Loud grunts may give tennis players a competitive edge: Study

You’ve heard them at tennis matches – loud, emphatic grunts with each player’s stroke. A new study by University of British Columbia and University of Hawaii researchers suggest these grunts may hinder opponents’ ability to accurately perceive and respond to the ball.

Scott Sinnett, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii at M?noa, and Alan Kingstone, psychology professor at UBC, are the first to study the effects of noise on shot perception during a tennis match. Their work is published today in an online issue of Public Library of Science ONE.

In the study, UBC undergraduate students viewed videos of a tennis player hitting a ball to either side of a tennis court in a laboratory setting. Half of the shots were accompanied with a brief, 60-decibel sound at the same time as contact, comparable in volume to the grunts of such tennis stars as Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal.

Participants were required to indicate the direction of the shot in each video clip on a keyboard as quickly and accurately as possible. According to the study, the “grunts” produced significantly slower response times and more decision and accuracy errors for participants.

“Conservatively, our findings suggest that a tennis ball struck along with a loud grunt can travel an extra two feet in the air before the opponent is able to respond,” says Sinnett, adding that some professional tennis players’ grunts are as loud as 100 decibels. “This could increase the likelihood that opponents are wrong-footed, or out of position, and make returning the ball more difficult.”

If the laboratory findings translate onto the tennis court, Sinnett says the effects of grunts would be even greater on faster surfaces, such as the grass courts of Wimbledon or hard courts of the Australian and U.S. Open.

“This phenomenon of grunting in tennis is a perfect real-world scenario to explore the larger question of sound and its relationship to our ability to perceive the world,” says Sinnett, who conducted the work as a postdoctoral fellow at UBC. “The study raises a number of interesting questions for tennis. For example, if Rafael Nadal is grunting and Roger Federer is not, is that fair? Are there strategies players can use to limit the negative effects of these sounds?”

Sinnett, a Vancouver native, is now researching whether top tennis players have developed strategies to mitigate the effects of opponents’ grunting.

For more information on the study, visit: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013148

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