Why do female tennis players grunt?

Google it, and you will find stuff about the need to inhale before a big physical effort (eg serving), and then exhale as soon as you’ve hit the ball. Interestingly Connors and Agassi were big grunters. But nowadays it is mainly the women, with the Belarussian Victoria Azarenka shrieking so loudly at Wimbledon this year that you could hear her at Queen’s! There is even a book on the subject by Professor Alison McConnell of Brunel University 

Some have credited famous coach Nick Bollettieri with encouraging the grunt – for tactical as well as physiological reasons. But I believe that we owe this noisy accompaniment to tennis, indirectly at least, to another of my heroes – Tim Gallwey (now 73), author in 1975 of “The Inner Game of Tennis”. 

The scientific answer according to Gallwey would have been because Self 1 is using the grunt to tell Self 2 to get in the zone! What is all this about? 

Gallwey was a good enough tennis player to captain the Harvard team. He went on to become a professional, and later a coach. He studied under Guru Maharaj Ji, and became fascinated with the psychology of tennis. He wanted to understand why the greatest players could make stupid mistakes despite having immaculate technique and being super fit. Also why coaching for beginners and club players was often so ineffective. The player knew what he or she was supposed to do, but failed on court. 

His discovery was that we have “two selves”. Self 1 is the thinker and teller. Self 2 is the listener and doer. Self 1 knows what to do, and can’t understand why Self 2 is so inept. Trouble is, Self 2 would be fine, left to his/her own devices, but freezes when Self 1 says “break point” just as Self 2 goes for a cunning drop shot! 

Gallwey’s Inner Game is what sports commentators and psychologists now call the “zone” – the state of concentrating hard and shutting out the external influences and thoughts which can distract the player from peak performance and faultless decision making. 

He was a true pioneer, and wrote subsequent books about golf, music and skiing. Unsurprisingly sports-mad businessmen then clamoured for his motivational services, and Gallwey wrote “The Inner Game of Business” as a focus for his burgeoning consulting and executive coaching business. 

Having studied considered decision making, and been puzzled at how teams of competent and intelligent people can use such poor process, I am constantly impressed by the efficiency of short-order decision makers, who usually have only seconds to decide. I am talking about such disparate performers as soldiers, pilots, firefighters, police officers, triage nurses and referees. But it applies to us as well, as we drive our cars and walk the pavements well enough to avoid collisions. It has to be down to training and experience. 

All of them (and us) must have Inner Games and well-trained Self 2’s. When I hear you grunting at the wheel or walking down Regent Street. I’ll know for sure.