Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Jun 1, 1996 – Dr. John F. Murray – 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!