Trusting Your Second Instinct

Posted on June 1st, 2017 by

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.

How Can I Contribute?



  1. Luann says:

    I just read your blog after hearing you deliver it in person this past weekend at camp. Such a great message and so glad to get this reminder. I’m so glad I listened to my 2nd instinct 17 years ago this past spring when my mom called one afternoon. I was running out the door to try and get some errands done before my 3 girls – then aged 10, 8 & 6 – came home from school. When I answered the phone my first instinct was to say “Mom, I’m just so busy and really don’t have time to talk right now.” But I literally heard a voice tell me to stop, sit down, and talk to your mother. I’m so grateful that I listened to that voice. Two days later I woke to a call that my mother had passed away during the night at the assisted living home. It was unexpected and very hard, but at least I had the comfort of knowing I had taken the time that day to tell her about all of the many things we were so busy with – t-ball and piano and tennis etc etc etc…. It’s such an important message – thanks for the reminder, Neal!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you Luann. What a beautiful story that will help me stop more often to consider what is important. It was great having you and Chris at camp for the first time!

  2. Elly Black says:

    Hey Neal,

    Wow…. My biggest mentor is my husband of 29 years, Rial. Rial is incredibly humble and quiet. He exudes patience, honesty and integrity. He always does and says the right thing… the kind and compassionate thing. Every single time!!! He is very gentle with me on my journey! I am humbled by his wisdom.

    That being said… I struggle EVERY single day but I am improving! UGHHHH!! I am really looking forward to introducing you to Rial at camp this June.

    You are such a teacher Neal! BRAVO!

    Best, Elly

    • Neal says:

      How beautiful, Elly. I struggle alongside you! Can’t do it alone, and that is maybe the most important thing I’ve learned. Can’t wait to meet Rial!

  3. Jennifer Kirby says:

    Thanks for another rich post. (Pun intended.) This week my impatience led me to make a pretty big mistake that irritated and inconvenienced my friends. Having patience is what I’m working on having these days (even if it is my second instinct.)

    Can’t wait for camp!

    • Neal says:

      I’m beside you all the way on this road, Jennifer. I have discovered there are very few “first instinct” people, and I admire and am jealous (my first instinct :)) of them, but the vast majority of us muddle along and need each other to have mercy as we practice our second instincts.
      See you this summer!

  4. Karen Mann says:

    Again, just the right words at just the right time! Counting down the days until camp! Need me one of those bracelets!!

  5. Carrie Jensen says:

    Your honesty is so helpful. I am going to work on tapping into my “second instinct” as well.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      thank you, Carrie. I figure if I try to hide it, people instinctually know it anyway, so might as well just get it out there and join the human race. I’m really glad it’s helpful.

  6. Bev Lesiuk says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. I love all of your blogs. The messages are wonderful and help me work on being more compassionate and understanding. See you soon. We are so looking forward to another great weekend at TLC

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Bev, I’m working on it right beside you. Can’t wait to see you and all those Canucks who make camp fun!

  7. Debbie McGarity says:

    Oh I just love this blog post, Neal! I often tell the boys when we have an opportunity to do something nice, do it. It’s that simple. It doesn’t always come easy with two young boys (or for me too!), but I push them out of their comfortable space all the time. 🙂 Also, your posts so wonderfully remind me why I love Gustavus and TLC. Thank you for your words, for your honesty and for sharing your daily journey on being a generous person. …and fyi, you have my permission to push Jack and Charlie out of their comfortable space while they are at camp! Thanks Neal.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      thanks, Debbie, it doesn’t seem to come simple for most of us, does it? But it is worth it in the long run. At least I hope so! 🙂 looking forward to seeing Jack and Charlie!

  8. Linda LeClaire says:

    I was touched by Vance’s appeal to you – After explaining what happened to him and then acknowledging that he was lonely, he asked for what he needed. I liked that. Then your response, Neal, made me laugh aloud. “So, you’ve been hit by a car, broke your ankle in three places, broke your pelvis and shoulder, were in the hospital for nine days and now in rehabilitation and you want me to come and see you because you are lonely?” “I’ll see if I can come.”

    Sounds like you are preparing for camp in the best way possible-making sure your priorities are in order! Not to mention the lesson Vance was teaching you about asking for what you need!

