Professor Graham Neil


Machiavellian tennis

MARIA FRANCESCA LoDICO | "The rival who is most feared," cautioned Renaissance man Niccolo Machiavelli, "should be most studied for weaknesses and susceptibility to manipulation."

The fifteenth-century statesman outlined this strategy in his many writings on political theory, including The Prince, but he could have been talking about tennis, says Professor Graham Neil.

Several centuries later, says Neil, it's become so acceptable to win at any cost in sport that Machiavellianism has replaced time-honoured sportsmanship.

"Who do we see at the Olympics? The winners. Winning is everything," says Neil. "That's what Machiavellianism is all about." The Prince's political strategy advocates success even if it means using guile, deception, opportunism, manipulation and exploitation. Transpose these orchestrations to tennis, and modern sports in general, and the results are increased aggression and twisted values, says Neil.

"With more and more money going into televised sports, athletes are playing all kinds of mind games, using drugs, bribing officials. We keep upping the ante for the winners with bigger contracts, higher stakes."

Neil has taught in the Department of Physical Education since 1970 and is currently the director of its undergraduate program. His interest in sport psychology led to research in Machiavellian tendencies among athletes, an area that has received little study.

Sportsmanship exists in all competitive sport. In basketball, for example, a player dribbles in one direction and then suddenly switches course. "That's part of the game, one of its central strategies," says Neil. But Machiavellianism, or gamesmanship, is based on psychological warfare and deliberate manipulation that are unsportsmanlike in spirit.

"When you psych-out your opponent or the other team through intimidation and frustration, they become angry and distracted. If you're successful, they begin to focus on all the wrong things. From the point of view of certain values, that's cheating."

The degree of Machiavellianism depends on the sport. In basketball and football, "there are so many nitpicky rules because the players have exploited that game in the past," says Neil. "Handball and soccer have more general rules." The nature of tennis, its one-to-one play, rules of etiquette and scoring system, make it a likely candidate for Machiavellianism and gamesmanship.

Even a team sport like hockey has players such as defencemen Darius Kasparaitus and Ulf Samuellson, who are celebrated for their ability to put fear in the hearts of their opponents thanks to their reputation for administering dangerous checks. While such athletes are often reviled by other players, they are also coveted by teams in trades for their ability to knock opposing players off their game.

Although widespread, it is difficult to gather research in this area because most athletes don't want to talk about their Machiavellian tendencies. "Often, they do it naturally and aren't even aware of it," says Neil.

Another area of sport psychology that athletes are not talking about is superstition. Every baseball fan knows what a taboo it is for a red-hot pitcher to hear the magic words "no-hitter" because his spell will be broken as surely as crossing baseball bats will bring a team bad luck.

Just before a hockey game starts, the players skate in front of their goal and tap the goalie on the pads for "good luck." Such rituals, including the use of mascots, chants, and club witch doctors, are so deep-rooted that we tend to forget their superstitious basis.

"Most athletes will say, 'I'm not superstitious, but' and then they'll tell you about always dribbling the ball three times during a free-throw, or putting on the right shoe last, or eating fried chicken before every game, or their fetish for wearing the same pair of dirty underwear during a winning streak," says Neil.

Most superstitions are related to the sport itself and are based on athletes' clothing and equipment, numbers, or omens and premonitions. "Hockey players have so much equipment that a lot of their rituals are related to the order in which they dress or equipment care and use," says Neil.

Ottawa Senators forward Bruce Gardiner regularly dips his hockey stick in a toilet before taking to the ice, while former Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy was renowned for talking to his goalposts during games.

The greater the element of chance, as in pitching, batting and goaltending, the more prevalent the superstition. "A goalie's role is critical, and he has the most difficult job with the least amount of control. It's a dangerous position too, with pucks flying at you at 120 miles an hour." A goalie is more likely, then, to develop superstitious rituals.

Superstitious beliefs among athletes, as well as coaches and fans, seem to go against the very things that athletes stand for: natural ability, skill, training and discipline. But despite any great planning, scouting and practice, there is always an element of chance in any sport.

"Superstition is a readying strategy to help athletes handle the anxiety of competition and level of uncertainty. Only after going through the rituals can they say, 'Okay, now I've done absolutely everything I can to get ready.'" Irrational and unfounded beliefs become the only way to control that element of chance by helping an athlete relax and gain a sense of assurance.

Says Neil, "Superstition acts as a psychological placebo. It lets athletes perform at their best under pressure."