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I've Got Your BackCoaching Top Performers from Center Court to the Corner Office
By Brad Gilbert
PortfolioCopyright © 2005 Brad Gilbert
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTennis Lessons, Life Lessons
A coach shouldn't be just a boss, or a teacher, but a protector. "John Wooden had so much love for talking about the team, and the foundation of the team, that he would never discuss a single player. He inspired every one of his players to put aside his ego in pursuit of excellence. How did he do it? By putting aside his own ego first." -B.G.
Some people call me a great coach. After all, they say, I've taken two tennis players-one of them, Andre Agassi, slightly stuck in neutral and not playing the way he should; the other, Andy Roddick, a hot-tempered kid with genius but less than great discipline-to the very pinnacle of the game, at the very point when the world was starting to think about counting them out. There must be a magic wand in my tennis bag!
There is no wand. To those who call me great, I say thanks for the compliment, which I respectfully decline.
This isn't fake modesty. I love what I do, and I think I'm very good at it. But I am by no means infallible. And if I have any special skill-besides knowing as much as almost anybody out there about what goes on inside the 27 by 78 feet of a tennis court-it's that I'm pretty darn good at paying attention. And I've had the amazing fortune to have had at least two great teachers in my life to pay attention to.
One of them is named Andre Agassi.
What's this? Isn't the player supposed to learn from the coach, rather than the other way around?
Well, sure-sometimes. But show me a coach (or a boss) who doesn't listen-really listen-and I'll show you a probable loser. Show me a coach (or a boss) who domineers and demeans, who manages through fear, and I'll show you an accident waiting to happen. Show me a coach or a boss who doesn't think it's just as important to empower the lowliest scrub on the team as it is to cater to the star, and I'll show you a real short timer.
A true story, about a coach who's become an inspiration to me, Dick Vermeil, of the Kansas City Chiefs: Last summer, Dick gave a barbecue at his house for the entire team, not just the stars. Dick did all the cooking and every bit of the cleaning up, all by himself. No caterers, no maids, no hired help. And he was happy to do it. How do you think the Chiefs' third-string defensive tackle felt after that barbecue?
Like he was ready to move heaven and earth for Dick Vermeil, that's how.
Likewise, going to get Andy Roddick his morning coffee and egg sandwich when we're traveling together is one of my favorite things in life. It makes Andy feel totally taken care of; it makes me feel like a powerful guardian. It makes us feel like a team.
In fact, you might say I'm a team player in an individual sport. One of my coaching idols is UCLA's great former basketball coach, John Wooden. The man is ninety-three years old now, but he's still an inspiration. I saw Jamal Wilkes interviewed on TV a little while ago-here was a guy in his fifties, his face full of joy as he talked about his coach. (That's what he still calls him.) The interviewer asked Jamal if he still finds himself doing things in life that Coach Wooden taught him, and Jamal just beamed. "Every day," he said.
John Wooden has so much love for talking about the team, and the foundation of the team, that he will never discuss a single player. He inspired every one of his players to put aside his ego in pursuit of excellence. How did he do it? By putting aside his own ego first.
An expression I've used with both Andre and Andy is, "I've got your back." That says it all about me, in a nutshell. I've got your back. If it was four in the morning, and my guy called me up and said, "I need you to come over," I wouldn't ask what it was about. I wouldn't think twice. I would think once, and this is what my thought would be: If it's important enough for him to call on me at that hour, it's important enough for me to go. And whatever the situation was, we would figure it out. That's just the way I am. Or, I should say, the way I learned to be.
It all started with Chiv-Tom Chivington, the tennis coach of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. Foothill is a community college, a two-year institution, a stop along the way for kids who, for whatever reason-emotional, financial, academic-need a little boost before they can make it in a four-year school.
I was a bit different. True, I was never much of a student (to put it mildly): Graduating from college wasn't my dream. No, I had this nutty idea that I could become a professional tennis player.
