“It’s not about the tennis. It’s not about the win or the loss; if we’re here to experience, then we are free.”- W. Timothy Gallwey
Everyone who had to play a tournament or had to perform at a high skill level knows and values the importance of the right mindset.
All great physical and intellectual performance has to be supported by mental aspects or factors.
We have all seen examples of people with great physical strength or intelligence who do not end up meeting their immense potential because they underestimated the power of “this inner mental game.”
One of the classics on the importance of the inner mental game in all areas of performance and using tennis as an example is the book “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey.
Here are 8 keys on how to master your inner game from the classic book:
1. The Two Parts Of Every Game: An Outer Game And An Inner Game
“The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.”-W. Timothy Gallwey
Gallwey says that there are two major games that we have to play in life. The first game is the one that he calls the outer game and it is played against a physical opponent and where we grapple with external obstacles and reach external goals.
The other game is the inner game that we have to play against our inner self-doubt, nervousness, lack or lapses in concentration. This inner game is played by us to overcome the limitations and habits of the mind that decrease self-excellence and diminish performance.
Once you master this inner game, Gallwey says, you can naturally and effectively learn anything. It is much like walking and talking that we do intuitively and the process does not have to be learned fresh. However, it involves breaking habits that interfere with it and just let it or allow it to happen.
“You must learn to let go. Release the stress. You were never in control anyway.” ― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
2. “Show” And Not Just “Tell” To Teach And “Do” And Not Just “Listen” To Master Something
“The most common complaint of sportsmen ringing down the corridors of the ages is, It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know!”
“Other common complaints that come constantly to the attention of the tennis pro: I play better in practice than during the match. I know exactly what I’m doing wrong on my forehand, I just can’t seem to break the habit.”- W. Timothy Gallwey
Knowing information but being unable to act on it is very relevant problem that we all have at some area of our lives or another. Not surprisingly, I had the same problem and ironically it was in the very game of tennis. When I was nineteen, I was playing 4-5 hours of tennis and wanted to improve on certain forehand strokes. But it seemed that I had hit upon a wall.
My coach was telling me what to do and I knew intellectually what to do—to swing back a bit further, allow the ball to rise up and then make impact with a racquet face at a certain angle and then follow through. If I followed Gallwey’s advise, I would have watched my coach perform the stroke several times and imagined the scenario in my mind and then allowed my body to perform the stroke.
Gallwey says that once he stopped overreaching, said less words, relaxed more, he began noticing more and his students would auto-correct themselves.
He tried that with his next student, Paul and instead of the usual explanations, he hit ten forehands himself and instructed Paul to watch closely and instead of thinking just grasp a visual image in his mind. Paul was instructed to repeat the visual image in his mind many times and then allow his body to imitate.
Ironically, the one part of the stroke- the moving of the feet that Paul was thinking about was the one that he did not remember to move. The rest of the stroke was fluid and perfect for the first attempt.
What I learned from Paul’s story is that the brain takes better instruction through pictures and imagined moves and less so through over thinking and verbal instruction.
It is fascinating to me that we learn better by letting the unconscious mind absorb images of good play and not by speaking to it or instructing it. However, I was always taught that the reverse was true.
“I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results. One question perplexed me: What’s wrong with trying? What does it mean to try too hard?” – W. Timothy Gallwey
Learning to play “out of the mind” or as Gallwey calls “consciously unconscious” requires concentration, focus and a still mind. This state of mind and is similar to the state of flow where you are not thinking too much about what you are doing but are just doing it.
3. The Key to Improvement In Anything Is To Become Aware and Improve The Relationship Between Your Two Selves
“The key to better tennis—or better anything—lies in improving the relationship between the conscious teller, Self 1, and the natural capabilities of Self 2.” – W. Timothy Gallwey
When the conscious Self 1 or the conscious thinking brain is critical and repeats demeaning self-chatter, it makes matters difficult for your acting Self 2. I like Gallwey’s idea that a critical Self 1 can cause over-thinking and over-trying and results in stress, tension and muscle conflict in the body.
As Self 1 or the teller or speaker blames Self 2 or the doer for a fault that was clearly generated by Self 1, your confidence takes a hit and results in a state of frustration that makes your attempt become worse.
Most people know the what and the how but taking the action and making changes is the problem.
We also sabotage ourselves by criticizing the Self 2 after a bad game play or after a failure and by ceaselessly worrying.
4. Trying Too Hard Is a Questionable Virtue
“Letting go of judgments, the art of creating images and “letting it happen” are three of the basic skills involved in the Inner Game.”- W. Timothy Gallwey
This is where I became aware of what was going wrong with some of my forehand strokes and why I was not improving. Gallwey gives the example of Joan who was getting frustrated that she was hitting most of her balls from the frame and not the strings or the center of the racquet.
