Steve Wilkinson’s “Let Love Serve” Book Excerpt

Steve Wilkinson

EDITOR’S NOTE:  My introduction to Steve Wilkinson came via he and his wife Barb’s Tennis and Life Camps.  My daughters have attended the highly-praised, 4-day sessions and have come back with better backhands, mastery of many camp song lyrics, and most importantly, some sound learnings on dealing with life’s ups and downs.

Let Love Serve Book
Steve Wilkinson’s new book:
Let Love Serve. Steve is the winningest coach in men’s collegiate tennis history.

Steve is the winningest men’s collegiate tennis coach, winner of 7 consecutive USTPA men’s titles at 45-and-over and has been selected for several tennis Halls of Fame.  His approach sets him apart from other accomplished players and coaches.

For Wilkinson, serving is not only the most important stroke in tennis, it’s the most important thing in life. Below is a chapter from his new book Let Love Serve.  Read about his Three Crowns approach and a young tennis player he coached that inspired it.

BOOK EXCERPT:  LET LOVE SERVE ___________________________

After competition, win or lose, we can build up our opponents.  Wins over worthy opponents bring credit to us.  Conversely, losses are no reason for shame.


The Karen Gibbs story

Karen Gibbs
When cancer took away the use of her right arm, Karen Gibbs learned to play tennis with her left and made the team the following year.

Karen Gibbs entered Gustavus in the fall of 1974.  During her freshman year, she was one of the top tennis players in the upper Midwest…until cancer ended her season.  Part of her right arm was amputated and her struggle for life began.  Immediately, she decided to play tennis left-handed.  After hours of practice hitting the ball against the wall, she came out for the team again in her sophomore year.  Surprisingly, she made the team and even won her match against the University of Minnesota at #3 doubles.


As her cancer spread, radiation and chemotherapy treatments caused Karen to lose her hair and almost fifty pounds.  In her weakened condition she had a shoulder separation that ended her competitive tennis career.  Even so, she was there at practice, leading the women through conditioning drills, and assisting in every way possible.  The team elected her captain for her senior year, but she died on August 8, 1977 at the age of 21.

Karen’s story is displayed on the college tennis courts named in her honor, in the lounge of the dormitory that is named after her, and on the back cover of every TLC brochure.  Scholarships to the college and summer tennis camps bear her name.  No other Gustavus student has been recognized with so many honors.  Her continued effort and positive attitude in the face of adversity is reflected beautifully in a journal entry that Karen wrote a few months before she died.

I must be thankful for the rough spots too, because that is when I seem to really grow and discover not only new things about myself, but also others around me as well.  I must remember to always be thankful for what I have because there are so many people who are worse off than me, and I really have no reason not to be thankful… LOOK AT MY ABUNDANCE!

The Three Crowns

Karen Gibbs’ story inspired the Three Crowns (positive attitude, full effort, and good sportsmanship), which became part of the foundation for the Tennis and Life philosophy.  These three priorities lie within everyone’s control.  If we prioritize them, we can be successful every time.  If instead, we emphasize winning or playing well, both things outside our control, we will not succeed many times.  This often produces “fear of failure,” which causes nervousness, anger, and lack of confidence.  Ironically, the Three Crowns give us the best chance of winning and playing well, even though that is not the focus.

(1) Positive Attitude:

Karen’ is still remembered for her ability to find the bright side of everything no matter what happened to her.  Losing the use of her right arm brought the challenge of playing left handed.  Frequent stays in the hospital were fun because of all the visitors.  She felt comfortable sharing her feelings and ideas on cancer, handicaps, and the prospect of early death.  However, if anybody started feeling sorry for her, she quickly changed the subject to a more pleasant topic.

Each of us, in every situation, has a choice.  Our cup can either be “half full” or “half empty,” depending on how we choose to view it.  Charles Swindoll aptly described the crucial role of attitude.

The longer I live the more I realize the impact of attitude on my life.  Attitude, to me, is more important than facts.  It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than what other people say or do.  It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill.  It will make or break a company…a church…a home.

The remarkable thing is that we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day.  We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way.  We cannot change the inevitable.  Instead, I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.  And so it is with you… We are in charge of our attitude.

