Championship Lessons From Legendary Stanford Tennis Coach Dick Gould
Dick Gould, who led the Stanford men’s tennis program to 17 national championships, shares his insights on success.
Championship Lessons From Legendary Stanford Tennis Coach Dick Gould
How do you measure success? For a college coach — no matter the sport — three things matter most: national championships, winning percentage and graduation rates. By every measure, Dick Gould delivered.
Gould coached the men’s tennis team at Stanford University for 38 years, from 1966 to 2004, and built a dynasty. He guided his teams to 17 national championships, compiled an .840 winning percentage with an overall record of 776-148, and produced 10 NCAA singles champions, seven NCAA doubles titles, and 50 All-Americans, including John McEnroe, Sandy and Gene Mayer, Roscoe Tanner and Tim Mayotte.
Off the court, close to 100 percent of Gould’s players graduated, like many Stanford student-athletes, and he spearheaded a fundraising campaign that raised over $25 million to build a state-the-art tennis facility on The Farm and fully endow the Stanford men's tennis program.
On top of all that, Gould wrote "Tennis, Anyone?" (a bestselling how-to book), conducted tennis clinics around the world, and taught a thousand college-age kids how to teach tennis through his own coaching company.
In 2018, Gould retired after 57 years at Stanford — five as a student/tennis player, 38 as a coach and 14 as the director of tennis — setting a standard of excellence that may never be equaled.
"The closer you observe, the better he gets," Wayne Bryan, a tennis pro in Santa Barbara, once said of the coaching legend. "He’s great from a distance, but he’s even greater up close. He’s like the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Yosemite and Disneyland — he’s not overrated."
Bryan’s twin sons, pro tennis players Bob and Mike Bryan, were two of the hundreds of student-athletes who played for Gould at Stanford.
Stadium Talk spoke with Gould about his career, and he shared his insights on how to be a champion in sports and life.
1. Understand and care about others.
How do you take guys from different backgrounds, who've been competitive all their life, known each other all their lives, who have gigantic egos anyway or they wouldn't probably be as good as they were, how do you get them to work together as a team and really care about each other?
We did a lot of things off the court that were unusual that no one else did that made our program a little bit special. It might be a trip one year to the Playboy mansion, when we were playing an exhibition down in Los Angeles. Or it might be an annual trip we took to either the Caribbean or Mexico in those days. We'd always go somewhere as a team on a trip each year. Just us.
Or little things, like having a team golf tournament. Going out and taking a hike in the preserve right near our campus, beautiful hiking trails, just to get them to appreciate the area around them, get them away from the court in a different environment. The barbecues at the house, this kind of thing.
I think it's really important that these kids get to see each other off the court and know each other off the court. They really have to care for one another. And again, that's a tough trait to develop. You don't just say, “OK guys, you got to love each other, you got to care for one another.” Because some of these guys had a history in the juniors where they just weren't best friends. Sometimes they were, and that's great, but not always.
We were able to create a team culture and a team feeling, and I think these are little things that went on with that and helped it to happen.
2. Let go of ego.
I would say the best athlete I ever had and maybe one of the very best competitors was John McEnroe. He was a genius with a racket. He was a really, really tough competitor. I've seen him hit shots when he was down, his back against the wall, that I didn't think anyone could hit.
People don't realize what a great team player John McEnroe was. He never turned down the ask to represent his country as a Davis Cup player, no matter how tired he was. He really believed in the team aspect of everything.
If you [skip college and] go straight out to the pro tour, you never have the aspect of playing on a team. I think college tennis really helps in that respect, and they experience something for four years of their life that they don't get anywhere else. They're playing for each other, which is a big thing.
3. Be adaptable.
If I had a strength as a coach, one of my better strengths would be being able to be flexible to the kind of team I had. I was able to adjust if someone was having a bad day because their girlfriend broke up, or they're having trouble in a course, or something was happening at home in their family life. They responded pretty well to that.
For me, everyone leads or coaches in a different manner. You have to be true to yourself in how you do that, and for me, being flexible was one thing that really was important.
4. Embrace competition.
I recruited very highly on the rankings. Even though a player might not be the prettiest player, or have the best strokes, or maybe the best athletic ability, he was winning for a reason. It's really hard to measure heart, but there are a lot of guys who maybe weren't the prettiest looking player, or didn't look the best if you're just going on how they hit the ball, but they won for a reason. And that's why I went so heavily on the rankings, because they were proven winners.
[Rankings] were a pretty good indicator of not only how good they were, but more than that, how big their heart is. They win because they can compete. They're not afraid of it. They can win at the highest level within their age group. And so in that sense, they were already made. They were already winning.
5. Make tough decisions.
A coach has to make some hard decisions sometimes in terms of lineup.
Those are always hard decisions to make — who plays, who doesn't play, how much they play, and when they play.
By the end of the year, we usually had our best teams together. Now, maybe the guy who's just off the team at No. 7 didn't feel that way, but that's my job to do and take responsibility for as coach.
