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In Life and on the Courts, 'go for It' Even If You Miss, Says Pro Vic Braden—the Prize Is in the Effort

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Vic Braden likes to tell tennis players, “The answers to this game are in your head, not locked up with a local pro to be dispensed in 30-minute lessons.” Besides being one of the world’s best teaching pros, Braden, 49, is a licensed psychologist with a master’s degree from California State University at Los Angeles. His philosophy of tennis reaches beyond the boundaries of the court. Braden does extensive research in the physics and psychology of sports while working with such tour players as Arthur Ashe and Renee Richards, plus more than 7,000 students who seek his advice on and off the court every year. At the Vic Braden Tennis College in Coto de Caza, Calif., he discussed his views on the psychology of tennis and its application to life with Judy Kessler of PEOPLE.

What is one major psychological reason people don’t play as well as they should?

Fear of failure. Most people are so scared to death of looking bad that their whole goal is to prevent that, instead of trying to have some fun and hit the ball. In our society people work hard almost as a defense mechanism rather than as something positive. Why not play tennis simply because it’s fun? You laugh, you meet people. You obviously can’t play well all the time, you’re going to play crummy at times. Do your best when you go out to play and enjoy yourself. There are too few people who have fun playing sports.

But isn’t winning the point of a game?

Why treat sports as a win-lose thing when we already know the statistics? Fifty percent will lose. But everybody wins if you know how to have fun and enjoy the game. The winner has fun, plus he wins; the loser still has fun. He gets one out of two. In our society people lose and they get zero out of everything.

What about getting rid of hostility?

The University of Michigan did a study on athletes. It showed boxers have very little hostility. They get rid of it; they don’t go looking for street fights. Football players will tell you they act like animals, but when you test them they don’t have a big hostility reservoir at all. The guy with the biggest problem is the long-distance runner. When someone passes him, he can’t reach out and karate-chop the guy. All he can say is, “There he goes.”

How do you compare tennis and golf?

In tennis you take out your hostility on the ball. You become physically exhausted and forget everything else. People in golf tell me that when they’re walking between shots they still think about the office. In tennis you hit the ball, it comes back, you hit it again. When you hit a golf ball, you may never see it again.

How can tennis players be more objective?

Good tennis is dictated by physics. If you don’t do well it’s because you’re not fast enough, or your racket’s tilted and the ball goes under the net or over the fence. But if you ask people why they lose, they can’t tell you. They say it’s because they didn’t get one serve in until after lunch. Or they lack a service return. Or they don’t have enough speed. When it comes to analyzing their own game, very few people know where they are making errors.

How should players cope with stress?

My theme in life is, “Go for it.” If you go for the ball and swing through it, you should feel good. It doesn’t matter if you fail; you went for it and that’s the prize. The best players in life, not just in tennis—gamblers, businessmen—are the people who evaluate their situation and then go for it—win, lose or draw. That’s the way it should be.

What about inconsistency?

Nearly everybody in the world is inconsistent. Most people play with a style that demands unbelievable coordination, and most humans will never possess it. So what do you do? When you’re inconsistent it means that the racket head is meeting the ball in many different ways. You must cut down on racket face movement. Things like wrist motion increase your margin of error. The slightest racket change varies the ball immensely. You can have perfect body, perfect step, perfect arm, perfect eyeball, and if the racket is 11 degrees off, the ball will land out in the field.

What is the crucial part of a tennis stroke?

What you do after you hit the ball has no relevance because the ball is gone. It is on the racket for three to six milliseconds only. Physics shows that all of the determining factors about a shot—revolutions, speed, trajectory—are made at the point the ball is depressed most against the racket. Everything is decided in that brief forward movement beginning with the lowest point of swing to impact.

How important is concentration?

The ability to concentrate is tremendously overplayed. All of your work on your strokes should be done before you ever get to the court. If you go out and say, “I must concentrate,” the ball will be 50 feet past you while you’re saying it. Some people try to pep-talk themselves into concentrating. Don’t talk to yourself about it; shut up and do it.

Why are people often better after they lay off the game for a while?

Nobody expects anything of you and you don’t expect much of yourself. You just go out there and hit. You’re terrific until you say, “My God, why did I lay off?” Then you start saying, “I’ve got to concentrate,” and three days later you’re crummy again.

Should a player be relaxed on the court?

If you go to the court prepared, you should be relaxed. Measure the penalty you’ll have to pay for losing, like embarrassment in front of fellow club members, against the fun you can have in winning. Sometimes society’s penalties are too great. If a person says, “My boss likes good doubles players; if I lose, I could lose my job,” that guy really should change his job.

How does this apply to couples? Should they play mixed doubles together?

Only if you’re very mature. If mixed doubles reveals your marriage is on thin ice, then you should either dump the doubles team or dump the marriage. If you’re housing a lot of hostility for someone who makes mistakes on the court, you’re housing it for them in other things. If it’s an easy, relaxed marriage, you can play nice mixed doubles.

How much of our neuroses are reflected on the tennis court?

When people walk out on a tennis court, they bring with them an unbelievable number of hang ups. And they’re all exposed. If I wanted to do business with someone, I’d see how he handled tennis. If a guy comes out mad, throwing rackets, I wouldn’t trust him at all.

Why do we get psyched out?

I don’t think anyone psychs you out. You allow people to manipulate you. A guy who is trying to psych people is somebody who doesn’t have all the weapons he needs to beat you straight.

What should a player go to a coach for?

We’ve created a ton of dependent thinkers. I think people are over-lessoned. If you go to a coach and he says, “Do this because I said so,” that is a bad way to learn. Trial and error is worse, because you could spend most of your life on the wrong trial. You should be able to ask yourself what you think you did wrong, and what you think the cures are. That’s what a coach should help you with—information that will help you help yourself.

How can we get the right information?

The day is coming when players can all be computerized, when they can get high-speed photography of their strokes, and we can measure the forces and the center of gravity. Eventually we’ll have tennis machines to analyze strokes and the result will be a printout. Then you can use your body as efficiently as possible.

What are the psychological factors in losing?

People lose for a reason. For instance, there are certain people who psychologically choose people who can always beat them; they really play for masochistic purposes. If you’re playing to win, you can’t set unrealistic goals for yourself. The unhappiest person in the world is the one who sets unattainable goals, who wants to be President of the U.S. but can’t make it to secretary of the YMCA.

How can a person tell if he or she can play tennis?

My theory is that if you buy an ice-cream cone and make it hit your mouth, you can play. If you stick it on your forehead, your chances are less.