My love of watching tennis began in the seventies when I was hunting for a Sunday morning news show. Instead the screen was filled with the face of Bjorn Borg and I was hooked immediately by his look of predatory concentration. Little did I know at the time, that my mirror neurons were firing up brain circuits as though I was making that face myself. I just knew I liked the feeling. My fascination was fueled by the neural action of focus and determination, my own neurons paralleling his. I was feeling the look of winning. Part of the power of visual intelligence is the internal matching of what we see. When mirror neurons were first discovered, the researchers were surprised to see that the same neurons that fired when the monkey performed a certain task also fired just by watching that task performed by someone else. Understanding facial expressions depends on the same mechanisms. We feel them from the inside as though we were making them ourselves. Like the worldwide expert on facial expressions, Paul Eckman, says, “Make the face, feel the emotion.”
And imagine the benefits to the rest of my motor circuits firing as I watch such outstanding athleticism. Tennis players are excellent examples of visual/spatial intelligence at work. Awareness of the court, assessing the speed of the ball, the movement of the opponent and previous knowledge of a particular player’s style constitutes a constantly changing whole that a great player is always adjusting to along with a host of other factors. The best players exhibit intelligence as well as athletic excellence as they make lightening fast decisions. In the heat of an exciting volley, my whole body is twitching, not indifferent to the excitement unfolding in my mirror neurons. Watching these things trains my capacity for awareness and concentration on a purpose.
In the past, when people were curious about why I liked watching tennis, I used to say something about how much I loved saying “wow”, appreciated being impressed, and assuming some good brain chemistry was involved. I later learned that my body’s pleasure response was rewarding me with endorphins for attention to something I admired and dopamine for the unexpected shots and physical stimulation. This has survival value since admiration stimulates our own potential for greatness and novelty focuses attention on something new to learn. Through my mirror neurons I get to play along with the best, the residuals of which are there to inspire me when I sit down to draw.
Today the look that comes closest to the feeling I got from Borg’s is found on the face of Rafael Nadal. But whereas Borg’s intensity was of having his prey in sight, Nadal projects the feeling of a warrior vanquishing a foe, of something being conquered. The war cry accompanying Maria Sharapova’s hits contrasts with the steely sense of purpose on her face before she serves. What we see tunes the qualities in ourselves that respond to it. There is no one best way to play tennis. There are as many styles of play as great players. I’ve often wondered how Roger Federer managed to slow time, gliding easily through points where other players were rushing around. Then I read about new research showing that brain waves vibrate at a higher frequency during peak experiences like intense competition. So if the brain is operating faster, then clock time would seem slower. When we’re most deeply involved we have plenty of time.
The thing the winners most have in common is concentration and attitude, not the same attitude but each individual version of purity of purpose, unswerving determination. When Sharapova’s expression shifted to frustration, Dinara Safina’s face showed her prey cornered, moving in for the kill.
Our brains are changed by what we pay attention to, our reward system designed to keep us doing what’s helps us grow. It’s a pleasure (more endorphins) to see players from all over the world competing together without politics. Most fans don’t necessarily root for the players from their countries but for qualities of individual style. My endorphins flow seeing men’s and women’s tennis treated equally as part of the same tournament. Watching tennis is immersion in a world where excellence rules. Maybe what the feeling of inspiration really is involves the activation of those circuits where our own excellence wants to bloom.