6. Don't take yourself too seriously.
I really tried to have fun and not take myself or different situations too seriously. I really enjoyed what I did, mostly because I really enjoyed the challenges of young people and the challenge they give to me, the way they made me think in how I was treating them.
Just having fun, not taking yourself too seriously, even trying to make practice enjoyable were things that I felt were really, really important.
7. Stay composed.
I didn't have any team rules per se, other than just don't embarrass your family, yourself, your university, your team.
8. Be fair.
You don't have to treat everyone the same way, but you have to be fair with them. They have to know where they stand.
9. Have patience.
It's a rare kid who comes in for one year of college and really is ready for the pro tour. You're not making any money — you're probably not even breaking even — until you're in the top 150 in the world.
Turning pro in tennis is a lonely life out there. You're 18 years old, 19 years old, 20 years old. You have no money. You don't have any sponsor. You can't afford a coach. You can't afford an entourage. You have to chase the points. You might play one week in one continent, and another week in another continent. If you lose the first day on Monday, then you may not play again until the following Monday. What do you do in the time in between?
When you're in college, you have your practices set up for you each day. You have playing partners each day. You have your equipment. You have your health training, your trainers, your physical trainers. It's all right there for you. It gives you a chance to grow into your physical strength. And three or four years later, you're matured, you're ready to go out there and do something.
10. Learn from losing.
It was 1977. Our crowds outside were so big. In our old stadium, we could only seat about 800 people. ... We had some great players to watch in those days, and [fans] couldn't get in to the matches. So we thought, "Let's see if we can move these matches indoors to Maples Pavilion [at Stanford]."
So we played outdoors. Starting at noon, we played numbers three, four, five, and six singles, and followed by two and three doubles. And then at 6:30 with about a 45-minute or half-hour break, we go indoors to Maples, where we bought a big carpet from a Tucson pro tournament and laid it down in Maples.
In this particular match, we're playing UCLA at home. UCLA was a great rival of ours. Tennis was in the tennis boom right then. We had over 7,000 people in Maples. It wasn't quite sold out, but it was as close as you could be to being sold out. We had the band, the dollies, it was being broadcast on KZSU, our student radio station, and no one has left the place.
When we go indoors, the score is tied at three-all. We started with the No. 2 singles, followed on the one court by the No. 1 singles, followed finally by the No. 1 doubles. And the first match indoors, the No. 2 singles ... we lost that match in three sets, so now we're behind four, three. And then we win the next match, No. 1 match, and it's four-all [in team play]. And these are world-class players. It's quarter to one in the morning, nobody has left the place, people yelling like crazy ... all four players [in the final No. 1 doubles match] had a quick volley exchange, UCLA wins the point, wins the match, and my head goes down, my players' heads go down.
I go to bed that night, and I'm thinking in the middle of the night. I can't sleep. I'm worried, kind of darn, what a disappointing loss. And all of a sudden, it dawned on me that this was one of the greatest moments, and maybe the greatest moment ever, in college tennis history. We have over 7,000 people watching one match, on one court, and back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Bands going crazy, the dollies are out their dancing, and yet we lost it. And I'll never forget something that I saw, and I don't know who said it or who wrote it, but the statement was: "There can be glory even in defeat."
And so we came out to practice the next day, and my guys, I sat them on the court. I could tell they're dragging. I was still dragging frankly. I sat them down and said, "Guys, do you realize how lucky you were to be apart of this match on Saturday night?" And they looked at me like I was crazy, like coach, "We lost, what are you talking about?"
And I started to describe the moment, and what they had been a part of, and how well they'd prepared, and the fact that we still had time left in the season to recoup, and we could go either way after that match, and to realize that even if you get beat, if you put in the effort and give your best, it can be glorious, and they should hold their heads up. And we had a great practice that day. We went on, and we won the national championship over UCLA. So I think that was probably one of the best matches that I've ever been a part of.
Sometimes, you remember the losses more than the wins and how hard it is on the guys. … Resilience is such a big thing. Resilience is really, really important. It's something you can learn through sport. You have to learn through sport.
So good thing sport is not life or death. There's always a tomorrow in sport. That's the beauty of it.
11. Remove the pressure to win.
So many young people come up with so much pressure on them that they're not really free to perform without feeling that pressure. As a coach, you can take the pressure off.
And if I can take that pressure off by what I say, maybe during a match, making a joke something like that. They look at me like I'm crazy, but it gets their mind. We're bringing their mind back on the moment at hand.
Usually, playing under pressure is when they get ahead of themselves. They say, "Oh gosh, I’m up, and I want to beat this guy. I've never beat him in my life." Then all of a sudden, they're thinking about winning the match, rather than the next ball they're hitting.
Or they're losing, and they don't even think about trying something new. They don't think about adapting their game to something they're less comfortable with to even see if it works.
As a coach, there are a lot of things you can do to help a kid along the way and try to get them focused on the present — that ball they're hitting right now, the point they're playing right now — instead of looking ahead or looking behind.
You want to keep their attitude positive and bring them back in the moment.
12. Be proactive.
My style of play was really make them react to you, then you react to them. Be proactive.
