Sunday, July 18, 2010

quiet please: on tennis, silence, and concentration

Here's a provocative one for all you tennis fans out there.

I am always puzzled when I see tennis referees or players asking for spectators to be silent and not to move during the game. Why do they hate it so much when the audience makes noises or moves while they play? Even stranger is their obsession with spectators since the fact their opponent screams during the game does not seem to bother that much, or, if it does, nothing is said about it (example here).

Is it because tennis players are not as good as other athletes at concentrating and keeping their focus?

Do you remember how "Iceman" Lendl lost it when Chang started to serve and move in an unconventional fashion in 1989 (video here)?

Look at NBA players. They can shoot on moneytime with people screaming and waving their arms. Having a moving background is quite a sensorimotor perturbation when you shoot. Just try to do it with a single friend of yours making faces under the net. It is just a pain! Football players (the sport that comes from England and people play with their feet as indicated by its name ;-) manage to score a penalty kick with a full stadium booing them and/or people behind the goal jumping in unisson (or not)! Even better, what about high-jump? Not only do people in the stadium make a lot of noise, but they clap their hands off-beat with respect to the running cycle of the athlete and who still manages to achieve it (video here). Having worked on rhythmic sensorimotor coordination (right click here, here or  here to download pdf versions of some of our papers on the topic) I can tell you this is quite a perturbation when you try to maintain a pace and there is a different rhythm played next to you.

Contrary to these examples, a tennis player needs silence. Why? If the reason is tradition. Then I stop here, traditions are to be respected. 

But there is an alternate take to this and I'm sure tennis afficionados are not going to like it.

One of my (scientifically unfounded) hypotheses is that tennis requires less concentration than other sports because tennis allows people to play badly for a while, and still win at the end of the game. How many examples do we have of athletes playing miserably for two sets and wining in five stets (my favourite remains the Lendl-McEnroe 1984 French Open final)?

This is not the case in many individual or team sports. Take judo (or any martial art) for instance. If one is distracted for a second the opponent can score ippon (or knock you down) and this means only one thing : go back home and next time try to stay focused. It is (almost) the same with sudden death in team sports.

Hence my hypothesis. Maybe athletes in sports where there is very little if no room at being bad or distracted are just better at keeping their focus and therefore harder to distract.

I wrote it before, my claim is not supported by any data (at least that I would know of) and there might be statistics that contradict it. But I would be very interested into running behavioural and neuroimaging experiments on athletes of various sports where their attentional abilities (doubletask, memory, etc.) would be compared.

OK, enough for today and please remain silent, some tennis players might want to comment on this post ;-)

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PS: For the record, I do like tennis a lot. I just don't like it when players ask for canceling a point because someone moved or made a noise. I think this is a bit too much.