Eighty-six or One? Posted on November 3rd, 2017 by

It was the third set of the most intense match I saw at the Minnesota State High School League Girls State Tennis Tournament last week.  The team match was tied 3-3, the deciding match was on the court with the two girls battling like two prize fighters trading weary punches, and everyone in the building was holding their breath, then exploding after each point, depending on who they were cheering for.

A senior TLC camper saved five – five! – match points against her unwavering opponent, then broke serve to go to a third set tie-breaker to determine who would advance.  And then this happened.

But first, let me tell you what I spent my week doing.  Eighty-six girls in the state tournament were TLC campers.  A record up from last year’s seventy-two.  I would go from court to court, and often be cheering for two TLC campers playing doubles against two other TLC campers.  Or a TLC camper playing singles against another TLCer.  It was intense, and joyous.  Like getting to cheer for 86 of your children, without having to worry about saving for their college educations.  We had TLCers in the finals of team and individual competition, and teammates who weren’t in the lineup cheering them on.  It was a delightful infestation of campers.

But, though there were eighty-six girls playing, what I was most impressed with was the number “1”.  The number one is the number we get to choose over and over and over again.  Not to see if we can be “Number 1”, which we all, by the way, strive to be, want to be, hope to be.  But the number of times we get to practice the Three Crowns of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship.  Because we cannot practice them an entire match.  We can only practice them one point at a time.  It’s all we get.  One point.  Then one point.  Then one point.  Then one point.  Until the match is over.  Which is why it is so challenging over the grind of an entire intense match to keep it up.  Our attitude.  Our effort.  Our sportsmanship.

But the one impression I came away with was how, over and over, one point at a time, the girls practiced those crowns.  In the most pressure filled matches of some of their lives, they succeeded.  There was so much drama on the court, but it was the drama of play, not the drama of poor sportsmanship.  With very few exceptions (and there were rare exceptions, we are all human, right?), the focus was on what was within their control.

But that does not make it easy.  It is so tempting to stray for a moment, particularly in a big moment, from our stated values.

Back to the story.  So our camper went to the third set breaker.  First to seven, win by two, winner carries her team one step closer to a life long dream. She fell behind 2-3.  It was critical she bring the next point home.  The rally extended to the point and all of us were on the edge of our seats and “ahhhing” and groaning unintentionally as the rally lengthened.  Then her opponent hit a laser into the backhand corner.  Drilled it.  Our camper was on the run.  She could not reach it.  From where I was standing, I could not tell if it was good or out.  It was close.  I saw her pull up.  I could see the internal workings of her mind.  I have been there.  She wanted so badly to call it out.  It was a critical point.  I don’t know if she was sure or unsure of where the ball landed, but I do know the feeling of “wanting” something so badly I will change the reality in my mind to fit my “want”.   And I know that 3-3 is so much better that 2-4 in a third set, seven point tie breaker.  I also know that what we say at TLC is, “If you are 99% sure the ball is out – but 1% unsure – you call the ball good in favor of your opponent.”

The wheels were turning.  It felt like an eternity but it was only a split second.  That’s the amount of time we get to make our “1” call each point.  And an eternity is what we get to live with when we make our “1” call.  It is a remarkable moral dilemma, when you think of it.  The consequences are lasting in our psyche, depending on what we choose.

She chose.  I could see in her eyes the disappointment of the laser shot after such a well-played point.  But she straightened up and not only called the ball “in”, but turned toward her opponent and clapped her racket five or six times, acknowledging the accomplishment of her opponent in a tight match with the season riding on it.

They switched sides, and our camper could not overcome her opponent’s staying in the zone.  A few points later, she lost the match and collapsed to the court in sadness on the last point.  There would be no return to the state finals.  She stood, walked to the net, and shook hands with her opponent.  Then she cried.

Which was the time for the next “1” moment.  You only get one chance to decide how you are going to greet your teammate who is the last match on the court, when you, as a team, have been bitterly disappointed.  You can turn your head away in disappointment, or anger, or sadness.  Or you can turn towards.

The team, in tears, turned towards.  They did not wait for her to come to them.  They went to her.  They hugged her and they all cried together.

I have been in both situations in my life in different sports, and I can tell you – as the last one out there who is standing alone and exposed to the world – which reaction by my teammates changed my life for the better.

Always, when you can, turn towards.  Our camper did so when she lost the critical point to her opponent.  Her teammates did so when she lost the match.  Turning towards is the most important “1” of our lives.  More than any number of victories can or will ever be.

Eighty-six?  Or one?  I choose one.

How Can I Contribute?



  1. Dave Rod says:

    …and your campers have a lifetime of opportunity to carry this wonderful life lesson in their jobs, their relationships and their many other walks in life. It is more important to love than to be right. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Sarah Beaty says:

    Ah, thank you so much for sharing this story Neal – as I read your post I felt like I was “right there” on the court with the players. Many memories come flooding back for me having watched years of high school matches with kids playing their hearts out for their teams. So many fond memories of watching a player clinch a crucial team point or key victory…..but also empathy watching someone play their hardest for SO long and being SO close…and then it is stunningly and abruptly over; character-building in that instance is intense.

    For me – as a parent who has walked alongside high school players in both light and dark moments – I would like to add to your poignant words: 1. As players, you are all incredibly brave to put yourself out there – and it will serve you so well as you face opportunities and challenges in your life. 2. Your best effort is ALWAYS enough, and 3. As a parent, it is our joy to watch you play – so thank you!

  3. Jack says:

    Thanks Neal
    I witnessed that match and your words brought it back to life again for me…..we can’t emphasize sportsmanship enough! Great Job.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Jack. And thank you for all the great work you are doing with your camps and teams emphasizing this. Glad to be in this together with you.

  4. Steph says:

    Beautiful, Neal! Thank you!!!!

  5. Karen Mann says:

    Your words fill me up!🙂

  6. Lisa M says:

    This brought me to tears. Thanks Neal. Perfectly said.