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It's no surprise that a game like tennis can attract and produce such admirable people.



Category: Mental Game


An extraordinarily large number of the world’s top players are deeply involved in charities and, like the rest of us, the main reason they give to charity is simple altruism (selflessness and concern for others). For a social species like human beings, this is a genetically programmed drive that, like most such drives, has in the distant past helped the species survive. The mechanism is that our nervous systems are programmed to make us feel good when we help others, and the anticipated good feeling is what motivates us to do it. It sounds rather mechanical, and it is, but there is more to it.


Roger Federer, Serena and Venus Williams and others make a lot of money playing a game they love. To them, this isn’t work in the sense of going to the factory or office and grinding it out. At some level, they feel they are being grossly overpaid relative to the rest of mankind and there is a modicum of guilt involved. (Of course they have a separate and contradictory mental compartment that would be insulted and make them indignantly refuse to play if their demands for appearance fees were not met.) Charity allows them to enjoy the exorbitant money and fame and still feel like good people.


The most subtle effect of being charitable is that it probably helps them play better. Why? Because contributing to charity is emotionally uplifting, and people play better when they are in a positive, happy emotional state, when they feel good about themselves.


Tennis is an inherently selfish game. Players are alone on court and they either have the goods or they don’t. There is no social aspect to it. They either produce or lose. So they spend much of their day engrossed in themselves preparing for the fray—taking care of nutrition; conditioning themselves in the gym and on the track; discussing strategy with their coaches. It all involves themselves and selfish goals of winning.


Single-minded concentration on totally selfish goals is stressful because it is a never-ending and risky, if not impossible, task. There is always more we could have for ourselves and always a risk we won’t get it. Tennis is no exception. Prepare as they might, players can never be sure of winning, and if they think about nothing else, the situation can become overly stressful and hurt performance, especially in crucial situations. Excessive stress is one of the primary elements of tournament competition that makes performance difficult. It is why most people play better in practice than in tournaments. Anything that reduces it will help performance, and thinking of others instead of worrying entirely about themselves is a positive step. In general, empathy is a very calming and healthy emotion.


Unlike many of the other major sports, tennis has always incorporated a moralistic aspect, so charity involvement would seem quite natural. It has a firmer set of written and unwritten rules of conduct—accepted tennis “morality” if you will. Compare it to baseball, where duping the umpire is considered a legitimate part of the game and to football where tackled players routinely shove the ball forward a little to grab a few extra inches. The tennis codes have been instituted because of the game’s personal and potentially antagonistic nature and because we all had to make our own line calls as young players.


Specifically, the basic rules of moral conduct are to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt on line calls and to refrain from behavior that is overtly upsetting, antagonistic or distracting. It is not always easy to behave this way, but disregarding these rules costs friends and respect, so most players learn to abide by them. It is one of the side benefits of introducing our children to the game as it teaches them morality. And it shows at the top levels, where the players today

are generally admirable people. As tennis players, we can be legitimately proud of our game and its top players, not just for its physical demands, but also for the upright and charitable people it attracts and produces.




For more tennis coverage, visit Tennis.com.