Tennis and Executive Function

Looking to boost your students’ executive function abilities outside of the classroom? Head to the tennis court! A study conducted by researchers at Hokkaido University in Japan found that playing tennis improved student’s inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

This is not the first study to explore the relationship between exercise and executive function. Adele Diamond conducted meta-analyses comparing studies that explore the effects of exercise on executive function, finding that to boost executive function through exercise requires more than just plodding along on a treadmill. She explains that exercises that are merely aerobic, such as resistance training, show no impact on growth of executive function abilities. Activities such as traditional martial arts or yoga are found to promote executive function development in students. While Diamond calls for increased research to determine why some exercise is better than others for executive function, she suggests that beneficial exercises “improve physical fitness but also (a) train and challenge diverse motor and EF skills, (b) bring joy, pride, and self-confidence, and (c) provide a sense of social belonging (e.g., group or team membership).”

Tennis, it turns out, satisfies all of these requirements. And, as Diamond would predict, the researchers from Hokkaido discovered executive function benefits to playing tennis, specifically in inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Interestingly, they found differences between genders. While frequent tennis play is associated with better working memory for both boys and girls, boys showed greater gains in inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility. This may be related to the fact that girls scored higher in these areas at the beginning of the study. Overall, tennis represents a healthy and active way to develop executive function processes outside of the classroom.

Building executive function through sports, however, should never take the place of executive function strategy instruction in the classroom. All students, especially those with learning differences, need explicit instruction to apply executive function strategies to the challenges they face. If students do not learn how to use executive function strategies to study for tests, organize their ideas, or shift between academic tasks, then no amount of tennis or tae kwon do will help them.

The development of executive function processes occurs in all domains of students’ lives, from the time they wake up, through the school day, and within the activities they choose to engage in after school. As educators, we should encourage our students to take on activities that will help them develop their executive function abilities in healthy ways both in and out of the classroom.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director