Theory of Mind in Tennis

On Tuesday nights I play tennis with my friends; Zac, Boris and Sergei (not their real names). CLAHRC interventions are often heavily based on behaviour change, and so I have had to brush up on my psychology. But is this knowledge of any use in tennis? In the following few editions of the News Blog I shall explore the modern psychological theory in the context of my feeble attempts at tennis. I shall start with the idea of a “theory of mind”, most often related to Tomasello.[1] [2]

Zac hates it when I intercept his powerful return of serve. So I know that when my partner, Sergei, next serves to the seething Zac, he will be predisposed to punish my impecuniousness by hammering his return down my tram line. To reduce this risk I should position myself towards the edge of the net. But Zac knows that I know that he is seething, and therefore that I will anticipate the tramline shot. He will anticipate my preventive action, which would open up the centre of the court, enabling him to pass me and place the ball on my partner’s backhand. So, I must anticipate his anticipation… This is an archetypal example of a theory of mind – the ability of humans to anticipate the effects of their actions in the mind of other humans. If Zac and I could undergo functional MRI on the court, then the complementary parts of our brains would brighten up in a kind of dance. So, I position myself if an intermediate position – I do not cower over the tramline, nor do I move aggressively to mid-court. Zac has three options – risk the tramline shot, go for mid-court, or play a standard cross-court shot. If he has read my reading of his reading of my mind, he will go cross-court. But what if he has anticipated I have anticipated that he has anticipated!

Tennis court showing three possible shots - tramline shot, shot to backhand, or 'default' cross-court shot

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Carpenter M, Nagell K, Tomasello M. Social cognition, joint attention, and communicative competence from 9 to 15 months of age. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 1998; 63(4): 1–143.
  2. Tomasello M, Carpenter M, Call J, Behne T, Moll H. Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of human social cognition. Behav Brain Sci. 2005; 28: 675–735.

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