Is Andy Murray’s personality part of the game?
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
But for all the media criticism of his personality, is it possible that his legendary reserve has in fact been a key strength, carrying him to victory?
A recent study followed 58 professional singles tennis players for 16 months, and found that scores on aspects of personality similar to those apparently displayed by Andy Murray, predicted a higher ranking, above and beyond the contributions of training and coping resources.
Entitled ‘Standoffish Perhaps, but Successful as Well: Evidence That Avoidant Attachment Can Be Beneficial in Professional Tennis and Computer Science’, the investigation found one a key personality type that predicts success in elite tennis players, is ‘avoidance’, rather than seeking closeness in relationships.
This preference for autonomy, discomfort with close emotional relationships, self-sufficiency, tendency to suppress and hide feelings, all result, (theoretically) from relationships with key attachment figures (like parents) from early childhood. This supposedly results in an avoidant style when it comes to adult relationships.
One interpretation of the study is that as Murray climbed to hug and kiss his entourage in the players’ box, immediately after his Wimbledon victory, the ‘Freudian Slip’ of at first overlooking his mother, was in fact revealing of what the psychologists found in their research.
The study focused on the ‘attachment’ patterns as revealed by our personality. The theory is that we are all born seeking proximity to signiﬁcant others, in times of need, as a way of protecting us from threats and dangers.
Psychologists Tsachi Ein-Dor, Abira Reizer, Phillip Shaver, and Eyal Dotan, decided to investigate tennis players because they argued that singles tennis requires quick, cool decisions, under pressure in competitive situations, without reliance on others’ help (at least not during actual games).
Andre Agassi in his autobiography described tennis as the loneliest sport, because of the inability to gain assistance from anyone ‘in your corner’, during a match.
Under these circumstances, would a more ‘avoidant’ personality (e.g., ‘I am uncomfortable when other people get too close to me’) prove beneficial?
Players who scored relatively high on avoidance, advanced faster in official rankings, than players who scored relatively low, over a period of 16 months.
The authors point out that different personality types might be suited to contrasting sports, and that more ‘secure’ individuals are better able than ‘insecure’, or ‘avoidant’ ones, to form positive, and reciprocal relationships with sports team members.
The mistake that many of the media may have made in the assessment of Andy Murray is that the kind of person who succeeds at the highest level of such an individualistic game as tennis, may be very different from the more sociable type, who performs better in team sports.
The authors of the study cautioned that other research has suggested that ‘avoidance’ is associated with job burnout, so there remains a possibility that avoidance might predict not only success in singles tennis, but also earlier retirement from the profession.
The study, published in the ‘Journal of Personality’, concludes that avoidant individuals are better suited than their less avoidant peers for two individualistic careers—professional singles tennis and computer science. Avoidant individuals’ ability to ignore or downplay psychological threats, their valuing of autonomy and self-reliance, all suits them for individualistic, relatively non-social ﬁelds.
That psychology might be particularly important in elite tennis, is reinforced by another recent study entitled ‘Performing best when it matters most: Evidence from professional tennis’, which emphasised that while there is a general ability to perform well, resulting in relatively good outcomes on average, but there is also a special skill in adjusting performance to the importance of the situation, without necessarily improving average expertise.
It is this so-called ‘critical ability’ which is vital, argues the authors, Julio González-Díaz, Olivier Gossner and Brian Rogers, because it is not possible to always maintain peak performance. ‘Critical ability’ trades better performance in high stakes situations, for worse performance in unimportant ones.
The study, published in the ‘Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization’ found that the top twenty-ﬁve tennis players in the world, according to their average ATP ratings in the period under study – have better than average ‘critical ability’, suggesting that it is not possible to be a top professional without responding well to the most important points.
This magic quality called ‘critical ability’, which the authors believe crucially separates winners from losers in elite tennis, means a ‘high critical ability’ player tends to win the relatively more important points in the match.
In unequal tennis matches, the outcomes of individual points are relatively unimportant. But when players are more equally matched, break-points tend to be central, and particular games become vital, when sets are edged, plus certain sets develop special significance, when the match turns out to be close.
Performance under pressure is crucial for elite level sport, for example, there is a signiﬁcant advantage for the team shooting ﬁrst in soccer penalty shootouts. This is explained as the effect of increased psychological pressure on the team shooting second.
This study from authors at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Paris School of Economics, London School of Economics, and Northwestern University, United States, examined twelve annual US Tennis Open tournaments from 1994 to 2006, focusing on the men’s singles competition which includes, collectively, 1009 matches. ‘Critical ability’ was found to not just be signiﬁcantly related to a player’s overall success, but was a more powerful predictor of ATP rankings that the ability to return serve well.
Also on critical points, a high ‘critical ability’ predicts winning a serve, more than general serving ability.
This could be a crucial predictor of the future for Andy Murray, as in the last game, when he was serving for the championship, he went 40-love up, but then proceeded to lose the next, much more crucial, three championship points.
But he eventually won, brilliantly.
While we were witnessing an overt display of technical mastery, how much of the crucial mind game was visible, and how much of the battle in elite sports, goes on inside the head?
This proud son of Dunblane may have exorcised many mental demons on the tennis court, in his journey to victory, but we should beware the ensuing media racket. Efforts to transplant a more sunny, gregarious, disposition into Andy Murray, could be counter-productive in terms of his winning in the future.