Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Reflection and the Value of Non-interference, or Why I am Bad at Tennis

After a long winter of avoiding indoor courts, I’ve lately started playing tennis again.  I’m not sure precisely, but I think my record (in sets) so far this spring is something like 0-14.  It’s…not great.  I can quickly be reduced to swatting stray balls into the fence while pointedly instructing myself to be better.

My frustrations have given me occasion to reflect on a long-standing tennis phenomenon: the personal meltdown.  It’s obvious but still important that in tennis, each player must play every point.  There is no team.  There are no substitutions.  You just have to keep playing.  Things can go from bad to worse.

I’m thinking about this because an interesting thing happened at this year’s Australian Open.  Moments of frustration were remarkably absent.  I have no data to support this, but my own guess is that number of incidents in which a player displayed visible anger or frustration sharply declined from major tournaments in recent years.  Let’s assume I’m right for a moment.  What might explain it?  This year’s Australian Open marked the first time a grand slam event was called entirely through technology, rather than by human linespeople.  I think these two facts are likely related.  The linespeople are not playing, but you can nevertheless take the participant standpoint toward them.  When a human being in front of you calls your ball out, it’s easy enough to react with anger.  Hawk-Eye, by contrast, is not an agent.  So it makes sense, I think, that otherwise hot-headed players can shrug off the verdicts of a computer more than those from a chair umpire.  Even McEnroe hasn’t suggested that the Hawk-Eye cannot be serious.

What’s a little more surprising to me is that not only did the Australian Open see fewer incidents of player-to-official anger, but it also saw (again, based on my own speculation, along with opinions from commentators in the TV booth) fewer episodes of players getting mad at themselves.  There were a few puzzling moments of adjustment in which a player would move to challenge a call.  But of course, the same technology reviewing the challenge was the one that made the call in the first place.  All that could be done was look again the replay, with its dispassionate re-presentation of reality. 

Again granting myself these facts to work with, I want to suggest two lessons: one shallow and one slighter deeper. The shallower lesson is about what we might call the phenomenology of interference.  It’s really bad for people to be subject to the interference of other agents.  It affects not just our well-being but also our sense of self-efficacy and the value we attach to our actions.  Not accomplishing what we want is one thing.  Not accomplishing it because someone else interfered is another thing entirely.  I also think that interference can affect our relationship with ourselves.  When things just happen to go bad, it’s easy enough to brush it aside and play the next point.  When someone else is involved, it takes more processing, and in the meantime we have to go somewhere with all those feelings.  With no teammates or coaches around, you can be left as both initiator and recipient of your worst reactive emotions. 

This last thought pushes toward the slightly deeper lesson, which is about how our reflective attitudes are connected to circumstances in which we find ourselves.  My favorite David Foster Wallace essay considers what it takes to have a winning sports psychology.  DFW was a much better tennis player than I ever will be, but he also bemoaned his breakdowns in the big moments.  His diagnosis was that he was too often caught in the mirror of self-scrutiny:

“…but what if I double-fault here and go down a break with all these folks watching?...don’t think about it…yeah but except if I’m consciously not thinking about it then doesn’t part of me have to think about it in order for me to remember what I’m not supposed to think about?...shut up, quit thinking about it…”

The excruciating inner monologue goes on from there, but you can already guess how that second serve on break point is going to pan out.

What divides the great tennis player from the persistently mediocre one?  Well, many things.  Among them is something mental.  How much does one take their own mental states as the objects of attention?  DFW imagines the great athlete as unbothered by an overactive inner voice.  It’s not that the athlete is unintelligent – indeed, greatness demands strategy and tactics as much as pure physical aptitude.  But the athlete must not be constructing a story of their experience while also living it, lest the former task disrupt the latter’s success.  Truly gifted athletes, he infers, must not be really seeing themselves.  In the wonderful flourish at the end of Wallace’s essay, he suggests that a certain blindness is not the price of the gift, but “its essence”. 

I love this thought, perhaps in no small part because it allows me to reconceive of my own painfully anti-clutch playing disposition as concealing something like the opposite sort of giftedness.  Of course I will botch big points; with an inner life as rich as my own, how could I help it?!  My own corollary to DFW’s point: Maybe discerning self-awareness is not the price of being bad at sports, but its very essence! 

Much as I find my corollary appealing, observations like those from the Australian Open give me pause.  If great athletes were wired differently from you and me, we might well expect those psychological differences to be robust against changes in how matches are called.  But if replacing linespeople with Hawk-Eye changes the amount of reactive sentiments experienced by players, then my corollary looks less promising.  As with other virtues, we might do better to look for situational features that support a given psychological disposition, rather than thinking of it as a deep-seated feature of the player’s character.  In other words, my guess is that Simona Halep and I are pretty similar in the depth of our inner lives, but pretty different in that Halep is a world-class athlete and I’m…terrible.

So here are the two lessons.  (1) Interference uniquely provokes reactive attitudes and (2) situations, more than character, have a lot to say about how those attitudes will affect us.  What to make of this?  Now the political part.  I think philosophers dramatically underestimate how bad interference is, for reasons relating to (1).  Here’s a common way of arguing: “In the world, X value is compromised.  But X is really important!  So it’s ok to interfere with people for the sake of X.  Yes it will be interfering, but X is more important than the cost of interference.”  My problem with this general strategy is that it’s not attending to the endogenous response to the proposed interference.  And this is where (2) comes in.  Interference is bad, and institutionalizing it compounds the problems.  Translation: when interference is institutionalized within the political state, many philosophers think it’s not as bad; I think it’s worse.

I grant this is something less than an argument.  On the other hand, I’m way closer to getting an argument than to getting enough top spin on my second serve.