I’m a tennis junkie. I play every chance I get (even if that’s solo against a backboard) and I spend way too much time watching on TV. Four times a year (okay, more than that) my productivity crashes because I’m watching the Grand Slams. It’s not all wasted time, though. Tennis teaches a lot of lessons, and some of them are even applicable to writing. (See, this is how I justify my addictions.)
“Huh?” you say, convinced that I’m dabbling in the liquor cabinet once again. Stick with me and I’ll explain.
Writing Lessons Learned on a Tennis Court
Taking a break can be the best thing.
Even if you don’t follow tennis, you might have heard about Roger Federer’s return after a six month layoff. He won two grand slams already this year, plus a few other tournaments. He took time off because of an injury but rather than rush the therapy and come back, he took an extended break. It’s made all the difference. Not only has his body healed, but his mind is in a better place because he’s not hurt and miserable. He wants to play again because he knows what he missed.
Writers benefit from breaks, too. Sometimes the words just don’t come, or the ideas feel tired and stale. Or we burn out from stress or overwork and no longer feel the love of the page. Whatever the problem, sometimes the answer is to step away and do something else. It feels unintuitive, even blasphemous, but a break can refresh you and make you want to write again. And if it doesn’t, then maybe it’s time to face up to the fact that writing is no longer your thing. (And that’s okay, too.)
Age doesn’t matter.
We live in a culture that values youth and early success. But the thing is, age doesn’t matter and some things are only learned from experience. Federer is almost 36. Venus Williams is 37. Serena Williams is 35. Quite a few players are 30+ and winning titles. And this is a sport where, just a few years ago, the champions were teenagers and players retired by 25. When you look at these older players, one thing stands out: Their experience gives them an edge. They’ve seen it all before, felt the pressure and survived. When playing against a kid, that experience is sometimes the difference. As long as you can play, age isn’t a factor.
Writing is no different. The publishing world loves the overnight success; the wunderkind who published an acclaimed novel in high school. But it’s the older writers who have the experience and maturity to understand the long game. They understand the business of writing and the need to dig in for the long haul. Older writers also have more life experience to draw upon, making their stories deeper and more layered. As long as the writing is good, age shouldn’t matter. Just get out there and do the work needed to win.
Play with joy not stress.
Ever watch a tennis player who’s stressed out and doesn’t want to be on the court? Chances are they play tight and make a lot of mistakes. And the more mistakes they make, the tighter they get until the match is lost. Yet when you see a player who’s clearly enjoying the moment, it’s a whole different story. They play freely and let mistakes slide off their backs. They’re having fun and it shows.
Writers can benefit from joy, as well. Sure, sometimes stress is part of the job but at the same time, if you can’t enjoy what you’re doing, everything is harder. You make more mistakes and take criticism the wrong way. Everything and everyone seems “out to get you” and impossible. Yet when you’re writing with joy, those things don’t bug you as much. And your work is better for it.
Play like you have nothing to lose.
Tennis players who hit the court feeling like they “have to win” have a harder time than those who just come to play. The champion who has to defend a title, or the wunderkind who has to live up to the media hype has a harder road than the player who’s just playing to do their best. The best players are the ones who can play freely even when faced with enormous pressure. Those who can conjure that feeling of having nothing to lose almost always do better than those who feel like they have to win or else.
Writers find themselves in the same position. Someone who has already published (whether successfully or not) feels more pressure than the writer who hasn’t yet felt the pressure of expectations, deadlines, and sales targets. That sort of pressure can cause a writer to freeze. When it happens, the words don’t flow as freely and the quality suffers. It creates a vicious cycle that persists until the writer either rediscovers the joy, or their career goes down the toilet.
Preparation/practice makes all the difference.
When a player takes to the court for a big match, it all looks so easy. What you don’t see, though, is the years of practice, planning, sacrifice, injury rehab, etc. that goes into even getting on the court at all. The fact that the player put in all that work is what makes that one moment possible.
Many people look at published books and successful authors and think the same thing. “Oh, that’s easy.” What isn’t seen are the years of failed drafts, practice, platform building, marketing, classes, etc. It’s all of that that makes the book possible. And the writer has to do all of that work. It doesn’t just happen that she rolls out of bed in the morning and has a NYT Bestseller by afternoon. The more work you do on the back end, the more successful you’ll be when you finally get your moment.
Mouthing off gets you nowhere.
