Evidence keeps building: Tennis improves brain power
by Jack L. Groppel, Ph.D., FACSM, USPTA Master Professional
<i>Tennis, when it comes to being focused, outperforms numerous other activities such as golf, running and weightlifting.
Tennis, when it comes to being focused, outperforms numerous other activities such as golf, running and weightlifting.

May 2010 -- Question: I was recently reviewing the updated website, www.tennis-health.com, and was fascinated to read about the effects of playing tennis on the brain. To me, this is yet another incredible reason to get people to our facilities and on our tennis courts. Would you please go into more detail on this?

Answer: In my first column on this topic, we discussed the general exercise research and the implications toward improved brain function. The plethora of research supports, without doubt, the following facts: The more one exercises, the more active one is, the greater the intensity of exercise, and the higher one's level of fitness, the more positive the benefits for the brain. Before transitioning directly to tennis, let me mention another study that came to my attention since the last column was written. This research was published in December 2009, by a group out of ­Sweden, in the "Proceedings of the ­National Academy of Sciences." They found that high levels of cardiovascular fitness, achieved by age 18, were directly associated and could actually be used to predict educational achievement later in life. Now, let's examine the scientific literature and see what has been found relative to tennis, and also what some top experts perceive as the benefits of playing our great game.


What is it about tennis that might help people who participate in this sport have an edge over people who are not active or who participate in other activities? I am not out to bash other activities, but only cite what the literature and various experts are saying. Given that, let's discuss what some believe happens, in tennis, to facilitate positive brain growth.


Several experts in the mid- to late 1990s posed that, because tennis requires alertness and tactical thinking, it may generate new connections between nerves in the brain and promote a lifetime of continuing brain development. Pursuant to those initial discussions, John Ratey, Harvard psychiatrist and author of the critically acclaimed book, "Spark," has been a fan of the benefits reaped from tennis for a long time. From his previous book, "A User's Guide to the Brain," Ratey said, "Neurons that fire together wire together means that the more we repeat the same actions and thoughts - from practicing a tennis serve to memorizing multiplication tables - the more we encourage the formation of certain connections and the more fixed the neural circuits in the brain for that activity become."


Now, let's discuss how a person's brain responds to various situations such as being hopeful or optimistic versus being negative and pessimistic. Dr. Jim Gavin, author of "The Exercise Habit," wrote a peer-reviewed journal article for The Physician and Sportsmedicine in 2004, citing that tennis, when it comes to being focused, outperforms numerous other activities such as golf, running, weightlifting, inline skating and downhill skiing. In a similar vein, Dr. Joan Finn and her colleagues at Southern Connecticut State University discovered that tennis players scored higher in optimism, while scoring lower in anxiety and tension than other athletes and nonathletes. In a study examining adolescents, Daino found that tennis players scored higher in extroversion and a will to win, while exhibiting less neuroticism, anxiety, apprehension, obsession, and depression than nonsport participants.


Palhaus identified tennis players as having as high a perception of control as football players. Tennis players actually scored higher than athletes in other activities and nonathletes, in personal efficacy, meaning that they felt they could achieve the desired results more effectively. And, Yoo, in 1996, discovered that among athletes (with tennis players being specifically examined), the higher the sport orientation, the less the competition anxiety and the more the self-confidence. Along those lines and as early as 1983, Brown determined that participation in a sport like tennis is an avenue through which athletes can experience achievement and enhanced self-esteem. From the perspective of handling stress, Kerr, in 2002, found that a single session of tennis alleviated stress and tension in a group of Japanese veteran players.


Interestingly, in tennis, you naturally learn how to plan and implement a strategy based on your anticipation of your opponent's moves. In between every point, players have the opportunity to plan what they intend to do next. This natural course of events is another way in which tennis complements everyday life. You execute during a point, then, you recover from that stress, and immediately plan what you want to do before the next point begins. Likewise, you get to plan your strategy of attack for the next match you play. In an article titled, "Coordination determines brain power," this question was asked, "How good are you at playing tennis?" The reason: "Because good coordination appears to be an important marker of how intelligent we are."


Historically, there is quite a bit of research showing that tennis plays a role in other aspects of brain development. In 1989, Mero observed that junior tennis players, through regular training, had quicker reaction times than their sedentary peers. This was supported for veteran tennis players in a study from 1978, by Rotella and Bunker, demonstrating that seniors showed significantly quicker reaction times than their nonactive, age-matched peers. And Iacoboni, in 2001, demonstrated that eye movement tracking improved during tennis participation.


And, as promised in a previous column, I reached out to Dr. Bonita Marks at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Marks is a committed tennis enthusiast and is heavily involved in research on the effects of activity on the brain. When asked directly about the effects of tennis and its impact on brain function, she is truly hopeful that the scientific world is going to find great things in the future. Dr. Marks cautiously explains that, while no actual causal effect has been determined, she has seen case study information to show that tennis players do have significantly faster reaction times. She has also seen that higher aerobic activity and lower abdominal girths were significantly correlated with greater preservation of the white matter fibers in various brain regions.


This is all very exciting for those of us who make our living in tennis, and who truly believe that tennis is absolutely the best activity in the world in which one could participate. Having said that, I will leave you with some further thoughts from Dr. John Ratey. Obviously, a believer in the effect of activity on improved brain function, Ratey has gone on to explain, as recently as April 2010, in the "Honolulu Star Bulletin," that "exercise activates all our nerve cells and neurotransmitters, optimizes the brain for growth, and ignites neurogenesis - or the growth of new cells - in the hippocampus, the brain's core for memory. There's nothing that we've found that makes these stem cells grow more than strenuous aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart rate up," he said. "Doing something physically challenging that also requires complex thinking is best," Ratey said, citing tennis - "running after the ball while deciding where to hit it across the net" - as one example.


I believe the scientific world is going to find even more positive data about our great game as time goes by. Until then, let's continue to promote what we know, and use this valuable information. We will continue to update our website, www.tennis-health.com, and we invite you to go to our blog. Get even more involved by having your players and members blog with us, and tell us their stories! Let's change the world together and get people on the tennis court! There is no good reason why everyone isn't playing tennis!.


Send questions to jgroppel@LGEPerformance.co