What Spontaneous Head Movements Say About Winners and Losers

Tennis players tend to shake their heads involuntarily if they lose a point.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Studio Generation/Shutterstock
Source: Studio Generation/Shutterstock

In life and sport, spontaneous head movements, such as nodding one's head up and down to imply "yes" or moving one's head from side to side to convey "no," are simple nonverbal gestures that speak volumes. On and off the court, people regularly let others know that they agree or disagree with what's being said, done, or happening at that moment by moving their heads in different directions.

Now, a new study reveals fresh clues about how an uptick of spontaneous head movements may characterize that an athlete is losing a competition. The German Sport University Cologne (GSUC) researchers found that during a professional tennis match, players tend to express themselves more nonverbally after losing a point as opposed to hitting a winner. These findings (Drewes et al., 2020) were published on June 19 in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching.

"For the first time, these results present a clear picture of nonverbal head movements of winners and losers in sport," co-author Ingo Helmich said in a news release. "Losers make more spontaneous nonverbal head movements after losing points in tennis than after winning points. They carry out nonverbal head-shaking movements upwards as well as side-to-side."

For this study, researchers from GSUC who were trained and certified to analyze nonverbal behaviors focused specifically on spontaneous nonverbal head movements that occurred between points while watching videotapes of professional tennis players during a match.

The researchers speculate that having a better understanding of spontaneous nonverbal expressions by athletes in response to experiencing positive and negative emotions after winning or losing could lead to improved coaching techniques for helping athletes optimize their performance during various types of sporting competitions.

Björn Borg vs. John McEnroe: Exhibit A & B of Spontaneous Head Movements (or Lack Thereof)

Rob Croes/Wikimedia Commons
Björn Borg in 1979. 
Source: Rob Croes/Wikimedia Commons

As a young tennis player in the 1970s, I idolized Björn Borg. This 11-time Grand Slam winner from Sweden was known as the "iceman" because he maintained such a cool demeanor and didn't show any positive or negative emotions after he won or lost a point.

Borg kept a poker face and made very few spontaneous head movements during a match. To onlookers, it was impossible to tell by his body language or nonverbal expressions whether he was winning or losing. Hitting a winner or making unforced errors didn't seem to disrupt Borg's constant laser-like focus and even-keeled temperament; he was unflappable.

Conversely, on the opposite end of the grace-under-pressure spectrum, Borg's nemesis, John McEnroe (who was given the nickname "superbrat"), was notorious for being a histrionic "hothead" who was constantly losing his cool. One of the most legendary showdowns of all time was Borg vs. McEnroe on center court at Wimbledon in 1981. McEnroe had one of the most epic meltdowns in tennis history during this tournament. Watching the video now corroborates the recent finding (2020) that tennis players tend to make more spontaneous head movements after losing a point.

As you can see by watching the YouTube video of "John McEnroe's Outbursts of Anger" above, in addition to making lots of spontaneous head movements after losing a point, he was also verbally abusive. Having McEnroe as my "antihero" as a rookie tennis player was incredibly helpful; he was a quick study of exactly how I did not want to move or behave in-between points during a match.

The juxtaposition between Borg's finely-controlled body movements and how gracefully he carried himself on the court was the polar opposite of McEnroe's unhinged outbursts marked by spontaneous head flailing and waving his arms all over the place.

An easy way for me to hack into Borg's mindset and channel his "grace under pressure" was to imitate his body language. Moving my body like Borg in-between points created a mental stillness and state of mind that made it much easier to regulate my emotions and become a steadier, more consistent tennis player. 

This concept is nothing new: In 1884, William James published a landmark theoretical paper, "What Is an Emotion?" which posits that there's a two-way feedback loop between the body and mind. In this paper, James speculates that just like having a positive state of mind is often mirrored by specific body language, nonverbal body movements may reinforce a positive or negative state of mind. He writes:

"If our hypothesis is true, it makes us realize more deeply than ever how much our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame, in the strictest sense of the term. Rapture, love, ambition, indignation, and pride, considered as feelings, are fruits of the same soil with the grossest bodily sensations of pleasure and pain."

Millennia ago, Aristotle (384 BCE-322 BCE) addressed the link between actions, habits, and mindset when he said: "We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Last month, I reported on a new self-nudging technique (Mehr et al., 2020) called "copy-paste prompts" that is the brainchild of Angela Duckworth and her University of Pennsylvania colleagues. Copy-paste prompts involve seeking out the play-by-play details about how a friend or acquaintance achieves a goal and then mimicking these actions. In this study, the Penn researchers found that people who didn't exercise regularly started to work out more often if they simply mimicked the behavior of a friend or acquaintance who consistently made exercise a daily habit.

After learning that an uptick of spontaneous head movements is associated with losing, one could speculate that emulating athletes who can control their nonverbal expressions and don't move their heads around a lot—as part of a copy-paste prompt approach—might be a way to improve your odds of winning. (See "How Being a Copycat Can Nudge You to Achieve a Goal") 


V. Drewes, N. Neumann, I. Konstantinidis, I. Helmich. "Spontaneous Head Movements Characterize Losing Athletes During Competition." International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching (First published: June 19, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/1747954120934598

Katie S. Mehr, Amanda E. Geiser, Katherine L. Milkman, and Angela L. Duckworth. "Copy-Paste Prompts: A New Nudge to Promote Goal Achievement." Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (First published online: May 11, 2020) DOI: 10.1086/708880