This will date me. It was late summer, and along with other Varsity athlete candidates, I was back on the campus of Deerfield Academy a few weeks early. My fall sport was soccer, and the days were long and hot.
At our lunch break on the second day, I saw something that I will always remember: a fellow student was moving in line as though to a beat.
Attached to his belt was something that looked like a large paperback book, and coming out of it was a wire that split below his neck into two and went up to a pair of black headphones. The year was 1980, and he had something that had just recently been invented by Sony. It was called a Walkman.
For those of you who either were too young to remember or weren't yet born, the Walkman was the precursor to the iPod, and it played cassette tapes. Before it was available to the public, the press lampooned the Walkman. Their point was that it was hard to imagine that anyone would be interested in a tape player without a record function. After all, the most popular tape recorder of the time had sold fewer than 15,000 units.
Sony, however, was unfazed by such criticism and pushed on with promotion — primarily to young people. A month after the Walkman became available in Japanese stores, it was sold out. And surprise! The device was popular with all consumers, not just those under 20. Within a year, the device was a worldwide sensation, and, much like the iPod when it was introduced, it soon was everywhere.
Before long, I had one, too. I was spending so much time solo practicing on the squash court (yup, even during soccer season) that it didn't take me long to try wearing the Walkman while hitting balls. I took a selection of tapes (I know that the Rocky soundtrack was one of them, but I don't remember the others), I put on a canvas belt, and I hooked the Walkman to it and wore it in the small of my back. It was pretty heavy, I remember, but when I pressed play, and the music began, my only thought was: "This is going to be great." I started to hit. Almost immediately, however, the tape skipped.
I tried moving the player to different spots along my belt, but nothing worked. I soon gave up. It was a cool idea, I thought, to listen to music while practicing, but it didn't really work. When portable CD players came out, a bunch of them had anti-skip functions, and I tried again. But the violence of hitting a squash ball was just too much.
These days, of course, the story is completely different. MP3 players have no moving parts and have become so small that listening to music while doing virtually any athletic activity is not only possible, it is almost commonplace. At most health clubs in the US, for example, the people listening to their own tunes far outnumber those who aren't.
So now that I am finally able to practice to music, I sometimes find that I don't want to; every now and then, I feel like I need to concentrate, and I find the music distracting. That sort of makes sense, but then there are other times when listening to music seems actually to help. What's going on here?
As with anything that involves the brain, it's a bit complicated. First, close your eyes and get a clear picture in your head of the capital letter E. Imagine traveling around the letter and saying "in" or "out" as you come upon each corner depending on which way the corner faces. Now do it again and point your finger to the left for "in" and to the right for "out." While some people are fairly close in speed between the two, most find that they can say the words much faster than they can point.
It turns out that both pointing and imagining, engage the visual cortex while saying something out loud is a verbal function; the brain is well capable of engaging two different centers at the same time, but is less good at engaging the same area of the brain for two different tasks. So pointing takes longer.
Interestingly, when you are learning a new physical skill, your verbal center is engaged (think about saying to yourself, "Get the racquet back" as you are working with a coach), so listening to music with words can be counter-productive when you still are working things out on a new stroke. But fans of the classic book The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey will remember that once you are grooved, this talking to yourself stuff can really get in the way.
Almost by definition, getting a stroke grooved moves it from a conscious thought to a sub-conscious one, and it is fairly well established that the sub-conscious is much more powerful at getting the body to perform than the conscious. So listening to music, even with words, when you are practicing grooved strokes, may actually help engage the conscious mind and let the sub-conscious do its work. In other words, you might find yourself hitting better drop shots while listening to your favorite artist (who would have ever thought that Britney Spears might help your squash game?).
There is one more important point to consider, however, and that is the phenomenon of state-dependent learning. Anyone who took Psych 101 as a college student probably remembers the example that if you learn something while drunk, you may not be able to remember it while sober (and yet the next time you are drunk, you may recall right way). So, if you practice all the time with music, you may find your strokes not quite as tight in a match.
Of course, there is a way around this: pro skateboarders and snow-boarders often wear headphones while competing (Gold medalist Sean White lists the best "shredding" tunes on his website). Perhaps we aren't so far away from the day when a player who asks a referee, "What did you say?" isn't mocking the official; he just has his tunes up a little too loud.