A tennis player we’ll call Jack is bored—for good reason. Going on ten years now, Jack’s tennis diet has been strictly doubles. Six guys. Same park. Court Two next to the parking lot. Jack always receives in the ad court. One of his regulars only plays the deuce. As surely as the sun rises in the east, one guy lobs his second shot. Another last chased down a lob during the Bush Administration. And another can be counted on to never bring new balls.
Even now, during the pandemic, as grateful as Jack is for being able to play tennis after a three-month layoff, he finds himself staring into space, a Peggy Lee tune on his mind: Is that all there is?
For fast-track juniors, college, and world-class players, the more popular term than “boredom” is “burnout.” Perhaps that word is favored because it implies a zealous quality, arguably more pungent than Jack’s increasingly dreary doubles matches. Either way, the result is the same: lack of engagement.
Coming to the rescue of disaffected tennis players, we have July, which also happens to be National Anti-Boredom Month. Created in 1984 by writer and PR professional Alan Caruba, National Anti-Boredom Month seeks to overturn boredom. Like any social issue, it’s best first understood with a workable definition.
“Boredom shows us we’re being ineffective,” said James Danckert, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and co-author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, a book that was published last month. “We’re not influencing the world around us. Maybe I’m getting my heart rate up, but maybe I’m not being an effective agent in the world.” Are you listening, Jack?
One common way for tennis players to counter boredom is to take lessons, in hopes of mastering a new technique or learning more tactics. But this too can be perilous. “A lot of our industry doesn’t get that tennis is an adventure, a problem-solving game,” said Mike Barrell, whose company, Evolve9, helps instructors develop teaching tennis programs all over the world. “[Instructors] train people with these long, repetitive exercises. That goes back to the origins of sports, when armies were training soldiers to get ready for battle.” Such approaches are hardly viable for today’s weekend warriors.
Danckert concurs. “The most prominent cause for boredom is monotony – the sense of doing the same thing, time and time again,” he said. “Boredom can arrive when something is beneath your skills, or when something is over-challenging.”
Instructors have struggled for years with how to simultaneously praise students for proficiency and also push them to improve. Alas, the tennis world is filled with tales of students who, armed with good intentions, began to take lessons, but rapidly dropped out.
It’s quite helpful when instructors find ways to provide technical lessons subtly. “The key is that we play a game and yes, we’re trying to teach them,” said Andrea Barnes, a longstanding instructor who is currently executive director of the USPTA Northern California. “When you’re trying to deal with juniors and 3.0-3.5 women, it’s good if you can turn it into a game that typically has more of a tactical than a technical mindset. You trick them into using the technique in a tactical situation. That’s the key to avoiding the mindless, numbing thing that can happen in many lessons.”
Lessons, though, can only address one dimension of boredom. According to Danckert, another factor that causes boredom is “a lack of meaning or purpose.” In tennis, has surfaced publicly among highly driven players, a long history of searching for answers that has seen lamentations from the likes of John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and, most recently, Nick Kyrgios. “Because they’re celebrities, we think they lived these charmed lives,” says Danckert, “but it’s a big challenge if it loses meaning for them.”
Danckert believes that a major key to finding meaning is to distinguish between the extrinsic and the intrinsic—or, in contemporary language, outcome and process. Extrinsic-outcome rewards include money, fame and, even among recreational players, trophies, rankings and recognition among your peer group. Focusing too much on these, though, can leave a player perpetually unsatisfied. As the saying goes, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. Boredom can follow.
Better yet to focus on intrinsic-process, be it time to refine techniques, seek out new opponents, experiment with different tactics. “I never think of boredom and tennis,” said Barrell. “Tennis is the ultimate game. You have every aspect of problem-solving that a computer game would have. We never hit the ball the same in our life. The definition of consistency in tennis is being able to adapt.”
To answer Jack’s question: Is that all there is? Start by returning in the deuce court. To steal from what Neil Armstrong said 51 years ago this month, that would be one small step for Jack, one giant leap for Jack’s game.