The Rally: Putting the Pros on the Couch

by: Steve Tignor | April 03, 2013

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The Rally returns. Today and tomorrow I’m discussing the psychology of tennis with Alexandra Guhde, Psyd., a clinical psychologist in Oakland and San Francisco who also finds time to write the (always interesting) tennis blog Extreme Western Grip. Follow her @extremegrip.



We often hear that tennis is a "mental game," or "all mental," but we rarely get much more specific than that. Do you, as a psychologist and a fan of the sport, see more to it than that?

I know that Vic Braden, the famous coach, has talked a lot about the "brain types" of tennis players over the years, based on the Myers-Briggs personality profiles. For example, Braden will work with someone and decide that he or she is an "N.T.," an "Intuitive Thinker," someone who "likes solutions" and wants to move on quickly, who doesn't need a lot of verbal coaching, etc.. He puts both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer in that category. But I've also heard people argue that Myers-Briggs, and Braden's personality types, don’t really apply to tennis—they don't have any analytic value.

Here's a New York Times article from 2006 that describes Braden's methods. Do they seem like real categories to you?

At the pro level, as a fan, I wonder if you see certain personality types, and relationships, among the top players that you recognize—cases, almost. We've heard the term "Fedipal complex" used to describe the difficulty that many pros have in facing Federer and trying to overcome him. Is that something that you see in Federer's relationships with other players? Is there something similar with Serena Williams? How do some of the other men and women strike you, from a psychologist's perspective? 

I know you're a fan of Ryan Harrison—any advice you would give the struggling young American right now?


Hi Steve,

First I’d like to say that it's a delight and a privilege to able to write about tennis, the Oedipal Complex, personality typing, and Ryan Harrison all in one go. Since these are none of them small topics (the 20-year-old American included), I won’t be able to address everything in the depth it deserves, but all of the questions you’ve posed are good ones.  

To begin, you mentioned tennis being a "mental game," which it is, but from a psychological perspective it is also more than that. Human psychology involves brain, body, and psyche. The distinction that’s often made between the physical and mental aspects of human experience, such as in tennis, is an artificial one. It’s a necessary delineation—without it the rulebook on medical timeouts would lose all semblance of plot— but it’s also limiting. The same goes for a hard dividing line between conscious intentions and unconscious desires. 

Is it the body or the mind that’s in control when a player struggles to serve out a match? Which came first, the physical injury or the psychical wound? When is exhaustion physical, and when is it emotional? Is a player fueled by a desire to win or the fear of loss? Which is more frightening deep down, failure or success? When we try to answer questions like these, we lose some of the full-bodied complexity of reality. But not trying goes against human nature. 

Curiosity killed the cat, but it doesn’t have to kill the fun. Part of why tennis is my favorite spectator sport is because it offers up so much space to play with these types of questions. No sooner is one question asked and answered, than it is contradicted, or another takes its place. As is the case in my psychotherapy work, no matter how well I get to “know” a particular player, he or she always has the power to surprise me. 

Personality Types

For those of us who are also in it for the psychology, the simplicity of the sport allows us to filter the action through whichever lenses we please. Tennis manages to cover what we call the three basic “conflict narratives”: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self, with admirably few frills. As you mentioned, coach and psychologist Vic Braden sees players through a typological perspective. Is this perspective real or valuable? Well, that depends. 

Typology is essentially a theoretical construct, and a complicated one at that. The original book on the subject, Psychological Types (1921), on which Briggs and Myers-Briggs based their Type Indicator test (MBTI), was written by Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist. It is prodigiously long. 

Contemporary applications of Jung’s theory can be found in the armed forces, the corporate world, sports, and various kinds of psychotherapy. So far as I know, there is nothing approaching a preponderance of scientific evidence linking stable physiological traits with psychological “types.” But that doesn’t mean it’s nonsense. 

For example, it’s well documented that introverts and extraverts have significantly different learning styles—and that modern classrooms cater more to the extraverts. There might not be a rock-solid way to prove who’s who, but it’s undeniable that some people learn better in groups than others. 

Of course, like any other system of classification, there is always a risk that typology will be used reductively. Roger Federer might very well be an ENTP (Extraverted Intuitive Perceiver aided by Introverted Thinking) —as Vic Braden believes he is—but that’s not what makes him great. It’s the fact that Federer is so comfortable trusting his irrational function—his intuition—that makes the difference for him. 

In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell discussed Braden’s own intuitive powers. Years ago, Braden discovered that he’s able to predict double-faults, with tremendous accuracy, just before they happen. But no matter how hard he tried, Braden couldn’t decipher his own process. He doesn’t know how he knows. Gladwell comments that while it’s easy enough to pay lip service to the power of our unconscious mind, it’s “quite another to place our trust in something so seemingly mysterious.” But that’s just what Federer and the other greats do when they take the court. It’s not about controlling the unknown; it’s about allowing the unconscious to flow freely. 

If you are inclined to put your trust in typology, it’s interesting to note that while Federer’s dominant function is Intuition, the man who just passed him in the ATP rankings, Andy Murray, fits the description of a Sensation type. (Intuition and Sensation are ways of processing information, while Thinking and Feeling refer to ways of interpreting information.) Intuition is a fast-acting function, relaying information directly from the unconscious to the conscious mind, whereas the Sensation function runs through the body, gathering information from the other five senses. It takes a split-second longer, but it’s a powerful somatic process. Lots of professional athletes are sensation types. 

From where I sit, Murray looks like an ISTP (Introverted Sensate Perceiver aided by Extraverted Thinking), the same type as his coach, Ivan Lendl. (I wonder if Braden would agree?) There are many reasons why Murray and Lendl are shaping up to be such a successful pairing, but one of them might be that Lendl truly gets Murray’s processing style. He’s well-qualified to help the Scot hone his natural strengths, and to shift Murray's narrative from man vs. self to man vs. man. 

Incidentally, introverted sensation types tend to be well-attuned to internal body experiences, so it’s possible that Andy is busy gathering important information whenever he clutches at his lower-back or his upper-calf!

Well, now that we've covered Federer's uncanny intuition and Murray's aches and pains, maybe it's best to save the Oedipal struggles of the pros, and my advice to Ryan Harrison, for tomorrow—did I mention that these are big topics?

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