The Next Right Thing

Posted on June 30th, 2016 by

One of our camper’s opponents drove a tough shot into the corner, and the camper went for an ill-advised winner.  He tried to do too much.  He missed.  He hit his shoe with his racket.  Then he hit it again.  And again.

I happened to be walking past at the moment.  Lucky him.

It wasn't this dramatic, but things can escalate quickly on the tennis court...

It wasn’t this dramatic, but things can escalate quickly on the tennis court…

I called out his name.  “Joey!”  He looked up.  I said, “What can you do instead of beating your shoe into submission?”  He said, “I can make the shot!!”  I said, “Too late.  That train has left the station.  What else can you do?”  He said, “I can hit a safer shot next time I’m in a defensive position.”  “Great”, I said.  “What else can you do?”  He looked confused.  I said, “It involves the person across the net from you who just hit a great shot, but you were too busy bludgeoning your shoe to remember.”

He said, “Oh!  I can clap for him or say ‘Good shot.’”


I pulled all the kids together and said, “This is what we are going to practice the rest of the lesson.  Looking out for your opponent.  Every single time your opponent hits a good shot, you clap and say ‘Good shot!’  Every time.  This is a habit, just like honing your serve is.  Look around you and notice you are not alone out here.  You need your opponent to even play this game.”

They all agreed to do this.  I admit I was dubious.  It was a group of teen aged boys, after all.  I came back about fifteen minutes later and watched without them knowing.  Oh.  My.  Gosh.

The change on the court was palpable.  I saw Joey hit a similar shot (i.e. a poor decision off a good shot ofIMG_0309

his opponent – it happens to all of us) and immediately break into a smile realizing his mistake, then clapped for his opponent.  I’m not kidding.  All the kids on the court were doing this.  And the atmosphere had changed from intense competition with a lot of self serving behavior to equally intense competition with a lot of smiles and camaraderie.

Which convinced me again of this.  Making mistakes is not where our lives reside.  It’s what we do with them.

I’m not usually a fan of cheesy signs out in front of gas stations or places of worship, but there is one that has stuck with me for years.

Do the next right thing.

It is one of the most comforting mantras in my life, because I have many mistakes and failures to choose from in athletics, personal relationships, business, you name it.  This phrase resets me.  We’ve all heard, “Do the right thing”.  That phrase, to me, has a harsh feel to it, with no room for growth.

But “Do the next right thing” acknowledges our humanity and propensity to make mistakes, then helps us re-see what we have missed and get it right the second time.  Or third.  Or fourth.

The camper who was hitting his shoe knew he made a mistake.  What did he do?  He did the next best thing, which was doing the next right thing.  He turned to his opponent and applauded.  Then he consciously started working on it as a habit, together with the other players on his court.


When you display sportsmanship you’re not proud of, do the next right thing.  Apologize and then next time clap your racket or say “Good shot” to your opponent.  When you speak harshly to a loved one, do the next right thing.  Ask for forgiveness.  When you are quick to judge someone because of how they look or what they believe, do the next right thing and ask what their experience is.  Find out their story and you will discover someone who has a lot more in common with you than you could have ever guessed.

We all need this reset.  Over and over and over again.  Until our life is a habit of looking out for the good of others, not just ourselves.  And looking out for the good of others is almost always the “next right thing.”


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  1. Jim Turner says:

    Just thanks. Again.

  2. David Sommer says:

    I’ve posted “Do the next right thing” where I’ll see it every day.

    I love the groups I captain in Senior Tennis – so many take joy in the game, whether one’s own great shot, or loving another’s great shot. Wonderful that your testosterone flooded teen boys are already learning this. Many of us had to wait for old age!

  3. Bruce McKinnon, Hamline 64 says:

    Ah Neal, you did it again. And Steve would be proud. Not because you have been becoming so good at copying his techniques (and you had plenty of years to observe the benefit of that), but more because you are setting your own course — creating your own path. Steve’s book title, Let Love Serve, I thought at first was clearly this cool play on words — but when I read his book, I quickly realized “OMG, this guy is not kidding, he’s dead serious”. And YOU know perhaps better than anyone else (Barb being an exception), his record in tennis (the numbers) made his words have unquestionable (legitimate) meaning.

    I like the word “RESET”. Sounds tennisesy. But its so palatable. >> “Screwed up? RESET! But before you do, acknowledge! Acknowledge that your mistake may / was someone else’s success — good shot. It’s releasing. More importantly, it’s grounds for letting go and MOVING ON. It’s magic. Just look at your racket — and “Smile”.

    You may just be coming into your own.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Bruce, thank you. This is very kind of you. I love your analysis of “reset” as perfectly compatible with tennis. It’s like, one set is over, and no matter what has happened in it, win or lose it, we have to “reset” to move on in the match. That just might be another whole blog down the road. Thanks! And regarding my own course, Steve was one of the best people I know at letting other people use their own gifts and not trying to be like someone else. One of the great gifts he gave to me was the freedom (at times a demand) to be myself, knowing it was the only way it would authentically work. He was a master at being himself, I think, and I have realized more and more that when I stop trying to be like anyone else, that is when the work I (or anyone else) am fortunate to do in the world has its greatest impact. Otherwise I’m just wearing someone else’s mask and pretending to be what I’m not and can never be. Thanks for your encouragement.

      • Bruce McKinnon says:

        Or one moment is over, time to reset. |||| But more important, RESET was your word and your idea. Use it.

  4. Sharon Dunne says:

    I loved how Roger Federer seemed to hang back when his match with Willis was finished and gave Willis his chance to enjoy the admiration of the applauding audience. He did “The next right thing” in giving the loser his moment.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I love Federer for that exact reason. I think Nadal has the same characteristics…

  5. Cynthia says:

    Thank you, Neal! Great lesson that I can use in my own life. ?

  6. Connie Kabrud says:

    As usual – on the mark and oh, so inspirational. Thanks, Neal, for sharing that story. I was watching the play from yesterday’s match with Willis vs. Federer and their interviews. So fun for them both…

  7. Steve Jackson says:

    Great personal mantra story Neil! Thank you for sharing such an important life lesson.