Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t understand why anyone would play tennis

Deeply weird article by Malcolm Gladwell about his plan to save high school sports, which he sees as breaking down under the pressure of premature specialization and elitism.

To the extent that we cater to the 90th percentile, we make a sport psychologically forbidding to the 50th percentile. I mean, if your high school has four tennis players who have been honing their topspin forehands and kick-serves for 10 years, why would someone who grew up playing with their siblings on public courts on the weekends want to try out for the team?

Well, CJ plays high school tennis. He plays junior varsity. He didn’t have to try out. There are elite players on his team, including the fourth-best player in Wisconsin. So why does he play?

Hold that thought. Gladwell makes a similar point about the sport he himself competes in, cross country.

If you were a mediocre runner, would you go out for the Corning cross country team? I doubt it. You couldn’t keep up in practice. And you wouldn’t matter. Corning sent eight runners to the state championships, and its eighth-place finisher, a young man named Ryan, was over 2 minutes slower than its best runner. Was anyone even watching when Ryan crossed the line? A sport that focuses its reward structure entirely on the top five finishers limits attention to those top five finishers. By the time Ryan came across the line, the championship was already decided.

But by this point in the article, Gladwell has already explained why you’d go out for the cross country team!

I won’t belabor the obvious about cross country. It is insanely fun. Races take place during the glory days of fall. The courses are typically in beautiful parts of the country. Cross country meets don’t feel like sporting events; they feel like outdoor festivals—except everyone is fit, as opposed to high. Everyone should be so lucky as to run cross country.

But for Gladwell, this is somehow not enough. You have to matter. But why? Mattering is overrated. Kids play sports because sports, as Gladwell says, are fun to play. CJ’s games don’t matter to whether his high school wins the state championship. But they matter to him! The coaches make an effort to match players against kids from the opposing team with roughly similar skill and that leads to good games, games you care about while you’re playing them.

Gladwell proposes a weird Rawlsian scheme where your cross country team’s performance is heavily dependent on how well your slowest runners do. OK, you could do that, and then it would all come down to Ryan. But is that what Ryan wants? I don’t think CJ wishes the varsity team’s fortunes depended on whether he could land the jump serve he’s just starting to learn. That sounds incredibly stressful. I think it’s fine not to matter, and if we teach kids there’s no point in playing unless you’re part of the final score, we’re teaching them something kind of bad about sports.

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5 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t understand why anyone would play tennis

  1. It’s weird that you think Gladwell’s proposal is weird. Good for CJ for having a supportive family, an inclusive athletics program, and a sensible coach, but most kids aren’t that lucky. And you don’t know how many kids *didn’t* go out for the tennis team because they were psyched out worrying about how their skills would stack up.

    Gladwell’s “Pied Piper” suggestion is specific to cross-country and is eminently reasonable: change cross-country scoring so that all members of the team contribute meaningfully to the team result. If your goal is to reward effort and participation across all abilities, why should a 5-second improvement by the fastest runner count more than a 30-second improvement by the slowest runner?

    Whether or not this philosophy could be applied to other sports, it’s hard to fault the spirit behind it. Varsity sports are competitive by definition; if you’re that put off by “mattering,” then play a club sport for fun instead. I’m inclined to agree with Gladwell that many more people want to participate in competition than actually do, but they don’t want to be sacrificed warming a metaphorical bench so that the team can perform better.

    Furthermore–speaking as a moderately-talented former varsity track athlete myself–it’s completely understandable that Gladwell wants to get more people interested in track and field. The Worlds in Eugene a couple of weeks ago supposedly had the highest non-Olympics track & field ratings ever, but was still treated by the media as a niche event. Tennis doesn’t seem to have that problem.

  2. ventullo says:

    This is why my friends and I all skateboarded as kids instead of getting into organized sports. In skateboarding, there isn’t really winning or losing, there were no coaches. Of course there are different levels of talent, but that somehow matters less; it’s more about spending time with your friends, discovering new spots, and pushing yourself in the direction you think is interesting or challenging. There’s a creative component that runs somewhat orthogonally to athletic talent (although like in conventional art, one’s creative aspirations can be held back by lack of talent).

    It can be a little discouraging if you’re working hard at a trick and someone else comes along and does it first try, but by and large there’s a mutual excitement to seeing what’s possible. It’s a lot like math in some ways; different people pursue different aspects, but occasionally someone achieves something truly remarkable that transcends genres and earns universal respect.

  3. anon says:

    As a non-American, I find the emphasis on teams in individual sports like track and field and tennis strange. I was a moderately talented distance runner and I certainly never wanted to be on any sort of team. If I did, I would have probably played football or something.

  4. I don’t see why anyone would do math.

    Yes, mathematicians who are quite talented but not insanely talented still manage to prove theorems and publish papers, and have lots of fun doing so. However, they are not working on mathematics that actually matters, that actually advances the overall story of mathematics in some way.

    Furthermore, with the job market as it is, only the mathematicians doing math that matters actually get jobs that give them time to do research (and, increasingly, any job in mathematics at all).

    I might also add that CJ plays tennis and devotes time to it, but I’m sure it’s hardly the main activity in his life. He’s not at the point of giving up a quarter of a million or more in lost earnings by doing a PhD.

  5. Dick Gross says:


    The following may make you feel better. When my son Sam was 12, I was on sabbatical at the University of Utah. Their tennis coach ran a clinic for local 12-15 year olds, hoping to eventually recruit them to the U. Sam wanted to try out, so I took him to hit with the coach. He invited Sam to join the clinic, but then turned to me and asked “How tall is your wife?” When I asked why he needed to know this, he said that if Sam wasn’t going to grow to be over 6 feel tall, we were wasting our time with tennis.

    I realized on the drive home that the correct response was — “In that case, you don’t mean my wife, you mean his birth-mother.”

    In any case, he was wrong. Look at Diego Schwartzman.


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