Controlling Cheaters: What I Learned From Steve Wilkinson

Posted on May 9th, 2016 by

Snip20160509_16I 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.bricks

  • Can you control another person’s cheating? No, but you can choose not to cheat.
  • Can you make another person be a good sport?  No, but you can choose to be a good sport.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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.Snip20160509_13

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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  1. Joseh S. Emond, Jr., MD ass't Farmington HS tennis coach says:

    Two of my daughters attended the very second TLC and we came back to family camp the following year. It was an honor and a ,privilege to get to know Steve, Barb, and his team. I see what an influence Steve and TLC has had on tennis teaching and culture in the Upper Midwest area. I have had the opportunity to teach tennis at the middle school and high school level and only hope that some of the positive things I have learned from Steve and local pros he has taught can make me a better coach and influence on the students in my charge. Thank You.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Joseh, you go back even further than I do! (I can only claim 35 years :)). Amazing how an experience 39 years ago can still lead the way we make decisions today. We are lucky to have known him.

  2. Raman Jayapathy says:

    Back in High School, I was the #1 player on my team my junior year. During the North Dakota State Individual Championships I played a person in the quarterfinals, I never lost to. In the first set I had a set point. I went to the net and hit an angle volley and thought I won the set. My opponent called the ball out. There was nothing I could do. The crowd made a commotion and I heard people say that I got “hooked” on set point. Needless to say, I lost the first set. The second set went to a tiebreak and I had the opportunity to “hook” my opponent back on a ball that hit the line. I chose not to and lost the match. Yes, I was disappointed and emotional because this was the year I had a chance to win state. Afterwards, a person yelled out that my opponent was a cheater. He replied by saying “C’mon, that is the first time I beat him!” I didn’t say anything at the time. I collected my thoughts, settled down and took fifth that year. This only made me toughen my resolve to come back the following year in which I became the state champion. Always look forward starting with the day you wake up. Never look back. Learn and improve yourself with these life lessons. That’s what these instances are; life’s lessons.
    This also happened when I was on the pro tour. I played a match that, if I won, I would earn my first ATP points. I had match point in the third set, served and volleyed and hit a solid cross court volley. The linesman called the ball good and the chair umpire said game, set, match and began saying the match score. The crowd began applauding. I walked toward where my ball landed, and saw that my ball was just outside the singles line (we were playing on something like clay). I went to the umpire and told him that the ball was out, He said the linesman called it good and the match was over. I showed him the ball mark and asked that we continue the match. There was a discussion as to the ruling and the umpire decided to continue the match. I lost that day. My first chance to get ATP points. After the match, my opponent thanked me and said that most would have accepted the call and move on to the next round. I told him I could not, in good conscience, play that way. Even though I always had this philosophy, Coach, Mr. Wilkinson, had a tremendous affect on me in college. He further instilled what I believed was a way to play the game, the three crowns, which I apply to my life to this day.
    There is much more to life than “instances” of wrongdoing someone or some group does to you. We learn from them and move on. You hope that the wrongdoers also learn. We can only change behaviors by the way we act and live life.

    Thank you Neal and thank you Coach!

    Raman Jayapathy
    Former TLC coach and GAC tennis player

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Raman, this is one reason why Steve loved you so much and why your colleagues, clients, and players know they can trust you with their lives. I am proud to know you and always learn from you. Thank you.

  3. Jim Turner says:

    I think my dedication to the 3 crowns is MOST tested by cheaters, or even by the occasional bad call in an otherwise friendly game. I hope I am getting better at ignoring/accepting this behavior and maintaining a positive attitude and sportsmanlike response, and putting it in perspective as a small part of the sport and of life in general is a big part of that. At the end of the day what I will take home is my own behavior and how I felt about that, and though I have had occasion to be disappointed, I think I have made great progress, mostly thanks to the lessons learned from Steve and company at TLC. A big thank you for that and the continuing reminders via your blog.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I’m with you, Jim. One of the reasons I stay in this job is to get the daily reminders I need…

  4. Rozan says:

    Tennis and LIFE – thank you, Neal – and Steve!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      You’re welcome, Rozan! I was just spending time yesterday with Joanne Sanders The Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford, who is a former college player and coach. She was intrigued by TLC and had much the same philosophy. I told her, “If this were just a tennis camp, there is no way I would be directing it, as much as I love to teach tennis. It is the intersection of tennis and life where all the learning comes for me, and the passion.” As you say, I say, thanks Steve for including me in the vision.