4 October 2019

Gestures speak louder than words

Turn the sound down on any tennis match, and you will probably be able to tell who is winning or losing from the body language. From fist pumps to racket smashing, your on court gestures speak volumes and show if you are in control or ready to be taken advantage of...

Wearing his heart on his sleeve has endeared Andy Murray to many a tennis fan, but as Mats Wilander has pointed out, Murray's body language can be a weakness. The more emotions he gives away, the more his opponent can take advantage.  Or as Rafa Nadal puts it, "All the body language that is not in a positive way is stupid to make it, because it’s going against you. It is one of the things that I tried to do all my life, that the body language helps me, not go against me. Because it is one of the things that depends just on me, not on the opponent.” So what are the key things to learn and the main things to observe in your opponent. Here is our guide (and beware: women are proven to be better at spotting the signs than men!).

Late arrivals
Lateness can be interpreted as a power play. If you are being kept waiting, the advice from Allan & Barabara Pease in "The Definitive Book on Body Language" is to show you are not being inconvenienced. Read something on your phone, practise your serve and when they arrive, let them speak first. Then be ready to play at your pace and confidently.

Shaken not stirred
They say 80% of your attitude to someone is determined in the first 4 minutes. To build rapport when shaking hands, turn the palm at right angles to the ground and return the same pressure you receive. If on the other hand, you want to intimidate and stir things up, angle your palm down and grip tight. Your opponent will not like you for it, but you will be indicating you, literally, have the upper hand. Use with caution.

Start as you mean to go on
The pros wait for a match to start with their hands on their hips. It’s a universal gesture indicating someone is ready for assertive action and keen to achieve their goals. It is also subtly aggressive (all spiky elbows and taking up lots of space).  It's so common a gesture, your opponent will barely notice you are doing it but will still get the message. (Pictured right, Columbia's Santiago Giraldo) [Pic by Kate T through CC

Watch it
It sounds bizarre, but the smaller the wrist watch, the less clout someone is perceived to have say the Peases. Large watches convey a bigger (or taller) person. Consider getting one if you are particularly short.

The wrong type of hug
Like the more extreme gesture of crossing your arms, hugging your racket will be seen as a negative. It suggests you are finding things stressful and conveys lack of confidence. Avoid for fear of sending the wrong signal, however comforting it feels.

A simple solution
If things are going wrong in a match or you are feeling hostile towards your opponent, when you change ends, smile. Your opponent will almost certainly smile back. It may not be the right advice in a Grand Slam, but in a Local Tennis League match, you want to have fun. Make light of something; share a joke. You will both feel more relaxed and relaxed people play better.

Fake it till you make it
Body language is an outward sign of inward emotion.  But the reverse is also true, says Allan Pease. "You feel the emotions that go with the gesture." So however bad a shot you just hit, don't give your opponent the satisfaction of knowing how you feel (as Siniakova did at Wimbledon, below). Keep your head up, walk tall and maintain a fast pace between points. Even if you are exhausted, don't show it.

Out and out mistakes
Finally, if you want to develop your power of empathy, don’t cheat. Even if you are not found out, new research shows that cheating has a significant personal costs by reducing your general understanding of the feelings of others, says the British Psychological Society. “These are particularly severe for those who already find interpersonal interaction more difficult.” So call the lines as honestly as you can – and if you are not sure, the ball is in.


Want to get playing? To find your nearest league, click here.