Pioneers in Tennis: Vic Braden
Using science to help people enjoy the game.
Vic Braden has a message for today’s teaching pros and coaches: don’t trot out your best students as a measure of your success. Instead, he says, look for that kid who’s taking lessons but probably isn’t picked first for teams in gym class.
“Show me your worst kid,” says Braden. “Then tell me, is he learning? Is he having fun? Is he getting better? That makes you the best coach I’ve ever seen.”
It’s thinking like that — a “reach-‘em-all” philosophy — that has distinguished Braden from so many top-level instructors and made him one of the most sought-after coaches, speakers, authors and sports psychologists in the game.
Yes, Braden has had a pro career. Yes, he’s coached champions. And yes, his name is on three tennis colleges, a ski school and a sports institute for neurological research. But he has never lost sight of the fact that if the game is to grow, people need to stay in the sport. And that won’t happen, he says, unless they’re having a good time.
“I think we need to focus on people playing and enjoying the game,” he says. “Right now, you have two people playing, and one is going to be a loser. That means 50 percent of all people who play tennis are going to be losers. There is no second place. We need to change that. We need to teach people to look at it differently. The goal for all coaches should be to help people stay in the game.”
Braden has plenty of competitive background, and he knows how to win. He had a successful tennis career at Kalamazoo College, where he was a winner of the league singles championships. Playing in the Midwest, he was second only to Tony Trabert. He turned pro shortly after graduation, but the pro circuit of his time was not the celebrity circus it is today. He did play three times in the World Tennis Championship, but admits that options were limited, since “if you weren’t in the top four, you didn’t play much.”
In 1952, Braden turned his energies to coaching, spending time in both basketball and tennis at the University of Toledo, then moving on to teaching. In 1961, he co-founded the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in California then managed the pro tennis tour (along with George MacCall). In 1980, he co-founded the California-based Coto Sports Research Center and shortly after that, the Vic Braden Ski College. The Vic Braden Tennis College followed, and today, three campuses of the school bear his name.
Braden is a licensed psychologist, so perhaps it is no surprise how firmly he believes science isn’t getting its due on the tennis court. “I don’t think we’re still in the Stone Age,” he says, “but I do think science is still overlooked.”
He can cite reasons that physics, math, languages, science and more can all come into play on the tennis court. And he admits the development of lighter, more powerful racquets is a two-edged sword. It has changed the way the game is played, but at the same time, the result is a baseline-driven strategy that in his view takes away from the sport it was meant to improve.
“We used to play with 15-ounce racquets. It’s twice as easy now. But it also has a negative effect. The net play, the variety of shots we used to see, we don’t see any more. We’re also seeing more injuries from players having to turn so fast.”
Which is not to say that this generation (and the generation coming into the game now) doesn’t have advantages over their predecessors. QuickStart Tennis, he believes, is a huge step forward, with its use of kid-size equipment to help young players master the strokes more quickly and feel the satisfaction that comes with learning a new skill.
“You have shorter racquets and shorter courts, and that’s good,” he says. “When I was teaching Tracy Austin, she was 3 years old, and we had to saw down a racquet to fit her hand.”
Through the decades, Braden has never lost the ability to view tennis through the wonder of a child’s eyes. In fact, he’s staking his next program on that. The Junior Tennis Ambassadors are children as young as third grade who are learning to be tennis coaches, instructing their peers, and even adults. It’s fun for both teacher and student, he says, and helps address the dual problems of school budget cuts and childhood obesity. By providing a free after-school tennis program, more kids are afforded the opportunity to become physically active.
Besides, he notes, children are just natural teachers. “Kids say very brilliant things,” he says. “You really have to know how smart kids are. They can be mentors in so many things at once.”
“Pioneers in Tennis,” an occasional column in RSI, draws attention to trailblazers in the sport. Have someone to suggest? E-mail email@example.com.
See all articles by Mary Helen Sprecher
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.