Grunting in tennis – sports, noise and the brain (10/4/10)
They’re loud. The noises made by professional tennis players have increased through the years. Now a study from the University of Hawaii using tennis simulations demonstrates what should have been obvious – grunting distracts your opponent. Grunting on the court gives several advantages to the grunter – including distracting your opponent, and making them unconsciously multitask.
Psychologists have known such facts for well over 100 years. Give two stimuli close together and the brain slows down. Reaction time increases. With serves sometimes coming at you at 150 mph, the grunter gains the edge.
Noise on the Field
Other sports use noise to distract the opposition, sometimes using the support of tens of thousands. Many football fans will hoot and yell when the opposing team holds the ball, trying to disrupt the quarterback’s calls. Frequently college team bands strike up just as play action starts for their opponent’s offense. Many sports stars know that the right sound or the right remark can throw off their opponent’s rhythm just when they really need it. And in a sport as psychological as tennis, where loss of concentration or confidence can morph a near winner into a loser before your eyes, distraction works well.
But there’s more to grunting than trying to distract opponents.
Other Advantages of Grunting
Players who grunt often don’t think or notice the noise they make. Some players and coaches think grunting is a normal part of exhalation. Other advantages include:
1. Keeping in rhythm – breathing a certain way increases the orderly progression of one’s play. You know when your shot is finished and when its time to play defense.
2. Physical release.
3. Emotional release.
4. Improving some reflex actions. Clenching in one part of the body can increase reflex strength elsewhere.
Opponents can respond. They can train to disregard the noise, or use active rest techniques to increase focus and concentration. But the brain still does only one thing at a time.
The Many Problems of Grunting
Tennis is an elegant sport. Players are swift, sure and their actions frequently beautiful to behold. The noises many make, however, are anything but beautiful. Larcher de Brito has been known to emit yells up to 109 dba. In the workplace, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration only allows decibel counts that high for a total of one half hour per work day. OSHA will not soon be patrolling tennis matches, but some players are getting perilously close to acting as human noise health hazards.
And then there is the issue of “cheating,” as Martina Navratilova describes it. Making noise changes the character of the game. Even Nick Bolletierri, who has trained many tennis greats including famous grunters, feels some kinds of official sanction will need be made.
The time to do so may be now. Many who pay high prices to watch tennis matches are not thrilled listening to the grunts of even the supremely skilled players like Nadal. TV viewers can at least turn off the audio.
Implications Beyond Tennis
People don’t realize what noise can do to the brain. A large part of our cortex is used to process auditory stimuli. True, it’s not as big as the visual areas, but we pay attention to noise in innumerable ways, with results that are often not conscious.
Like the chirping of email. Or the bells on a frustrated IV machine in the ICU. Brief noises powerfully disrupt attention and concentration.
Those disruptions can be costly. As my friend Jo Solet has shown, they eally interfere with sleep. Intermittent noise can also change the ability of people to pay attention on the job. Numerous studies show that disrupting work even briefly can create periods of ten to twenty minutes or more before people get back to speed.
Grunting on the tennis court is about more than noise; it’s about how it effects the grunter, the audience, the opponent, and the character of the game. Making your opponent multitask may help you win a tennis or football match, but it won’t help you get your everyday job done. And though much of the effect is unconscious, erratic noise really changes attention and awareness. Multitasking is hard enough, but noise can force the brain to ineffectively multitask– and not be aware it’s doing it.
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