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These days it's common to hear a woman's professional tennis match punctuated by loud grunts and outright screams whenever the ball is hit. Several players either claim that they can't help doing this, or even that it helps them concentrate:

Although at first her popularity among the public was not as much for her sportsmanship, as for her model looks and loaded grunts on court. Other players and even supervisors complained about the decibel level (measured at 101 DB) of her scream. But to most tennis fans her shouting was not such a big deal, and even gave the young beautiful player character and charm. She was nicknamed ‘Screaming Cinderella’ and ‘The Siberian Siren’ by the press. Maria herself says that the scream helps her concentrate.

However, this claim seems decidedly dodgy to me. Many a great female player of the modern era (Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, etc.) has played excellent tennis without screaming when hitting the ball. Moreover, the 2004 Wimbledon's ladies final was contested between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams - two of the loudest screamers in the woman's game today - and one of the most noticeable things about it was the complete lack of screaming.

An example of the relative quietness of the players.

The two of them played excellent quality tennis, as is widely attested, but shortly after it seems they decided that this quality could not be maintained unless they started screaming when hitting the ball.

Does the screaming help improve female players' tennis at all? Could it help them concentrate?

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    Someone seems to have done it for you! Besides, this is an interesting question. Interesting to note the shouting and yelling in martial arts actually has a reason! – Thursagen Jun 18 '11 at 11:30
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    I would be surprised to find research performed on screaming tennis players of any gender. Could you generalize this to any physical effort/sport, or do you expect that it has particular relevance to tennis as opposed to, say, martial arts, baseball, football, etc? – Adam Davis Jun 18 '11 at 12:29
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    Another possible explanation for its effect might be that it does not make your own play better, but distracts your opponent. – Lagerbaer Jun 18 '11 at 16:04
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    To expand of @Ham's comment, a lot of martial arts teach the so-called "ki-ya" (though it can be pronounced as nearly any kind of grunt) as a way to focus the contraction of abdominal muscles and diaphragm. With the right mechanics a strong core contraction can develop more powerful motions in the limbs. – dmckee Jun 18 '11 at 16:23
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    This week, someone shared with me a theory about this: That the sound of the ball hitting the racquet gives information to the receiver about how the ball was hit (spin, force, etc.). Making a distracting noise at the same time disguises that information, making the shot less predictable. Needless to say, no reference was provided with this claim. – Oddthinking Jan 24 '12 at 8:27
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It has always struck me as plausable that there was a psychological advantage to the grunting. Perhaps in convincing yourself your performing at your limits or to put off your opponent.

However Professor Alison McConnell of Brunel University has said: ‘By inhaling before the ball is hit then crying out at the moment of impact, a player's throat narrows, keeping some wind in the lungs to improve core strength and balance.

http://www.brunel.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/news-items/ne_80231

Professor McConnell explains:

"We all instinctively inhale just before we make a physical effort such as lifting furniture or swinging a racquet at a ball. We do this because holding air in the lungs helps to provide the stability required for injury-free and forceful movements of the trunk.

"Maximising the power of a tennis shot is created by transferring muscular force to the racquet head efficiently. A strong core and trunk is vital for this process because the force transmission starts below the players’ waist. The muscles in the trunk also contribute to racquet head speed by providing a rotational force between the hips and shoulders."

So how does this cause a player to grunt as they strike the ball? According to Professor McConnell it all comes down to breathing techniques.

"Efficient breathing is an incredibly important contributor to performance in all sports, but especially in a high-intensity, skill-based game like tennis. Any coach will tell you that the heart of a good stroke is a relaxed rhythm, part of achieving this rhythm is getting your breathing and stroke in tune."

Simply exhaling as soon as the player has hit the ball will dissipate the stability and control in their core, this can throw them off balance and break that all-important rhythm. The solution, according to Professor McConnell is through controlled, forceful exhalation using the larynx, or voice-box, to maintain stability in the core.

"Narrowing the opening of your lungs will slow down the rate of airflow from them, while maintaining stiffness in the trunk and control over the breathing rhythm. It is in using this technique that some players feel the need to grunt. Of course this braking action doesn't actually need to result in audible grunting but it is easier to coach the controlled exhalation if you can hear it. As a result some younger players may well be ?taught to grunt as a means of breath control."

Professor McConnell goes on to suggest that the reason grunting is more common amongst women that men is that their upper bodies are generally weaker than those of men and thus require stronger control and stability through breathing techniques.

She has a vested interest in promoting this idea though see http://www.breathestrong.com/home/

But has published academic papers in this area: http://www.brunel.ac.uk/about/acad/sse/ssestaff/sportsstaff/alisonmcconnell

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    This is a very believable argument, which makes me suspicious ;-) – Mike Dunlavey Jan 24 '12 at 1:40
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    The last point about the diferance between men and woman sounds off. Why would men require less control. Even though men may have a stronger upper body than women this is irrelevant as men don't compete against women. Men compete against other men. It sounds like saying men don't need to train so hard because they are naturally stronger anyway. Both men and women will train to get to their absolute peak performance. Any technique that gives advantage would be used. – Rincewind42 Jan 24 '12 at 9:19
  • The bottom-most link (her academic papers) seems broken. There is no mention here of the magnitude of the purported effect. E.g. as a sprinter, shaving your head certainly helps reduce wind resistance, but the effect is so tiny as to be negligible (or at least negligible enough that not every sprinter shaves his/her head completely). Even if this breathing technique has some effect, one needs to show that it is non-negligible and actually helps. – Kenny LJ Aug 15 '14 at 4:04
  • @Rincewind42 One explanation could be, that the whole motion is only as strong as the weakest link. So if your upper body is already strong enough to support the strength of your arms/hips additional strength in the upper body doesn't bring any benefit, since you cannot use it unless the whole muscle-chain is at least as strong to support it. So if the upper body is already too strong in men compared to their other muscles, there is no need to strengthen it by breathing - for tennis at least. It is different in many martial arts, where crying/grunting is practiced heavily – Falco Feb 13 '15 at 13:20
  • @Ricewind42 - if a movement requires "x" amount of strength or force to execute, then the closer "x" is to my maximum ability, the greater the exertion required by me to execute it. If men, generally, have greater power and strength, then they'd be more likely to be able to execute that movement without the grunting that helps to maximize the effort. – PoloHoleSet Sep 21 '16 at 16:43

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