by Vic Braden
Contributing Tennis Writer
For a few decades, after working with physicists Dr. Howard Brody, Dr.Hans Liepmann and Dr. Patrick Keating, I wondered why tennis organizations are having such a horrible time producing champions. The solution might not be as complex as one might imagine. Consequently, here are my thoughts on the matter with an admitted absence of "Dr." in front of my name.
First, there is solid data available to all on ball flight information. Every shot in tennis can be analyzed for trajectory, speed, spin, flight time and landing site. This is magical data and I don?t understand why it isn?t presented in a simple manner to coaches and players. There are several physicists who have spent countless hours studying ball flight information and, admittedly, most coaches know very little about physics and most physicists know very little about coaching, making a close relationship between them mandatory.
Once we know how to hit every stroke, based upon incoming shot characteristics from an opponent, the next step is to decide which shot to hit under certain circumstances. Yes, it comes with practice and not a courtside conference with your physicist while the shot on its way to you is magically frozen in time while you determine how to hit the return. This issue demands that a player learn how to analyze an opponent?s weaknesses..and strengths. Thus, we need to have national courses teaching us how to analyze an opponent?s game. This is also possible when bio mechanists have cameras set up in strategic positions to record every shot. In the 1970?s and 80?s, Dr. Gideon Ariel and I found this to be a rather simple procedure, but major tournaments did not want small, hidden, cameras on the court. On the other hand, and as we quickly proved, with properly positioned cameras, we could record every stroke, ball flight data and the landing site. The most progressive tournament management to date for bio mechanical research has been the Pacific Life Championships at Indian Wells, CA. where Charlie Pasarell and Steve Simon have allowed Andy Fitzell and myself to place three hidden cameras at one baseline, allowing us to gather data on serves, forehands and backhands. Charlie and Steve. have made this information available to television stations to enhance and improve upon their coverage of tournaments but, as might have been expected, they have shown little interest in doing so.
Next comes data on how one thinks and performs. Here again, neuroscientists have a ton of data on how the brain works and how to keep it working well under stress. In my work with Dr. Daniel Amen, I have received so much information on how to maintain an efficient brain focus, if you will, while competing and how to recognize an opponent whose brain is working inefficiently. Dr. Amen has performed over 28,000 brain scans and we?re currently working a book about the brain and tennis. You do what you gotta do if you want to win and be recognized as one of the world's best when natural talent alone is not the answer and, when it is, to keep you at the top of the heap.
Good information alone is obviously only one part of the formula for success. The big issue is to teach the scientific principles to students in such a manner that they maximize performance and enjoyment of tennis in the shortest period of time. The USPTA and PTR have made great strides in presenting scientific information to their members but, as I travel across America, I still see vast differences in coaching styles and theories. As a former member of the USTA Sports Science Committee, I had hoped that the very smart people I met would be utilized in a different manner. To date, that has not happened but, for the future, whoever puts it together will want to stay close to the USTA Sports Science Committee since they are attempting to distribute data in periodicals as fast as possible.
Finally, the key to developing champions is to spend our time, and high performance money, with young people who are genetically wired to excel. We should never forget our goal to help each child maximize his/her performance, and there are systems available to help us identify young athletes who are legitimate potential champions. Any system worth the money spent will provide an equal opportunity for each child but, eventually, the solid data should be the measure. All young players should understand the system and be able to know exactly where they stand on the profile scale. A good system will allow each child to clearly see where they are positioned in each category, bearing in mind that it is important that the huge amounts of money being spent on high performance players should be the barometer that holds us all accountable for the success and failure of existing programs.
In essence, if this all seems so clear to me, why aren?t I in the business of developing champions? That?s because I chose research over personal coaching but I think, I know, that I?m ready to jump back into the hotspot of developing champions and helping each person, on any level, to maximize performance and enjoyment of tennis. I'm interested in generating data that will assist the USTA in growing the sport and producing a significant number of champions. The Board of Directors of the Southern California Tennis Association gave me a helping hand in starting the Junior Tennis Ambassador?s Program and I am currently teaching young children, ages 7 to 17, how to coach tennis. We are also using tennis to teach physics, math, science and languages on a tennis court. Dr. Howard Brody, one of our nation's most famous tennis physicists, is helping us design a curriculum for tennis related physics problems. Frankly, our goals are very broad but. thanks to the Mayor of Santa Ana, California, Miguel Pulido, an all-out effort is being made to raise money to bring together the top thinkers in the game. The goal is to design a new teaching model that coaches can choose to add to their respective arsenals. The evaluation of the program will be based on the ability to quantify player potential and the realization of that potential. Gathering player profiles and keeping them on a long term basis, checking the validity of findings on a yearly basis, can go a long way in helping the USTA spend its money on a scientifically based program. Once we have the funds to make it all happen, we immediately occupy the hot seat, and I love that challenge..