Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why touch is important in doubles

Today’s New York Times online has a lovely article about the importance of touch as a form of non-verbal communication that may enhance sports performance. In the accompanying picture appears a shot of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic giving each other a chest bump during the fund-raising event organized by Roger Federer as a prelude to the Australian Open.

As I read the article I found myself flung backwards along the traces of a painful memory of my first ever doubles tournament. I’ve talked about this event before and how it shaped my early avoidance of tennis competition. What was different today is that I got a fresh perspective on everything that was wrong with what happened that day, and perhaps why its negative effects for me were so lasting.

It was literally my first ever tennis tournament. My partner and I practiced and prepared hard. We did drills, we discussed possible game plans, and we watched Hingis and her partners for pointers. Since she was the stronger player, I agreed to follow her lead.

On the day of the tournament, our opponents won the toss and elected to serve. Opponent 1 served first and held. My partner served, and also held. Opponent 2 served and held. I served last, and lost my game. And for the rest of that match, my partner would not look at or speak to me. Her silence was cold and brutal.

On the other side of the court, the opponents were whooping it up and having a great time. They high-fived each other whenever they won a point. They laughed merrily, happily, with genuine pleasure and enjoyment.

On my side of the court, dead silence. No contact. No communication. Nothing. My game got worse and worse. My partner’s may have as well. I don’t know because by that point I was just too mired in self-blame to notice. But even at my most self-castigating and anxious, I knew that her behavior was wrong. And when at the end of the match, the Chair came over to her, pointed an angry finger in her face, and hissed, “You!! You have no excuse for losing that match!”, I knew that I was not the only one who had detected that her behavior had been problematic.

We did not speak to each other for some time. And then perhaps days or a couple of weeks later, she called to apologize. But it was one of those apologies that do more harm than good. She was apologizing for becoming so angry with herself. She said that she was so frustrated with her own game that she could not speak. She said that when she got angry with herself, she became silent. Right.

I remembered all this when I read today’s New York Times article on the importance of touching on people’s emotional functioning. To quote the writer: “Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.”

But even more intriguing was the information on the use of touch in sports. Scientists at Berkeley have analyzed the use of touch among professional basketball players and noted that good teams tend to use more touch than bad teams. The LA Lakers and the Boston Celtics headed the list of touch-heavy teams. Bringing up the rear were such sad performers as Sacramento Kings and the Charlotte Bobcats.

Of course causation cannot be concluded from this type of correlational data. But the findings are intriguing, no? Now it makes sense why the dominant Bryan twins do their chest-bumping bit so often during a match. Or why Cara Black and Liezel Huber (in photo) almost always touch at the end of a rally.  The better doubles teams are constantly touching, communicating, encouraging. I have a painful memory that confirms that the outcome of a match may actually depend on this.


happygeek said...

Interesting article. And it sounds like your doubles partner was overdue for some education on what being a real team player means, no matter what the sport.

hcfoo said...

Interesting.. I've watched a lot of doubles matches at the Malaysian Open for the past week and had been asking myself about the importance of those touches. You've got the answer!

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