(2) Full Effort

Steve Wilkinson's bioHaving one arm and playing left handed put Karen in a position where she could not play as well as before or win as many matches.  However, her predicament did not keep her from giving full effort.  In the process, she accomplished a win over the University of Minnesota and other amazing victories that no one could have anticipated.

Karen strove for excellence through daily discipline and an undaunted spirit that saw each new setback as a creative opportunity to accomplish more.  She wanted to win, but was not afraid to lose.  She wanted to improve, but starting over again left-handed did not discourage her.  She wanted to live, and the threat of death did not deter her.  Karen continued to try, in spite of everything.

If we commit ourselves completely to full effort, we put ourselves in the best possible position to be successful.  Instead, many of us find reasons to quit.  Three of them are:

The desire and need to win:  There is no question that championships, team position, and making the team are determined by wins.  The first question that many people ask a competitor is “How’d you do?” or “Did you win?”  They want to know the outcome, not how we played or how well we followed the Three Crowns.  The emphasis on winning permeates athletics.  Yet so many things outside our control, such as your opponent’s playing level or the weather, can determine the outcome.  It is easy for us to give up when winning seems impossible, when the opponent is too good, or unfortunate breaks go against us.

The expectation that we should play well:  If we have been practicing well going into a match, is it not reasonable to anticipate a similar level of play in the match?  However, it often does not work out that way.  We are human and subject to mistakes.  We may play well for most of the match, but then at a crucial moment we don’t.  The more that we worry about it, the worse it gets.  And soon, we discouragingly conclude there is no point to trying.

The anticipation that things will work out fairly:  If an umpire punishes us unjustly, or opponents make mistakes on line calls in their favor, it is easy to become frustrated.  If our opponent gets several “let” winners while all our balls hit the tape and fall back, it doesn’t seem fair.  If the wind and sun seem to affect my shots more than my opponent’s, the pressure can build.  Soon we can conclude that there is no sense in giving full effort.

If instead, we focus just on full effort, we are prepared to compete.  We are focused on a goal completely within our control, one that gives us the best opportunity to play our best and win, but guarantees us neither.

(3) Good Sportsmanship:

Karen counseled aspects of sportsmanship that I had not considered.  I used to offer excuses after I lost to someone whom I considered my inferior.  “Excuses,” Karen claimed, “detract from the accomplishments of my opponents.  So does losing my temper.  In effect I’m blaming a loss or poor performance on my own mistakes rather than giving credit to my opponent.  I don’t want to do that.”

Karen modeled good sportsmanship.  She genuinely cared about her opponents, as well as her teammates.  She did not make excuses or lose her temper.  Her commitment to sportsmanship was not contingent on the behavior of the opponent.  Karen would call the lines fairly and treat her opponents with respect, regardless of their actions.

Karen made it obvious that good sportsmanship is more than the absence of inappropriate behavior.  What distinguishes a truly good sport is more subtle.  Karen took into account the feelings of her opponents.  As a winner, Karen knew that excessive celebration rubbed salt into the wound of a loser.  As a loser, she believed that successes by an opponent deserved smiles and praise, not self-criticism.

A great test of sportsmanship comes when we lose to people that have never defeated us before.  Perhaps they are younger and less experienced.  We may have had a poor day, or our opponents may have been lucky.  We still have a choice.  We can make them feel special by praising the things they did well.  Or we can throw cold water on their wins by making excuses and putting ourselves down.

Building up opponents is always the right thing to do.  Avoid telling teammates that their next opponent will be an easy match.  That puts them in a “no-win” situation.  If they win, it’s no big accomplishment.  But if the match should prove difficult, they may start to think, “I am losing to someone who is no good!  What is wrong with me?  This is embarrassing!”

After competition, win or lose, we can build up our opponents.  Wins over worthy opponents bring credit to us.  Conversely, losses are no reason for shame.  Putting opponents down make us look worse, no matter what excuses we offer.


Published with permission of author and publisher.  Thanks to Steve Wilkinson and the Tennis and Life Camp crew.

You can order Steve Wilkinson’s Let Love Serve book at the Gustavus Adolphus Bookstore.

Steve Wilkinson

For more info on Steve and Barb Wilkinson’s camps, go to Tennis and Life Camps

Steve Wilkinson