I grew up watching John McEnroe cuss out umpires. Today there’s a new crop of young kids who like to berate officials and badmouth other players. They seem to think that this behavior is somehow making them famous or cool. The problem is, it does nothing for their ability to win on the court, which is what matters in tennis. You can spout off all you want, but if you aren’t playing and winning, you’re not making money or having a successful career.
I see this with authors, too. There are some who get off on trashing the competition or the people who run the game (agents, reviewers, publishers, etc.). The problem is, this isn’t getting them anywhere. Sure, they may become notorious, but notoriety often ensures no one will work with you. (There are exceptions, but they are few.) And if you’re spending your time slagging everyone else, you aren’t producing work. And if you aren’t writing, you aren’t building any sort of career. So what’t the point of mouthing off again?
Ultimately you have to problem solve on your own.
On court coaching generally isn’t allowed in tennis. (There’s an exception in the women’s game at tournaments other than the Grand Slams, but it’s still considered an “experiment.”) Once on the court, a player has to solve their own problems and figure out what’s going right and wrong with their game.
Writers are in the same boat. You can get advice from critique groups, agents, or publishers, but ultimately whatever is or isn’t working in your writing and your career is your problem to solve. You’re alone out there and your success or failure is largely up to you.
Some days suck, but it’s the career that matters.
Ever seen a champion tennis player get thrashed 6-0, 6-1, 6-0? It makes you say, “Whoa!” because champions don’t usually lose like that. But some days are just tough. Maybe they’re hurt, or something awful happened in their “real world.” Maybe, for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen on that day. The day sucks, but in the larger picture it’s a blip in an otherwise great career.
It doesn’t hurt to view writing the same way. Some days (or weeks) suck. The words don’t come, the reviews are terrible, and everything that can go wrong does. But if you’re working to build a solid career, it’s a blip. Look at the totality of your work. Look at the positive reviews, the comments from happy fans. Go back and look at your old work and see how much you’ve improved. One day of suck doesn’t mean that your career is a disaster.
Some people are better than you, but you can get better, too.
When tennis players are starting out, they often get steamrolled by older, better, more experienced players. The temptation is to feel like, “Man, I don’t measure up. I should quit.” But that’s not the problem. The problem is that this other person is better for a reason. Maybe they have more experience or practice harder. Perhaps they have more natural talent or a better coach. Fine. The younger player can get better, too, though. Once they identify what’s wrong and correct it, they’ll progress.
Writers often feel like we don’t measure up. You read a book by a great author and you think, “I suck. Might as well pack it in because I’ll never be that good.” True, you might not be that great. Ever. But you can get better. You can figure out what’s lacking and correct it. Strengthen your plots or learn to writer better characters. Hire a better editor, or find some helpful classes. Some people will be better than you, but you can catch up if you work at it.
The best players are students of the game.
Part of what makes Federer great is that he doesn’t just play the game. He also understands his place in the game and how the game has evolved. He’s internalized the play of the greats that came before him and he watches what the up and comers are doing that he might learn from. He’s a student, not just of his own game, but of the larger sport.
The best writers are also students of the game. They’re big readers, devouring everything they can, in genres different from their own. They read the classics to understand what “great” is and how writing has evolved over the centuries. They study the business of publishing and watch for trends or clouds on the horizon. The best watch how other authors market and present themselves and learn how to position their own work. They don’t copy others directly, instead using them for inspiration. Writers who study more than their own work are likely to be more successful than those who refuse to learn from those who’ve gone before, or who fail to study the totality of publishing.
If you can’t take joy in the process, quit.
At Wimbledon this year, Bernard Tomic made some unfortunate comments about how tennis bores him and he doesn’t care about the game. He doesn’t care about winning, he said, or practice. He just wants to make money, retire, and never have to work again. (It seems to have escaped him that, in tennis, making money is synonymous with winning.) I give him credit for honesty, I guess, but if he can’t find joy in playing, he might as well quit now. I don’t think anyone forced him to play tennis (he’s Aussie, not from some communist country where they pick kids off the street and toss them into training camps), so if he hates it all that much, he should move on.
No one forces someone to become a writer, either. Ideally, we do it because we enjoy it. If there comes a time where you’re bored, don’t care, or hate the whole process, you might as well quit. It’s a lot of work and frustration to go through if there’s nothing in it that you enjoy. And since most writers don’t make a lot of money, you’d better enjoy other rewards.
See. Tennis isn’t only a sport. It’s a masterclass for writers on how to manage their careers and find joy in the work. And with the US Open coming up in a few weeks, you can bet that’s what I’ll be telling myself as I sit on the couch, glued to the TV.