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Mental Equipment
July 2001 Article

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Use Humor in Coaching

Dr. John Murray Photo
Dr. John Murray

In our serious quest toward improving mental and physical skills, one important ingredient is often overlooked -- humor. Coaches in all sports including tennis are advised at times to heed the wisdom of the best comedians. Let's start laughing and take a closer look.

Using humor at the proper time, and in the right way, can provide many short- and long-term performance benefits to athletes. Here are three key purposes for using humor:

  1. To stimulate creativity and encourage a playful atmosphere where learning thrives.

  2. To better cope with the often grueling demands of training and competition.

  3. To help keep the athlete loose and focused on the moment rather than becoming overwhelmed with pressure or panic.

Mixing in appropriate humor does not mean the coach has to be a stand-up comedian, but understanding some general principles and types of humor helps. While much of coaching in sports is serious business, there is periodically the need to release stress. Humor adds distance and perspective when problems often seem too heavy.

The first principle is communication. Coaches should make sure that whatever humorous message is given -- that it is understood and received properly by the athlete. Using humor out of Shakespeare will probably not work well with a 5th grader, just as grade school slapstick is off target for a 35-year old. Timing is another key to communication. The right message delivered at the wrong time is wasted.

Some attempts at humor should never be encouraged. Examples include insulting sarcasm, and ethnic or gender-based jokes. These comments are taboo for most, and may have disastrous consequences. It's wise to be cautious about these types of messages.

Coaches need to be part actors, but do not need an academy award to succeed with humor. To properly communicate and foster learning and motivation, many tools are used. Let's examine the key styles of comedy available to the coach. All the coach has to do is choose the most appropriate form of humor, and use it when the need arises.

The Metaphor

This type of comedy is represented by symbols, props and visuals. Showing your players a video of the worst chokes of all time in professional tennis lightens the mood and leads to more relaxed play. After all, if Martina Hingis can do that - it's no longer such a threat to me!


Here the coach uses farce or ridiculousness to make a point. Encouraging a player to hit the ball higher, and showing it by lifting the ball over the back fence is an example. Point made -- and the student learns arc quickly.


This technique requires simple spontaneity and creativity. A player having difficulty keeping still feet on the serve is instructed to serve while standing in a bucket. It looks funny, but the serve improves.


Using body movements without talk is another way to express humor in coaching. By mimicking a students' wristy forehand in a fun way, the coach delivers a clear message without uttering a word.


Showing the absurd nature of a player's thinking can be done cleverly and with good humor. For example, minimizing a players fear of going to the net by repeatedly asking "what is the worst thing that can happen if you go up there?" allows the player to realize that fears are unfounded.

Performing well requires that every cylinder of the engine functions properly, but don't forget that staying serious too long can lead to boredom, fatigue or burn-out. Humor in coaching goes a long way toward making the whole performance experience more enjoyable and successful.

Send me your best tennis jokes and I'll see you next month!

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Mental Equipment Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.

Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.


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