Imagine competing against the best athletes in the world in the sport of tennis. The amount of training, skill, and talent might seem overwhelming. Even the size of the crowd might make you nervous. Now imagine seeing but not hearing the roar of the crowd or the bounce of the ball against the court. Imagine relying on your remaining senses to help you keep up with your opponent who is not at the same disadvantage. The sun’s glare might make the game difficult, you may not hear the referee whistle for a ball out of bounds, and you may not hear applause for your win. This is the reality for deaf athletes around the world.
Tennis relies heavily on sound. Players listen for the drop of a ball on the court or the swish of a tennis racket swing to know when to react. They hear a referee make calls and decisions about the match and points. Deaf athletes instead focus on the feel of the racket in their hand, the motions of their opponent, and the ball passing over the net. Visual reactions occur within a mean of 180-200 milliseconds, and auditory stimuli reactions occur within 140-160 milliseconds. This puts deaf athletes at a disadvantage, but does not discount their potential. The deaf technical director for the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, Tobias Burz once played tennis. In his first set, his opponent beat him 6 to 2, and in the second set, his opponent evened the playing field by wearing earplugs. In this set, Burz won 6 to 3. Especially in tennis, hearing comes in handy. Other sound-dominated sports include football, soccer, basketball, and baseball.
Hearing Aids for Athletes
Deaf individuals often turn to hearing aids or cochlear implants as a way to improve their daily life and decrease the side effects of hearing loss. In certain professional competitions, particularly the deaf-only competition “Deaflympics,” hearing aids or other hearing devices are seen as an advantage and are not allowed on the field/court/arena. Deaf athletes have to restructure their brain and play techniques to work around their hearing loss, which can be challenging for those who usually rely on aids.
Deaf Athlete Spotlight: Duck He Lee
South Korean phenomenon Duck He Lee is one to watch in the US Open for more reasons than one. First, he is 19 years old and is South Korea’s best prospect in years. Second, he is a deaf athlete. At age 16, he burst onto the scene as a top professional tennis player and ranked 163 going into this year’s US Open. When he first met his tennis coach in high school, Joo Hyun-sang did not believe a deaf athlete could succeed, but Lee proved him wrong. Playing tennis made Lee feel “normal” and became a positive outlet in which he succeeds. Hearing loss does not stop him from working hard and using his talents to excel in the world of professional tennis.