We know only too well, from watching the likes of Tim Henman and Andy Murray, how significant psychology can be to tennis, be it in managing nerves, adapting to the emotional rollercoaster of a match, or addressing the effect one player can have on another (to say nothing of the effect that this all has on us as spectators).
The role of the Sports Psychologist is to study a players’ development, the question of how psychology contributes to improving and preparing their game, as well as what kind of personalities are suited to competitive sport.
But it’s important that they, and we, also consider how to create a level playing field for sport, something which, as Andy Murray’s comments highlighting the sexism of sports journalism pointed out, is still very much a work in progress.
The story of Barbara Knapp (1920-1978), sports psychologist and tennis player, touches on many of these issues.
Personality and Tennis
I first came across Barbara Knapp in a 1965 article  in the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society – the predecessor of The Psychologist.
Knapp did a study of a small cohort of British Lawn Tennis Players – many of whom she knew personally from her own career – during appearances at Wimbledon, Australian Open and the US Open.
To analyse the character and behaviour of these players she used a matrix, recently devised by the Maudsley hospital, called The Maudsley Personality Inventory, which measured character/behavioural traits of “Introversion”. "Extroversion”, and “Neuroticism”.
The results of the study as to particular traits exhibited in tennis players was, according to Knapp, rather inconclusive.
However she drew from it the idea that the training of tennis players should be catered to the needs of the individual, and not based on the assumption that one kind of training suits all.
Skill in Sport
Skills acquisition and training was a key interest for Barbara. Prior to the publication of this article, she had written a leading book on the subject, Skill in Sport (1963), whose contribution to the field of Sports Psychology was significant, and continues to be referred to in Physical Education studies today.
Many people assume that Sports Psychology is a much more recent development.
But while the BPS Sport and Exercise Psychology Section (now The Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology) was founded in 1992 in fact training and skills acquisition was already being studied back in the 1960s and actually has been seen as ‘Great Britain’s largest contribution’ to the field of Sports Psychology.
Indeed, the 1960s have been referred to as ‘the Golden Era of Sport Psychology’ due to the influence of H.T.A. Whiting , and Knapp’s work was also part of this movement.
Skill in Sport was written whilst Knapp was working in the Sports Department at the University of Birmingham (where she also worked alongside Albert Davis Munroe investigating the development of generalised sports skills , first as Assistant Lecturer in Physical Education in 1949, then lecturer in 1951, Senior Lecturer in 1964 and finally Assistant Director of the department in 1965.
She worked at the university up until the year she died in 1978.
Her obituary in the Birmingham University Gazette notes that she tutored postgraduates and designed a lecture course on Motor Development and Skill for undergraduates, but it’s also notable that Barbara was a keen sportswoman herself, played netball and squash – gaining a ‘Blue’ from Oxford (where it appears she attended St Hugh’s for a period of post-graduate study in 1948 ) for her squash playing – and playing Lawn Tennis for England and at Wimbledon for several years.
Hence, with her book, she was exploring theories of Applied Psychology to her practical work as a sportswoman and to furthering the study of Physical Education.
Levelling the Playing Field
It was Barbara’s tennis playing, and one match in particular, which ensured her place in history, chiefly because of the significance of her opponent, Althea Gibson, who became the first black woman tennis player to cross the colour line at the US Open in 1950.
Prior to this Althea Gibson had only been able to compete (and win 10 straight championships) in the segregated ATA (American Tennis Association).
When the USLTA (US Lawn Tennis Association) failed to invite Gibson in 1949, another tennis star Alice Marble had protested, accusing the USTLA of bigotry.
The year after, Gibson did play, as it turned out, against Barbara Knapp .
Althea Gibson is by rights the more famous player, and more famous pioneer to come out of this match (which, it must be noted, she won).
But it is great to also be able to share the story of Barbara Knapp, her pioneering contributions to sports psychology, and her connection with BPS, and to highlight her supporting role in changing tennis for the better.
‘The Personality of British Lawn Tennis Players’, Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, Volume 18, Number 61, 1965].
Justine J. Reel, Working Out: The Psychology of Sport and Exercise, ABC-CLIO,LCC, California, 2015
Birmingham University, ‘Levelling the Playing Field’, 2016 https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/strategic-framework/leading-the-field.pdf
St Hugh’s College, Oxford Chronicle 1948-1949 https://issuu.com/sthughscollegeoxford/docs/chronicle_1948-1949
Black Tennis History Timeline, https://theundefeated.com/features/black-tennis-history-timeline/