Principles are more important than talent: a real life example

When me and the gang were starting Spunlogic back in 1999 and 2000, I was coaching tennis at a country club to try to make ends meet because, well, we couldn’t really afford to pay ourselves. Danny was even living in my parents basement to save money – I was living properly in the real house with my parents :).

I coached a lot of private tennis lessons with aspiring junior players and summer camps with little kids. This little girl was my favorite in the camps (no joke). I also coached teams and adult camps. But there was one girl that I coached that was my favorite and when I finally had to stop coaching her to commit myself 100% to Spunlogic, it was very tough for me personally to let her and her family down. I still have the letter her dad wrote me afterwards proudly displayed in my home office.

She was a great talent. Always ranked in the top in the state for her age and usually high in the national rankings. It was her tenaciousness and “win at all costs” focus that made her a great player. It also made it more difficult to coach her because we would work hours upon hours on new techniques and then when she’d get into a match, she’d resort to what she knew would work to win. And she almost always won. I’ve never met anyone more competitive, and competitiveness is a trait I really respect in people.

And she was all business on the court. Winning was the only thing that mattered to her.  I remember one time she was playing another top ranked girl and it was a fiercely competitive match. At one point a large moth was flying around her opponent and it ended up hitting the ground and hurting its wing and just kept fluttering all around the area where she was standing. The girl, as you might imagine, was trying to gently wave the moth off the court trying to be sure not to hurt it at all.

After what seemed like ten minutes of this and my student clearly becoming more and more impatient, she started walking over to her opponents side of the court. I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but she kept walking around the net and all the way to where the moth was. Without hesitating, she slammed her foot down on the moth, smeared it on the ground to get it off of her shoe, then walked back over to her side of the court and got ready to serve. I’d never seen anything like that. And it shocked her opponent so much that she easily won the rest of the match. She didn’t have time to wait for someone to shoo a bug away from the court. It was game time.

She started developing a habit that I noticed at one of her matches at a tournament and in several matches after I saw her doing it more and more. After she’d win a game, rather than pick the balls up on her side of the court and hit them to her opponent, which is what you do so that your opponent can start serving, she would pick them up and hit them to where ever her opponent WAS NOT standing, to make her opponent have to go walk and pick up the balls. It was clearly annoying the opponent and I could see that my student was doing it to get a little bit of an edge. If her opponent was annoyed, she’d be off her game. Plus it was an intimidation move. And I hated it.

Now, I should point out, my student was the sweetest person you’ve ever met off the court. And her family was amazingly nice. But on the court she was so focused on winning and gaining any possible edge that she was, in my opinion, acting inappropriately. And frankly, I was embarrassed.

Growing up, the tennis court was where I learned a great deal about work ethic, team work, respect, and how to carry yourself. First from this coach, then from this coach. You can learn so much from competitive sports.

A few days later we had a practice session. At the end of the practice I handed her four balls.  I told her to stay where she was and I walked to a random place on the court and asked her to hit me one of the balls. She hit it to as accurately as you might imagine. I caught it. Then I walked to another area and asked her to hit me another ball. We did this until she had hit all four balls to exactly where I stood.

She was clearly confused about what was going on. I then walked up to her and said, “Now that I know you can hit a ball to a person, rather than to a completely different side of the court, I expect you to hit the ball to your opponent from this point forward. And if I ever see you hit a ball to any place other than to your opponent, I’m not going to coach you anymore.”

To say she was stunned would be an understatement. But I can tell you she never did that again, at least while I was around, and I think she understood the bigger message. Many years later I would go watch her play in some big time college matches (she got a full ride to Auburn University and was one of their best players while there), and I never saw her be anything but a great sport. I was and still remain to this day incredibly proud of her.

I love talented people. I’m always amazed by talent. But what I can’t accept from people is anything other than the utmost respect for those they compete with as well as those they work with. You can be the most incredible performer in your trade, but if you don’t treat the people you work with in a respectful way, you’re missing the point.

Have fun. Be nice. Smile. Don’t backstab. No politics. Don’t throw people under the bus.

And don’t let your competitiveness or ambition stop you from being a nice person. You’ll be far more successful, and happy, if you have that mentality.


  1. TS on June 30, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    1) Name dropper!
    2) I’ve never heard tennis described as a team sport

    Good story though.

  2. @TonyKinard on June 30, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    I believe that an important part professionalism is that gratefulness for being in the game, win or lose.

  3. Jeff Hilimire on June 30, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    TS – I only have one name to drop, so I gotta do it!

    Most every tennis player played a combination of league tennis, high school tennis or college tennis.  Plus almost all play(ed) doubles.  I can tell you college tennis feels very much like a team sport.

  4. Jeff Hilimire on June 30, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    TS – I only have one name to drop, so I gotta do it!

    Most every tennis player played a combination of league tennis, high school tennis or college tennis.  Plus almost all play(ed) doubles.  I can tell you college tennis feels very much like a team sport.

  5. Haneytennis on June 30, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    So I am “the little girl” in this story and was SHOCKED when I read this. The first time I read this I was angry, second time laughed, third time I realized Jeff’s point. But what Jeff may not realize is I am just like him… Graduated from college (Auburn) with an Entrepreneurship degree , currently living in my parents basement while teaching long hours of tennis each day waiting for my time to enter the business world. :) You were a great mentor and taught me many life lessons. Thank you… Alex Haney

  6. Jeff Hilimire on July 1, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Wow Alex, I’m so thrilled to hear that! I’m not surprised, in my experience a winner in one thing is a winner in other things. 

    I’ll continue rooting for you!

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