“Burning Out”

When training with other jugglers, whether it be at a festival or a local juggling club, I am often warned in a joking manner not to “burn out.” The first few times that this was said to me I took it lightly and did not think much of it. Yet, the frequency with which this comment was made eventually got me thinking about its purpose and intentions. It is certainly the case that I “burn myself out” in a given practice, as they are physically exhausting and lengthy. It is also true that I sometimes juggle so much that I sustain shoulder and wrist injuries. However, after almost ten years of juggling I have felt no decline in my motivation to practice the sport.

As the juggling community unfortunately knows all too well, a juggler who seems to be in their prime could also be months, or even days, away from quitting. Anthony Gatto and Ofek Snir both stopped juggling near the height of their technical excellence, for good personal reasons no doubt, but nonetheless disappointing for the spectators of their juggling careers. Even more frequently, hobbyist jugglers who have only been practicing for a short amount of time will abruptly stop their training. For several reasons, it is not uncommon that a juggler who constantly pushes their technical limits eventually decides to give up practicing altogether. I would like to offer my opinion as to why this happens, as well as discuss how I stay engaged in my practices even when I am making no visible progress and have no clear external motivation for continuing.  

The mentality that draws someone to become a technical juggler typically manifests as a persistence to push things one step farther. Technical jugglers love testing the limits of what they can do, and more generally of what all humans can do. The first few years of this pursuit are thrilling: you see yourself noticeably improve every single day and are constantly able to hit tricks that you were unable to moments before. However, the relatively rapid improvement that all jugglers experience towards the beginning of their training cannot persist, as the human body undoubtedly resists this rate of improvement at a certain point. For a moment let’s pretend that all improvement in juggling is linear. If this were the case, it should take the same person just as long to learn how to do a 1 up 360 with three balls as it would take them to learn to do a 5 up 360 with 7 clubs, once they were able to qualify each base pattern. As someone who has been juggling for almost ten years, the improvement that I experienced in my first five years of practice would far trump my improvement over the last five years, which should, in theory, demoralize me. However, I am most proud of my recent work with juggling and feel more motivated to continue my training than ever before, so what is going on here? 

Well, as you probably know, improvement in juggling does not happen linearly. Rather, the more you improve, the more difficult it becomes to make further improvements. It is partially this phenomenon that causes hobbyist technical jugglers to cease their practices, as it is often demoralizing to realize that over the past few months you have not made any visible improvements, or even that you have regressed in your technical abilities. To be clear, I am not asserting that some individuals believe they should always be improving at the same rate, regardless of their skill level, which is most likely something that every juggler realizes to be false in a short amount of time. Rather, I believe that the amount of work that some jugglers realize that they will have to put in to overcome certain technical barriers is too daunting after a certain point, and is not something that they either have time for, or want to do. It is completely rational to not want to spend the time to improve past a certain point, as it is both physically taxing and draining. However, for those that are interested in pushing past such boundaries, I believe that coming to terms with the frustrating nature of improving at something you have worked on for years requires a slight change in attitude.

Simply understanding that improving becomes more difficult after a while is not enough cause to keep yourself motivated while training at high levels. My guess is that if improvement is the only thing you focus on, it will eventually lead to frustration and dissatisfaction with juggling. For this reason, I believe that juggling must mean more to you than just a way to show an increase of skill. For myself, juggling is a way for me to relax, share something with people that they will appreciate, and have fun, while still pushing my limits. Most of the time when I juggle now, the short-term goal that I have in mind does not involve improvement, which may sound surprising given how I structure my practices. Rather, my goal remains to maintain my current skill level, which in turn lends itself to improvement. To stay consistently motivated at high levels of practice, I think that you must be relatively content with your current skill level and simply enjoy juggling for what it is. Obviously if you become too comfortable with your skill level, you may never make strides to improve, which is totally fine if that is what you want. However, I think it is important to know that you can still juggle at a high level, have fun, and keep improving. There are periods of time where I push myself hard to reach new skill levels, while sometimes I return to working on rudimentary technique, but the overarching theme of my practices is that I am enjoying myself, while still testing my limits. 

But what happens if juggling stops being fun? Well, then there is a personal decision to be made. Whenever my patterns felt terrible, when I was not having fun and could not come up with a good reason to juggle in the moment, I have typically decided to practice anyway. It is never an easy decision to make, but those periods where I lack motivation typically last only a few days. For myself, it always seems worth it to juggle even when I “don’t feel like it,” which I see to be true more and more every time I make such a decision. The main piece of advice that I have for  jugglers trying to stay motivated to train hard is to push through times of dissatisfaction like that, as they tend not to last very long and are well worth overcoming.

It is extremely difficult to stay motivated on technical juggling practice for a very long time, especially when your capacity for improvement decreases exponentially the better that you get. However, an understanding of this, as well as a passion for the juggling itself, can foster a drive to continue training that lends itself to rapid growth, relative to the slow improvement that is natural in high-level juggling. Obviously, you should only do what is fun for you up to a certain point, but if you spend several years training technical juggling and then decide that it stops being fulfilling, it is worth it to try and revive that passion rather than giving up altogether. I do not plan on “burning out” anytime soon, and if you happen to be worried about “burning out” yourself, you clearly care enough about juggling to take measures to revive your passion for it.

Jonah has been juggling for ten years and is a junior at Amherst College. In 2013 and 2015 he won the WJF's Overall Championship and in 2016 he won the IJA's Juniors Championship. He annually attends the IJA festival.

Leave a Reply