    I am so looking forward to seeing you at TLC this summer! Brianna and Natalie can’t wait for TLC! Thank you for sharing with such openness and honesty lessons we all are learning!

    You always brighten my day!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Linda. I can’t wait to see you all, too. When you wrote it back to me verbatim, I laughed out loud and went, “Wow, that’s as bad as it sounds!” And there you have it. Vance had a great birthday, by the way. He was pretty blue (obviously) about his situation, but when I brought the cupcake with a candle, he said, “You came! I haven’t blown out a candle in years! This has been my best birthday ever! Everyone here (at the rehab center) has been so nice, people have sent cards, my cousins came to visit, Dick (who is the real hero who takes Vance to the majority of his appointments week after week) keeps checking in on me, my neighbor is taking care of my cats, everyone is so nice, and it almost makes it worth getting run over!” Then he added, “But not quite.”

  9. Aileen Williams says:

    Seems we are two of a kind, working hard on doing the right thing. I am finding great satisfaction giving my opponents the benefit of the doubt, complimenting an amazing shot and letting them know they deserved that point. It has taken the game to a different level, not all days but some. Its empowering to acknowledge that. Thanks for keeping it real.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      It is satisfying, isn’t it, when you can do the right thing? Now I want to do the right thing without ever having to think about it! (One can always dream…) Keep plugging away from there and I will keep plugging away from here 🙂

  10. Rozan says:

    Yet another amazing piece of yourself you’re sharing, Neal! You are such an inspiration – and I get to be with you again in just a few short weeks! xo, Rozan

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I’m so glad you’re coming back, Rozan! Thanks for the encouragement…

  11. Kim Gillum says:

    Enjoyed very much the song as well, Neal, “Rich”. Your wife has an angelic voice, and you’re not so bad yourself! ; )

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      lol. how do you think I got the 25 year career in music? The first time I heard Leandra’s voice, I was so mesmerized you could have knocked me over with a feather. It’s all about choosing the right partner, right? Just like in doubles. I try to find someone who is way better than I am before they discover it ;).

  12. Kyle Johnson says:

    Neal, Thank You for sharing these blogs. I share these with my team and it makes a difference. More importantly it makes a difference in me to try and “learn” to live by the 3 Crowns and share that. Take care and see you later in the summer!
    P. S. Taylor can’t wait for tourney camp!! 🎾

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      thanks, Kyle. I think the more we, as coaches and teachers, can let kids know we work at it and struggle with it, and fail, too, the more they are likely to stick with it and not give up because they can’t be “perfect” at it. So glad you are coaching. Hi to Taylor!

  13. Mike Senescall says:

    Thank you Neal, great blog. Learning to be a good sport is a journey for me. A friend and I play a match on Sunday mornings. One Sunday was very windy, we weren’t hitting well, the match seemed like a bit of a joke, I let my judgment slide. I made a couple questionable line calls and I didn’t correct a scoring mistake he made in my favor. I apologized after the match and my friend laughed it off telling me he didn’t care…but it bugged me. We both had the next day off work so I called him that night and luckily he was free to play the next morning. I did my best that match to practice the three crowns, to prioritize it over winning or losing. It felt great and we BOTH played much better. Still gotta work on the body language/verbalizing frustration, this blog is a GREAT reminder. Thanks. Mike

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      this is why I love you, Senescall. Kindred spirits in the life-long battle! 🙂

  14. Greg says:

    Neal- I love your stories and songs! You speak from the heart. I wish all my students could hear you speak. We all have so much to learn but you are one of the most inspirational people I have ever met! I can’t wait to see you all again this summer.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      thank you, Greg. What you do for so many kids has often made me say, “What would Greg do?” and then go do it.

  15. Marsha F. says:

    Neil, thanks for sharing and helping us to get outside of ourselves, think about how to treat each day and each other.

  16. Maggie Meier says:

    Wow! I’m glad you went to visit Vance! I wish him a happy birthday and hope he has a speedy recovery!

  17. Beckie cantwell says:

    Always sharing these with my kiddos (and self) 🙂 love your blog, see you this summer!

  18. Joyce Hagberg says:

    Again Neal, I am humbled. You are stil learning and this reminds me … I need to be more open to learning. Love you honey. ❤️