙂 What EXCELLENT parents you and Leandra are!!!! You’ve taught your, precious ,daughter such a wonderful lesson in life. She will carry this experience and lesson with her all the days of her life!! Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! And regarding her swimming… GO Madeline!! 🙂

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      We plug away as parents. We were lucky to have birthed a baby Buddha, I think :). What I was so aware of when we were going through this heart wrenching experience was how thankful I am for Steve’s friendship and guidance over the years. We had a language we could frame it in (Three Crowns and Serenity) that is both simple and profound, and has helped so many of us.

      • Kathy Nelson says:

        Yes, what a blessing to have Steve’s friendship and guidance. It helps so much to have supportive friends that offer wisdom!

  5. Barbara Lewis says:

    Didn’t have to read the entire blog to know the outcome. That is the Madeline we’ve come to know and love. The coach however could use a good dose of Tennis and Life.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      But, as Leandra pointed out, and I think this was key for me when I was tempted to do a very non-Three Crowns response :), every person in this scenario is doing their best. So, though we are unskillful at times and hurt others, 99% of the time we are trying to help. As humans, we just screw it up a fair amount. I think being human is a terribly difficult affair.

  6. Anastasia says:

    There’s always a lesson in your messages to apply to one’s own life and challenges. In the spirit of giving and gratitude, I thank you and all the good work that TLC does in the world. Feeling personal despair, and now blessed.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Anastasia. When my family asked me what I was thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner, I said, A job I love so dearly. That despair thing gets the better of me at times, too. And the blessed. Sometimes at the same time. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Harlan Andersen says:

    Beautifully profound…..have a blessed Thanksgiving my friend….

  8. Les Zellmann says:

    Neal, Great Stuff!

    Have the best Thanksgiving!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Les. You pattern your whole program and life values on these same principles, I know, and I see it in every kid you coach. And in the parents. St. James is remarkable and it starts with your selflessness.

  9. Paul Simon says:

    Well-shared, Neal. Too often we cannot see the flip side of the coin, that our teammates and opponents are just as real as us, with the same feelings at times. For some reason your blog made me think of and look up the lyrics to The Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Love that song, Paul. Your comment reminds how this goes farther than athletic opponents to the “opponents” we see in other cultures, races, religions.

  10. Pat says:

    You knocked it out of the park right on happy thanksgiving !!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Pat. Shout a hi to Montevideo for me. It’s just a stone’s throw across the prairie from Watertown :).

  11. Lily says:

    Thank you for sharing Neal. We are thankful for your powerful message and reminder. We are grateful to know TLC in our life.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      And we are grateful to have had you in TLC’s lives for all these years. Even in the brochure!

  12. Aileen says:

    Heartfelt, lovely message.