Listen closely. Can you hear that? It’s the sound of screaming. It’s coming from sports.
Whether they’re swinging their tennis rackets, climbing vertical slabs of rock or rebounding over their teammates, athletes are screaming all the time these days. But why? Why do javelin throwers scream at their javelins? Why is it that every time Pau Gasol exerts himself, he seems to emit a terrified scream? Why does Serena Williams scream “come on!” at no one in particular when she wins a big point; who exactly is supposed to come on? Why are our athletes making such ghastly, bone-chilling sounds?
In 2014, scientists at Drexel University found that the simple act of screaming while squeezing a handgrip dynamometer could increase someone’s grip strength by up to 25 percent. Dozens of other studies have found that screaming can do things like increase our maximum jumping distance, improve our ability to withstand pain, and increase coordination. One even concluded that simply making the face you make when you scream can make you more alert and broaden your field of vision.
Evolutionary psychology can be mostly hooey, but it really sounds like screaming is something baked into our behavior as a fight-or-flight thing. Far from being just something we do when we’re spooked by a dancing skeleton or a cackling witch, it can also be very good, especially if you’re in the business of physically exerting yourself.
During her 1992 Wimbledon semifinal match against Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova found herself in the middle of a nightmare. Her opponent was “grunting”—exhaling after hitting the ball—so loudly after every shot that it sounded like screaming. By the end of the first set, Navratilova was so distracted by Seles’s screaming that she asked the chair umpire to intervene.
Seles’s screaming was unprecedented in professional tennis, so tournament officials weren’t quite sure how to quantify or punish it. The chair let Seles off with a warning, and Seles went on to win the match, and hundreds of matches after that, screaming like a ghost. Over the next 20 years, Navratilova watched in horror as an entire generation of tennis players proceeded to copy Seles.
“The grunting has reached an unacceptable level,” said Navratilova in 2009, probably in a terrified whisper, after Michelle Larcher de Brito’s third-round match at the French Open. De Brito screamed so loud during that match—her screams have been clocked at 109 decibels, louder than a jet taking off at 1,000 feet—that she was booed off the court. “It is cheating, pure and simple. It is time for something to be done.”
Inspired by Navratilova’s comments and the controversy surrounding players like de Brito, University of British Columbia psychologist Scott Sinnett designed a 2010 study to determine whether grunting and screaming could hinder an opponent’s ability to determine where the ball was going.
“The experiment [unequivocally] showed that grunting did lead to an advantage—the subjects were slower to react when the shot was accompanied by a grunt,” Sinnett told me. “But we don’t know why. Is it because it distracts them? Or is it something else?”
“Personally, I don’t think grunting is used as a tactic in professional tennis. The players are playing at such a high level that I don’t think you could reliably use it as a tactic.”
Sinnet might be right. After being reprimanded for her screaming in the semis, Monica Seles decided to hold in the screams and play her 1992 Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf in complete silence. Her game fell apart, and she lost 6-2, 6-1, suggesting that the grunting had more to do with the effect it had on her own game that it did on her opponent’s.
It’s a wonder everyone who does this sport doesn’t spend the entire way down screaming. The name alone is enough to make one’s blood run cold!
Football Hall of Famer John Randle loved to scream. He screamed in warm-ups. He screamed from the bench. He screamed at players, coaches and even referees. He spent nearly his entire career screaming.
But these weren’t the screams of a madman or manchild or madmanchild. For Randle, screaming was just one part of a larger, subtler strategy: to physically, psychologically, and emotionally destabilize his opponents using all available means. Remember that this is a man who would pore over press clippings of his opponents and learn as much as he could about them, just so that he could scream the right things at them on the field.
“He’s like Wikipedia,” said former San Francisco 49ers offensive Derrick Deese. “He goes in and he finds out everything that he can about you: your kid’s name, your momma’s name, your daddy’s name, when you were born, what you ate for dinner the night before the game. He’s gonna find out everything. And then during the game, he’s gonna let you have it.”
“The first guy I ever talked trash against was a guy named [Mark] Stepnoski,” recalls Randle. Stepnoski tried to get under Randle’s skin by stepping on his shoes, so Randle spent the rest of the game screaming about how he was going to come to Stepnoski’s house in Houston to come step on his shoes.
“He was shocked by that response. He actually looked at me and said, ‘How do you know I live in Houston?’”
A few years ago, Luc Arnal, a post-doctoral scientist at New York University, wanted to figure out why his newborn’s screams seemed to grab his attention so consistently and completely.
“When my [first] kid was just born, I found out that his screams were extremely good at waking me up or grabbing my attention. If you are sleeping, and the baby cries, you can still sleep. But as soon as he screams, you just wake up like a robot,” said Arnal.
Working with neuroscientists at Dr. David Poeppel’s lab at NYU, Arnal found that screams are different from any other kind of human vocalization because they possess a sonic attribute called “roughness,” which is particularly good at activating the brain’s fear and danger processing centers. The study’s findings suggest that this might have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage, and that screams became humans’ tool of choice for signaling danger.
Could this be why our athletes are screaming all the time: because they are in danger? Of losing the upper hand, screwing up an important play, or losing the big game?
“With screams and people who do sports, I think there are two situations. The first situation is when you scream to scare your opponent,” Arnal told me. “The second situation that I don’t really understand is when someone, for instance, launches an object, and then after launching, screams.”
“I don’t understand why we emit this signal. The effort is done. Why people who do sports scream after the effort, this is something really strange to me. I think you could admit any hypothesis.”
I’m going to stick to the danger hypothesis, mainly because it explains one other major instance of sports screaming: sports parents. Could this be why they’re screaming all the time? Not just because they’re the worst people in the world, but also because their babies are in danger?
Nick Zarzycki is a writer living in Toronto.