Those of us who pick up a tennis racket on a regular basis do so for a variety of reasons. For some, the game is merely a social endeavor, a chance to make new friends and get together once a week and share a few laughs.
Others view tennis from a therapeutic standpoint, an opportunity to release stress and exchange battle stories from the never-ending war commonly known as every-day life.
There are also those who have adopted tennis as a life-long passion and play the game strictly for the enjoyment and healthy competition the sport can provide. They also enjoy the comrade and feelings of accomplishment one receives from the process of learning.
Everyone has their own reasons for taking up tennis and while those listed above are perhaps the most common, there are, according to Vic Braden, quite a few people playing tennis for the WRONG reasons.
In his book MENTAL TENNIS, Braden discusses a time several years ago, when students at his tennis college were questioned as to why they played tennis. Over 500 people were interviewed and they produced over 110 different answers.
Many played for the reasons listed above, some adding that they liked a "sport which combined physical skill and strategy, a sport where you hit shots in conjunction with a plan."
However, Braden found that many people began tennis in search of something far more important than exercise and enjoyment. They turned to tennis with the hope of finding one of our most basic human needs, self-esteem.
People, who did not feel good about their appearance, viewed tennis as a way to lose weight and, thus become more physically attractive.
Some in the survey said that they wanted to play so that they could "keep up with their husbands or wives" while others played for business purposes or status at the club. We've also seen, unfortunately, a large number of children who play in search of the approval of their parents.
When one approaches the game for one of these reasons, they quite often create the interesting paradox of having that which first attracted them to tennis becoming the exact thing that eventually drives them from the game entirely.
This search for approval, or self-esteem, gets in the way of the learning process and, eventually, their lack of progress on the court frustrates them.
Soon they find that, because they're not getting out of the game what they came for, a boost to their self-image, they leave tennis in search of another vehicle which will satisfy their egos appetite.
"To some degree," says Vic Braden, "I think that's what happened in the late 70's and early 80's when we had a so-called tennis boom. There were an estimated 38 million players in America. They spent small fortunes for pastel outfits and warm-up jackets and rackets in new shapes, made of space-age material."
They loved the way the clothes made them appear and "all was well," continued Braden, "until they got to the court. Then, quickly, their self-images were violated."
"If they were worried about how they looked in their tennis shorts, those skimpy things that exposed their flabby thighs, they might have difficulty concentrating on their shots. If they were trying not to look bad out on the court, they would not be very free to make mistakes, which is essential to growth."
"These people weren't willing to approach the game in a way that would allow them to truly learn. So today we have more like 18 million players. Though, judging from the number of people I see in supermarkets and airports wearing tennis clothes, the other 20 million still have their wardrobes," jokes Braden.
"These people," concluded Braden, "never gave themselves a chance to learn. Their reasons for wanting to play got in the way."
Braden went on to say the same was true for those who played for parental or spousal approval. "What they seemed to be saying was that if they didn't learn tennis and play well enough, they wouldn't be loved."
When one plays the game "for someone else" it places a tremendous burden on their learning and could block them from approaching the sport with a productive attitude.
Every time the player makes a mistake he or she will feel that they are letting whoever it is that they are playing for down. "Imagine how debilitating that might be," says Braden.
THE PROPER APPROACH
In order to create a learner-friendly environment and achieve all that tennis has to offer from both a physical and psychological standpoint one must develop what Vic Braden calls a "healthy selfishness."
This basically means that you play for yourself. You approach the game with the attitude that you are a beginner and are going to make mistakes, lots of them! You must also convince yourself, and this is a tough one, that how you look on the court doesn't matter.
"We all like compliments," says Braden, "but when you are healthily selfish, even if you appear slow and awkward to others, that means less and less to you because you are wrapped up in your own objectives."
This "selfishness" also allows one to realize that winning does
not necessarily mean defeating your opponent. A player with a healthy attitude towards the game realizes that he or she is not competing against his opponent but rather him or her selves.
Jimmy Connors was once asked what his strategy against a particular opponent would be. Connors basically said that his strategy against that opponent would be the same as it was against every other opponent. He said that "I just go out and play MY game and if I play as well as I'm capable I'll be happy and the score will take care of itself."
Connors knew that the only facet of the match that he could control was his play. If the other guy happened to have a great day and won the match, he could live with that. He knew that if he had put forth his best effort he had won the ultimate contest-- with himself.
Ask yourself the following question HONESTLY: Would you rather play poorly and win or play well and lose? Your answer will tell you a lot about the way you approach tennis and why, perhaps, you're not getting all that you can from the game.
Our society is very winner oriented. Everyone loves a winner but what defines a winner? Many players cannot feel satisfied with their performance on the court If they haven't beaten their opponent in terms of the score.
This is an extremely stressful way to approach tennis because the game is hard enough in terms of execution without placing upon oneself the added pressure of HAVING to win. This pressure takes away from the players enjoyment and what SHOULD be their ultimate goal--improvement and enjoying the process that goes with it.
I can't tell you how many times I've asked a student, after a match how they did and the first words out of their mouths were "I won" or "I lost." I immediately tell them that I didn't ask what the score was, I asked them how they did and by that I meant how did they play?
Having played literally hundreds of tennis matches over the last 25 years I can tell you with complete honesty that the two best matches I ever played I lost. The first time I was young and angry after the match, the second, older (hopefully more mature) and elated.
My junior year in High School and I lost 6-4,6-4 to one of the top players in the country. I came off of the court, with two broken rackets, furious with myself.
My coach greeted me with a big smile on his face and told me that it was the best he had ever seen me play, that what we had been practicing in our lessons (my backhand) was much better and that I should be very proud of myself. I thought he was crazy.
It didn't matter to me that I had played as well as I possibly could and had given a player who was much better than I a tough match. I had lost and that was all that counted.
Recently, I was playing a friend of mine who I usually beat, and we had a long, tough match which he eventually won. I had been working on several aspects of my game and was happy with the way they worked during our match.
I lost the match but came off the court pleased, and actually a bit confused. I had lost but was happy. It was at this point that I realized what tennis is all about.
A "mature" tennis player does not judge himself merely by the score of a match. He has a much larger vision in which he assesses his performance in terms of achieving certain goals that he set before he took the court.
For example, a goal for your next match might be to run a little harder than usual for each shot, or perhaps hit that topspin second serve that you've been practicing.
Learn to focus not on who has the most games or points but rather on effort, execution, and playing each point to the best of your capability.
"If you can do that," says Braden "then you have done the very best that your brain and body can do. Once you have done that, you are in a win-win situation. No matter what the score, you win."
Next month: Vic Braden talks to juniors and their parents