It's often said that all's fair in love and war. What about tennis?
What are the limits of acceptable behavior in this game shrouded by
noble traditions? In my opinion, there is a fine line between
tactical gamesmanship and crude dishonesty, or cheating.
Cheating is reprehensible and should never be encouraged or tolerated
in sport. What about subtle ways of seizing the competitive
advantage like verbal threats, cold stares, or other methods of
distracting the opponent? Should gamesmanship be trained to
perfection like a finely crafted backhand, or discouraged and
criticized as unsportsmanlike? Were John McEnroe's timely outbursts
acceptable or a disgrace to his character? It's surprising that so
little research has addressed these issues.
Well developed mental skills help us excel in a variety of
performance situations including tennis (e.g., staying focused,
optimally aroused, and with clear performance goals). However, just
as these psychological tools enhance performance, there are quite a
few clever anti-tools available to smash the positive effects of
mental equipment! A wily foe might do everything in his or her power
to destroy your confidence and break your concentration. The bottom
line is that if you want to be your very best, don't assume that
everyone will give you the respect you deserve. Make an effort to
study the nasty antics of the bad boys and girls too.
Several readers recently volunteered to contribute to the column by
sharing their views on gamesmanship.
Here are some excerpts:
--From Richard Huddleston:
"There's a guy that I play one night a week who has the gamesmanship
stuff down really well. He uses all the tricks: forgetting the score,
complimenting the "hot" stroke and trying to get you to talk about
what you're doing differently with it, waving his racket around as
you prepare to serve. ... my only defense to date has been to simply
not acknowledge him at all once we start playing, and to ignore him
until we're done for the evening ...
--From Judy Van Raalte:
"The question on mind games in sport is an interesting one about
which there has been relatively little research ... There is an
interesting distinction that can be made between those behaviors that
are completely outside of the rules, and those that are within the
rules but can be unsportsmanlike because they are distracting (the
Monica Seles grunt comes to mind) or physically harmful (e.g.,
hitting another player wins the point, but isn't very nice to do).
--From Matt Dick:
"... One day, in the middle of a typical match full of petty
arguments, I stopped fighting. I became businesslike in every aspect
of the game. I gave my brother every benefit of any doubt. I
refused to argue calls, and aside from calling the score I did not
speak at all. Well, I won for the first time ever. Not only did I
win then, but I haven't lost to him since!"
There will probably never be a universal consensus regarding what
constitutes "fair play." In an ideal world, tennis would only be a
fun endeavor promoting fitness, skills development and a healthy test
of physical and mental strength. Unfortunately, competitive
situations sometimes bring out a more devious and self-serving beast.
Luckily, a player's reputation usually spreads far and wide. Once a
player becomes branded with poor sportsmanship, their ability to
harm others with their antics is greatly reduced. Continue working
to keep your mental equipment in top condition. At the same time,
try to anticipate some of the mind games that might be used against
you ... you are never too prepared! Until next month...