How nutty? In 1979 I was the number 35 junior player in the country. Which sounds pretty good-until you realize that at most only six or seven of the top ten juniors ever make it to the pros. I was a scrawny little runt who'd done amazingly well for a guy who didn't have much of a serve, volley, or backhand. My success, such as it was, was pretty much based on the fact that I was, first of all, fast on my feet and second, one tough little scrapper. It didn't matter if the other guy was bigger, stronger, better-I just kept coming. Never gave up. Took no prisoners. You'd be surprised how many matches that'll win you.
I was originally recruited to Arizona State, a good tennis school, but as soon as I reported to Tempe that fall, the coach who'd signed me got fired. The new coach brought in his own players, and I was told I could take a backseat. I decided to relocate. Foothill was close to my home in Piedmont, California, and for a junior college, it had a very strong tennis reputation, thanks to its coach, Tom Chivington.
On January 2, 1980, I reported to Foothill, their hot new singles prospect-and a definite question mark, in the coach's eyes. I was five foot eight, 120 pounds soaking wet, with big hair and a big attitude. (Little did I know that one day a kid named Andy Roddick-a kid who wasn't to be born for two more years-would give me a very hard time about that big hair.) Chiv, who talked softly but looked you right in the eye, put me on the spot. He'd heard I was a bit of a bad actor on the court.
I saw right away that this was a man I had to be straight with. I swallowed. "I've stepped over the bounds a few times," I admitted.
"Can we work on that?" Chiv asked me.
I didn't have to think twice. "That's what I'm here for," I told him.
It was the right answer. That day, for some reason, Chiv saw I was a work in progress and decided to take me on as a project. He knew I didn't have much game, but I almost made up for it with my fighting spirit. He resolved then and there to make a player out of me.
I told you I had mediocre strokes-the truth is that one of my shots was even worse than that. My backhand was strictly a defensive shot, pushed rather than struck, and I couldn't get out of jail with it. Any guy with a strong serve could spin it to my left side, cruise in to net, and have me for lunch.
Lots of coaches had tried to get me to change, but they were always totally negative about it. "You have to do it like this or you're never going to be any good," they'd tell me. Or, "If you don't go to a two-handed backhand, you have no hope. Your backhand sucks. Your grip is terrible." It was always, "You can't, you won't." And my first thought was always, "How good were you?" That was my brashness talking. But I couldn't help it-it's always really ticked me off when someone tells me I can't do something. For a long time, my anger drove me more than anything else.
I could tell right away that Chiv was different. He was quiet and friendly-he had an incredibly calm voice-but he was firm at the same time. I knew he liked me, yet he also wasn't about to put up with any crap from me. When I showed up twenty minutes late to my very first tennis practice, he said, "That's the last time you will ever show up late-ever." I was genuinely puzzled: Nobody had ever called me on that before. But Chiv said, "If you don't come on time, you do not respect me." I was never late-for anything-again. In fact, I'm notorious for showing up a half hour early for everything.
I respected Chiv because he clearly knew what he was talking about, because he radiated self-respect and quiet authority, and because every day, at every practice, he was pumped just to be there-excited about working with every guy on the team, from the strongest to the weakest. I knew right away it was for real: That's the kind of thing you just can't fake. Chiv had been at Foothill his entire career, since the school opened its doors in the mid-sixties. He could have gone to many other schools, because he was a great coach, but he ended up just loving Foothill and creating a great tennis program there. His love for his job and the school were more important to him than personal prestige. That attitude was infectious. Some people would show up and act like, "Shit, I'm at a junior college." The first day I got there and met Chiv, I knew I was in the right place.
Positiveness was something that had been missing from my tennis career up to that point. I was tough, I was determined-but I was negative. Junior tennis had felt like a grind to me. I loved the game, but I hated the dog eat dog.
Chiv's spirit was contagious, and I caught it. I wanted to work hard and do well; I wanted to please him. I had always lived for competition, but now I began to love it.
The next lesson took a little longer. A positive fighting spirit was all well and good, but I needed a backhand to go with it. Chiv had a friend with a private court, and on weekends he and I would go over there with a basket of balls, and he'd feed me five hundred backhands. The goal was to try and turn my defensive chip into an offensive topspin shot without changing my funky continental grip. It ain't easy-try it sometime.
