Sport Psychology: Humor as a Tool in Stressful Competitive Situations

Dick Moss, Editor

When we think of sport psychology, we usually think of techniques such as visualization, thought-stopping and progressive relaxation.

However, there's an under-used technique that's useful in a wide range of stressful competitive situations­: a sense of humor.

The Effects of Humor
The use of humor to diffuse stress in tense game situations is common in sports such as tennis, where it has long been practiced by players such as Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova.

Psychologist Jim Loehr cites humor as highly effective in producing relaxation and relieving stress — even in the middle of a competition. It can have a calming effect that makes it easier to refocus and rebound from setbacks.

And humor has the side-effect of showing opponents that you're in control of your emotions. A funny quip after a poor shot is a great way to demonstrate that you're not worried about what just happened. It might even be disarming enough to put the opponents slightly off their game.

In contrast, a foot-stomping display of frustration might encourage an opponent.

How to Use Humor
How can your students use humor in competitive situations? Psychologist Loehr suggests that they develop an arsenal of funny thoughts, words and puns to use after certain discouraging situations.

For example, after a tennis shot into the net, your player could say out loud, or to themselves, “Well,
dingledydorf!” or “Who put that net there?” Or after hard serve by the opponent, “Nice shot—is my head still attached?”

You could even give your athletes the goal of a certain number of smiles to use during each competition. One goal would be to think of something that makes them smile at least twice during each stressful tennis set.

Above all, be sure your students realize that the use of humor doesn't mean they aren't being competitive—as long as they quickly refocus their attention on the competition, humor can be a serious competitive tool.

1. Jim Loehr (Ed.D.) with Cindy Hahn, “Humor is a serious business.” Tennis,  April 1992.
2. Ronald E. Smith and Frank L. Smoll, Sport Psychology for Youth Coaches: Developing Champions in Sports and Life, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.

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