Ben Heels

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Flow [002] A “Fugue State” During Tennis Drills

Today’s bit of flow comes from David Foster Wallace’s first essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, in a piece called “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley.” The essay follows a young DFW as he navigates his adolescence on the tennis courts of Philo, Illinois.

In his early teens, Wallace was a robotically good tennis player, though he often downplayed his skill, calling himself “near-great” at best. While his physical attributes were good, his mental game was where he really shined:

What I could do was ‘Play the Whole Court.’ This was a piece of tennis truistics that could mean any number of things. In my case, it meant I knew my limitations and the limitations of what I stood inside, and adjusted thusly. I was at my very best in bad conditions.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, p.4

The conditions in which he honed his skills were remarkably bad. Being in the middle of the midwest meant relentless bugs, sweltering heat, and winds like no other. The gales were frequent and erratic, sending well-rehearsed forehands and backhands woefully out-of-bounds with unforgiving and unrelenting force.

But where does flow come into all of this?

For Wallace, a sort of “Zen-like acceptance of things” was the key to his success. While his opponents throw their rackets and crumble under the pressure, seeing the wind as cruelly unfair, Wallace shrugs it off, remarking “I liked wind; or rather I at least felt the wind had some basic right to be there, and found it sort of interesting.” He recalls “I…located my biggest tennis asset in a weird robotic detachment from whatever unfairness of wind and weather I couldn’t plan for.”

Wallace’s mental fortitude allowed him to focus on the ball’s hypnotic curves and arcs as he rallied. At fourteen, Wallace was among the best of his age group in Central Illinois and practiced often with his “friend and foe and bane,” Gil Antitoi, another highly-ranked player from his region.

But the crux here is that butterflies are primarily a conditioning drill: both players have to get from one side of the court to the other between each stroke, and once the initial pain and wind-sucking are over – assuming you’re a kid who’s in absurd shape because he spends countless mindless hours jumping rope or running laps backward or doing star-drills between the court’s corners or straight sprints back and forth along the perfect furrows of early beanfields each morning – once the first pain and fatigue of butterflies are got through, if both guys are good enough so that there are few unforced errors to break up the rally, a kind of fugue-state opens up inside you where your concentration telescopes toward a still point and you lose awareness of your limbs and the soft shush of your shoe’s slide (you have to slide out of a run on Har-Tru) and whatever’s outside the lines of the court, and pretty much all you know then is the bright ball and the octangled butterfly outline of its trail across the billiard green of the court.


Time slips away, motions become automatic, and the flow state (or “fugue state”) opens up. Many athletes describe flow as being in the zone, in their element, or playing out of their mind; some even report feeling like they’re not in their own bodies, like they’re observing themselves play without thinking. For Wallace, leaving Earth became doubly true. He and Antitoi were so in the zone that they didn’t notice that the noise of the wind had died—an obviously bad sign in tornado alley—and that a tornado had seemingly snuck up on them. The ball was lifted out of thin air and he and Antitoi were plucked off the court and flung against the fence of the neighboring court with such force that they left cartoonish imprints.

We were both in the fugue-state that exhaustion through repetition brings on, a fugue-state I’ve decided that my whole time playing tennis was spent chasing…hypnotic, a mental state at once flat and lush, numbing and yet exquisitely felt.


While David Foster Wallace never went pro, the level he reached allowed him “to see that it was beautiful.” Between the sharp, precise lines of the court’s boxes was a flurry of angles, lobs, and texbook-perfect curves that evolved into his lifelong love of mathematics. And woven into the heart of it all like gut strings on a racket was the flow state, holding it all together.

For more DFW on tennis, writing, and ambition, check out this bit from PBS’s Blank on Blank:

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