But after two months, I figured it out: Suddenly I could hit over my backhand with confidence. And miraculously, something else happened at the same time. I grew. Five inches and five pounds in eight weeks. All at once, I was a six-foot-one-inch, 125-pound beanpole.
The weight would come, but now that I had the height-and the stroke-I started to turn the tables on the competition. Suddenly, guys who had been regularly cleaning my clock, 6-2 and 6-1, were falling to me by the same scores. By the end of my freshman year I had gone from being a semi-crappy former junior to a player who was ready, I thought, to play on the pro tour. Except for one thing: I lost in the finals of the California state championships. "I think you need to show me you can at least be number 1 in California," Chiv said, "before you go on to the next level."
He was right, as usual. I corrected that situation the following year. Not only did I win the state championships, I didn't lose a single varsity match as a sophomore at Foothill. I also made the Junior Davis Cup team, the first junior-college player ever to do so. But Chiv had more to teach me. Even though I was the clear-cut number 1 on the Foothill team, head and shoulders above everybody, he made me defend my spot in challenge matches. He didn't want me getting above myself or complacent; he also didn't want anyone else on the team to feel that the coach was playing favorites. If I was going to be a star, I had to show it through my deeds, not my attitude.
I was hot to drop out after sophomore year and start playing the pro tour. Chiv had a different idea. "You should go win the NCAA Championships," he told me. "It's just a waste of time," I told him. Chiv gave me a look. "You only have one shot in your life at trying to win the NCAA," he said. "And if you win, it could give you a big boost when you go out on the tour"-Nike and Adidas were giving out some pretty big contracts in those days to NCAA winners.
I saw his point.
In January of 1982, I transferred to Pepperdine University in Malibu in order to be eligible for the NCAA Championships. (My relationship with Chiv would have another chapter, even though I didn't know it at the time.) I stayed at Pepperdine exactly one semester, playing under the one-of-a-kind Allen Fox, a great tennis mind and a quirky character, who taught me a bit more about staying positive. I remember one time I was playing like crap in a match, down 5-2 in the third set. It had turned into the kind of match I call a trunk slammer: When you're all ready to throw your sticks in your gear bag, throw the bag in the trunk of your car, and get the hell out of there. Foxy came out onto the court, walking his goofy little duckwalk, looked at me, grinned, and said, "You got him right where you want him." I said, "Coach, what are you talking about? I'm down 5-2 in the third." "No problem," Foxy said. "He's so nervous about winning, you can take it from him, right here." It changed my whole mind-set about the match. Foxy always used to say, "You're never going to get three games back at once. Get one game back. Start with one game-then maybe you'll get two."
Often as not, it worked out just that way.
The NCAAs, though, were a different story. I had a great run in the tournament, then in the final I came up against Mike Leach, a huge-serving lefty from the University of Michigan. And I was guilty of two things: The first was arrogance. I simply assumed I was going to win that tournament. I had geared my entire game for the last half-year toward this moment; I had done everything right. In my mind, the title was mine already. The check was in the mail.
Mike Leach had a different plan.
The final score was 7-5, 6-3. In retrospect, I did several things wrong, including playing not to lose (always a big mistake) and not digging down when things got tight. I think maybe I got steamrolled mentally because I expected it to come a little easier. And because I was surprised at his game.
My worst mistake was not having the foggiest idea, before I walked out onto that court, what kind of tennis player Mike Leach was. I've heard it said that John McEnroe never scouted an opponent. Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Mac's a tennis genius. And it's nice to be a genius, but those of us who aren't have to work extra hard. For two weeks after that NCAA final, I walked around like I'd been kicked in the groin. Then I straightened up and came to my senses. Throughout my two years at Foothill and my short time at Pepperdine, I'd been pretty careful about at least watching my opponents warm up. This time, I hadn't been careful at all. Now I was on my way to the pros (with a small endorsement contract from Nike), where the competition would be much, much tougher. And I decided I was going to pay very, very close attention.
The tennis immortal Bill Tilden said, "Never change a winning game; always change a losing game."
Excerpted from I've Got Your Back by Brad Gilbert Copyright © 2005 by Brad Gilbert. Excerpted by permission.
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