[My players] were always on the aggressive side, always trying to take the match to their opponent. Whether they were born that way or taught that way was immaterial.
But this mindset of taking the match to your opponent was really, really important, and it served us well.
13. Work with a purpose.
It's more important to work with a purpose than to work long hours. We probably practiced less than almost any other good team.
Use your practice time well, and don’t spend too much time on it. In fact, I like to see guys, through high school even, play other sports. I think that's important for them, just their personal development. It keeps them fresh in tennis.
I think one reason we did so well was because we were fresher usually at the end of the year than the other teams who had played so much and worked so hard, and maybe placed so much value on every match they played.
Whereas we were more or less pointing at playing until the last match of the year at the NCAAs.
14. Keep a positive attitude.
Enthusiasm is important. And that starts with the coach.
I never wanted my guys to know when I was having bad day, when I had a problem at home or a sick child or got no sleep the night before. I never wanted them to know when my father passed. I wanted to go out there the same way every day.
I wanted to greet them with a smile. I had a little thing I'd always say, a joke, that it'd be a beautiful day outside of practice. The kids just got out of class, I'd say, "Hey, how about the weather?" Something like that. Even if it was rainy, I'd say, "How about the weather?"
If I'm not enthusiastic and don't create a positive environment or practice, we're not going to have one. I had a chance to do all I can as a leader to do that. In any workplace.
15. You can't fake passion.
Just think of your teachers back in school yourself. Who are your favorite teachers, and why were they your favorite teachers?
My guess is they had a passion for what they're teaching that really showed through the subject matter — whether or not it was your favorite subject matter. Their passion for what they're doing really showed.
I was passionate about what I was doing. I think that you have to have that genuinely. You can't fake that.
You learn a lot by trial and error. You don't know until you tried something if it works or not.
And my job was to prepare my guys so they had different things that they could try, whether it was their A game or not. It might be a whole different style of play different than what they used, but I had to teach them to be able to adapt to a situation in a match.
17. Be yourself.
My first teaching job was in high school. I was coaching a tennis team, and coaching a freshman-sophomore football team. And I learned something early that served me well.
With the football team, we were having a head-to-head tackling drill from 10 yards apart, and I'd blow the whistle. The whole team's standing around these two guys. They run at each other, and then the guy with the ball would be tackled. Well, this little kid, Eddy Mateas, ran up to make the tackle, and he slipped and fell to the right, and I blew my whistle. "Eddy come on, get back up, do that again." He slips and falls to the left the next time. "OK, Eddy. Last time, let's try it again." He slips and falls on his back this time, so he avoids contact three times in a row.
And I'm looking over at him, standing right over him. He's lying on his back, the whole team's standing around. I said every swear word I could think of, yelled it out, screamed at him. He just laid there and took it. When I had no more words to say and had totally vented, he looked up at me, flipped me off and said, "F you, Mr. Gould."
I just stood there for a minute, and then all of a sudden, I just started cracking up. And then the team cracked up. They couldn't believe a guy, 14-year-old, 15-year-old, had told me that.
That moment really drove it home to me because it taught me, right then and there, that you could never be something that you are not. You'd have to be true to yourself. That's really important in any leadership position. There's no one way to do things, and you have to do it your own way.
I thought, to be a football coach, you had to be like a Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Packers, who everyone said was so tough. Actually, his players loved him. But everyone said he was so tough and demanding.
I thought I was being demanding and tough, but it wasn't me the way I was doing it. And that just put it in perspective really fast, one of the greatest lessons I've ever learned.
18. Don't underestimate anyone or anything.
There have been times I've underestimated people. I recruit a guy and think, "Well, he'll be a good No. 10 guy, No. 9 guy, a good practice player."
I had a team that came in. We had one really good player, became a top 12 player in the world. Then, I had a pretty good journeyman captain who was a local fellow, who was a good guy as a senior to have as a captain, and I had five freshman. Five freshman in our top seven. We had just won the championship the year before, a couple guys turned pro, and we weren't as strong.
People said, "Well, it's going to be obviously a young team this year, coach. What do you think?" I'd say, "Well, we'll be rebuilding, I think we'll be pretty good in a couple years." The team went on and won the national championship that year.
So one thing that is really important is don't ever underestimate what an individual or a team can do. I think that's really important.
19. Enjoy the ride.
Do not make winning all important. You have to enjoy the process of trying to win, trying to get in a position to succeed. I would not call winning success.
Success is more doing something maybe you thought you couldn't do, or whatever you're doing do to the best of your ability. That's true success. It doesn't necessarily manifest itself in a win.
So trying to appreciate the process to what you're doing is really, really important as a coach. Don't get so hung up on wins and losses.
20. Get better every day.
I believed in appreciating the process and never forgetting where you were. Respecting where you were and always trying to get better, every day trying to get better. I think it's an important thing.
It's not whether you’re good or bad as a team, but you ask every individual when they leave the court, "What did you do better today than yesterday?" Or "What are you going to try to do better today in practice than you did yesterday?" Or you help them with that, "Here's what I want you to work on today."
And then at the end of the day, say, "Was it better? Did it go better for you?"