When the umpire at Wimbledon calls out “quiet, please”, a religious hush falls over the court. The only things that break the silence are the gentle pop of a bouncing tennis ball, the faint murmur of the crowd, and the passionate grunting of the players.
Grunting is a strange quirk of professional tennis, but it’s also quite common among the rest of us. Visit your local gym and you will find people groaning during their workout. Many have shared an office with a person who groans as they hammer away at their keyboard. One friend complained about how her husband would grunt as he struggled with boxes she would lift in silence. Perhaps the strangest story I heard was about archaeologists who would habitually grunt in the midst of over-enthusiastic soil clearing.
Why is it that archaeologists, office workers and tennis players seem so keen on grunting their way through their working day? If you ask a grunter, they will probably tell you that their vocal outbursts are an inevitable byproductof their physical and mental efforts. Other grunters may say that crying out while they work helps them to achieve their best. But is grunting really a natural response to hard work or a motivational technique? Or are grunters trying to make others think they are working harder than they really are?
Grunting is fairly new to the world of tennis. For many decades, players were expected to play the game in practised silence. Making too much noise was considered unseemly. That all changed in the 1970s when Jimmy Connors, the father of the tennis grunt, dominated the game. During the 1980s and 1990s, grunting spread among professional tennis players. Tabloid newspapers began to routinely measure the decibels of tennis grunters. Grunting also became increasingly controversial. In 2009, Martina Navratilova said that “grunting has reached an unacceptable level. It is cheating, pure and simple. It is time for something to be done.”
While grunting has enemies, it also has champions. One coach, Nick Bollettieri, worked with some of the loudest players in the game such as Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and Michelle Larcher de Brito. Bollettieri’s eponymous tennis academy recommends grunting as a “psychological and physiological release of tension”, and a way of “synchronising breathing precisely with hitting ball” to “increase focus, intensity and force production”.
A growing body of scientific research has found there are good reasons to grunt. One study found that allowing players to grunt increased the velocity of the ball by 3.8%. Researchers have also discovered that grunting influences how your opponent perceives the ball. One experiment found that players could more accurately predict the speed of a shot when there was no grunting. Another study found players were worse at picking out where a ball was going when they heard grunting.
A more recent study found players used grunts to make predictions about how fast the ball came back at them. If they heard a particularly intense grunt, they assumed the ball was coming back at them quickly. This meant carefully placed grunts could be used by a skilled player to manipulate how quickly their opponent thought the ball was travelling.
All this research might lead you to think that grunters are strategic geniuses. Sadly, grunting is not always a sign of success. A study from a few years ago found that as a player begins to lose a game, their grunts take on a high pitch. The lesson here seems to be that grunting can improve performance, trick your opponent, but also be a sign that you’re losing the game.
Studying grunters on the court can help us to understand the grunters in our gyms, our offices and our homes. Grunting can drive people on. A bit of guttural effort might just help to squeeze out a little extra as someone lifts a barbell, finishes a boring spreadsheet or folds a load of washing.
But beware, grunting can be used to deceive. By making lots of noise, a grunter may be trying to communicate with you how hard they are trying. Sometimes these cries of effort can fool us into thinking that the grunter is giving it their all when in fact they are taking it easy. And remember, there is always a slightly tragic side to grunting if they take a higher pitch: it’s a sign they are failing. When your colleague is slowly defeated by the IT system, the high-pitched grunts that come from their desk are a sign of impending doom.
So, next time you hear someone grunting away, remember what you are hearing could be sincere effort, an attempt to deceive or a cry for help. Sometimes, it is likely to be all three at once.
• André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London.