I Stink

Posted on August 3rd, 2017 by

“I stink.”

Not words you expect to hear when you come upon a court of little tykes who had been 15 minutes ago having fun and laughing at the games they were playing on court.

But, in the shade, sitting cross legged by himself while the chaotic energy of other eight year olds swirled around, sat Sam.  He was such a happy kid.  Loved camp.  Great listener.  Entered into drills and off court sessions with gusto and a smile.

I sat down cross legged beside him, realizing too late I may never be able to extract myself from this position when I tried to get up.

“Hi, Sam!  Whatcha doing?”


“Why are you sitting?”

“Just because.”

Because of his outward joy most of the time, and because he betrayed no sign of frustration, I asked “Why because?”

He looked at me from behind his glasses and then a big old fat tear spilled out of his eye and down his cheek.  I had not seen that coming.

“I stink,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t even get one ball over!  And I never will!”

These are moments you throw all teaching techniques out the window.  You grasp for whatever you can because you see someone’s heart breaking.  The beauty and rawness of little kids is that you know exactly where you stand once you sit in silence a moment and let them express it.

“So, will you try again in a bit?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.  I’m done with tennis.”

“Because you stink?”

“Yes.  Because I stink.”

Not Sam, but his smile is just as genuine.

“How about if I toss you a few balls?  I want to see if you really stink.  I think you might not, but we’ll see.  Would you be up for that?”


I stood – I knew I should never have sat cross legged – and waddled over to get some balls to toss him as my joints screamed ‘Don’t ever try to sit like a little kid again!!’

I tossed him one in his hitting zone.  He had atrocious form.  That’s because he is eight and hasn’t played tennis before.  But he hit the ball back to me and I caught it.

“One!” I yelled.  Then over and over.  “Two!  Three!  Four!!!”  We got to fourteen.  I said nothing about his form.

“Ok, backhands!”  I yelled.  “One!  Two!”

He got 10 of 13 back to me.  His backhand form was even worse than his forehand.

When we finished I said, “Anyone who can get 14 forehands in a row and 10 out of 13 backhands does not stink!  Are you sure you weren’t talking about your armpits? Maybe they stink!  Maybe you haven’t showered?”

He looked at me from behind those glasses and his smile made my camp.  “No, I showered!”

“Well, you couldn’t have, because you sure don’t stink at tennis!  Think you might want to get back out there and give it a go?”  He nodded, smiled and off he went.

Sometimes I have to remember to throw all the teaching out the window to get to what is important.  A person does not always want to be taught.  Sometimes they just want to be loved.

And next time I will also remember not to sit cross legged.

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  1. Rozan says:

    Wonderful as always, Neal! And I hope you experience just the right number of tears next week as you drive away, leaving your kid at college…

  2. Kim says:

    Love the story and the smiling kiddo in the picture. Camp was a summer highlight! Thank you!

  3. Bev Lesiuk says:

    Lovely story, Neal. I had my own “I stink” moments at this weekends tournament. If only you were here to get me out of it!! I wouldn’t have made you sit cross legged, though. I’m sure this camper will remember his time with you and maybe even use it in different aspects of life. TLC is certainly the best for not only kids but us oldies, too. Always something new to take home.

    • Neal says:

      Thanks, Bev! I’ve had plenty of “I stink” moments this summer, too. We will compare notes when we next meet and forge on together :). Hi to all of our Canadian friends!

  4. Don (Lucky) Copps says:

    Neal, Great pick me up story. So true, a lot of of TLC (both of them) in this story. 2x next year – as an adult and grandparent! Lucky

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Lucky. I can think of nothing more fun than two camps with Lucky! Can’t wait to meet your grandchild…

  5. Diane Marsh says:

    Love that story, Neal. You are wonderful.

  6. Raman Jayapathy says:

    Awesome! Just plain old awesome!!!

  7. Amy Staples says:

    Great story Neal. Good reminder before I go back to teaching in a few short weeks. Hope all is well up on the hill.

  8. Marcia Gilmer says:

    Your response to Sam was wise, beautiful, and spot-on. You delivered it with compassion and humor (and without judgement). Thank you, Neal, for your open and perceptive heart.

  9. Kristi Westerbur says:

    Great story and a wonderful lesson for all. Thanks!

  10. Jennifer Kirby says:

    Love this story! Made me smile the whole time!

  11. Barbara lewis says:

    Cute… and I hear ya on the cross legged.

  12. Kari Blomberg says:

    Hey Neal,
    Thanks for another great lesson!

    The world would be a better place if we could all respond with a little of the compassion that you and your staff demonstrate!!

    Keep up the great work!

  13. Colleen says:

    What a wonderful story!!! That could have turned out very differently. You really have a gift with kids!!!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      I have learned a lot of patience over the years. I often am grateful I was an older dad, because I actually feel better equipped than I would have when I was younger and rash.

  14. Paul Carlson says:

    Great story Neal! I do heed the last advise most of the time but when a grand-kid wants me to sit on the floor and read to her I eagerly and painfully sit cross legged on the floor with a two year old in my lap!

  15. David Rod says:

    Beautiful words from someone who is an inspiration to me. As a parent I could learn from your loving approach to so many things. As I sit in the bubble of the Gustavus tennis facility for what will likely be the last time I realize that my camper is going off to college in 12 short months. He’s enjoyed years of fun and learning at TLC and we all treasure every minute. Although he is not an emotional being I’m sure he has had “I stink” moments and I have to remember that I’m just his dad and find loving ways to respond. Thanks for all you do for so many.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Rod, Griffin is a very kind person, and the apple does not fall far from the tree. I’ll miss having him at camp. Your child goes to college in 12 short months, and mine in 14 short days…