Gallwey asked her to try harder and hit the balls on the frame and surprisingly, the harder she tried the more she missed hitting the frame.
Intrigued, he asked her to focus her mind on the seams of the ball and not think about making any contact or even hit the ball at all. In addition, he asked her something completely counter-intuitive by asking her to allow the racquet to make contact where it wanted to and not think about it.
Surprisingly, this time around, she made great contact with the ball hitting nine out of ten strokes dead center of the racquet.
What had happened was that Joan was beginning to see the difference between the conscious mind or Self 1 trying too hard to control the game and “the effort” made by Self 2 to get the work done successfully. When her conscious attention was on the seams of the ball or distracted from micromanaging, her Self 2 or natural capabilities took over and produced the results she desired.
5. The Art Of Relaxed Concentration
“As soon a he[the player] starts thinking about it and controlling it, he loses it”
“In short, “getting it together” requires slowing the mind. Quieting the mind means less thinking, calculating, judging, worrying, fearing, hoping, trying, regretting, controlling, jittering or distracting. The mind is still when it is totally here and now in perfect oneness with the action and the actor.” – W. Timothy Gallwey
Much like the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s optimal “state of flow,” or psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “peak experiences,” Gallwey describes the importance of getting in the zone and the importance of quieting the conscious thinking mind or Self 1 and allowing Self 2 to express its natural intelligence.
The way you can accomplish a state of flow or relaxed concentration is by allowing yourself to let go of the judgment of performance. Gallwey says that judgment cause tightness and tension in the body that results in errors in action. On the other hand, a quick way at improving at anything is the opposite of tension and judgment or fluidity and relaxation.
When you really see instead of judging and tightening your thoughts and actions, you become aware of more details of what is really going on. For example, one of the things that we were told was that even if a player knew what was going on in their play, showing them a video of their game always surprises them. It brings awareness to the obvious and to that which was missed.
When you are relaxed, engaged, interested, listening and feeling what your naturally intelligent Self 2 is doing instead of being caught up in chatter of the conscious mind, you are engaging the art of relaxed concentration. Focus your relaxed attention to the present moment and allow things to unfold.
In addition, I think that Gallwey’s point of getting both selves on board together is a great one and involves the conscious mind stepping aside and allowing the unconscious self to do its job effortlessly. When there is harmony between the selves, great things can happen.
A very similar analogy has been described by the social psychologist and scientist Jonathan Haidt in his seminal and wonderful book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt describes the conscious mind as the rider and the sub-conscious mind as the elephant.
I think this is a great analogy because when the rider and elephant are in consonance, great stuff happens. But often, the elephant or the sub-conscious intelligence does not listen to the instructions of the rider and then there is a problem. Haidt describes that one of the most effective ways to train the elephant is through meditation. Interestingly, Gallwey also describes that making your mind silent of excess thoughts and not trying too hard with instruction or words is highly effective.
In order to overcome trying too hard, you will need to learn to see non-judgmentally or actually see what is happening instead of labeling it or noticing how good or bad it is. This idea from Gallway reminds me of the Buddhist practice of non-judgment and to see things as they really are instead of making up stories about them.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. – Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki.
6. The Importance of Trusting Yourself
Gallwey makes the point of the importance of trusting your body and the fact that it is smarter that we give credit for. He says the relationship between Self 1 and Self 2 can be compared to a parent and a child. A trusting parent will allow their child to make some mistakes and learn from them and not be instructional at every bend of the way.
In the same way, your conscious mind should be like a trusting parent to the child like “doer” or the natural intelligence of the body or Self 2. There is a big difference in trying to make it happen by micromanaging versus allowing it to unfold with the natural intelligence of the body and the sub-conscious.
This is akin to a child learning to walk and every parent known that when the natural intelligence of the body is ready developmentally, the child begins to walk. No amount of urging and telling a child to walk will make the child suddenly get up and walk.
Do you trust in your body and your “doer’s” natural intelligence or do you live and act mostly from the conscious mind, instructing and criticizing yourself and your natural intelligence?
The bottom-line: Allow the intelligence of your unconscious brain and body express what it knows without too much micromanagement.
7. A New Inner Game Model Of Learning
Step 1: The first step that Gallwey proposes is to observe past behavior without judgment and not be caught up in criticism.
Step 2: Instead of telling yourself to change and verbalizing it, use the power of images and picture the desired outcome and not try to correct for past errors.
Step 3: Let the desired outcome just happen naturally and do not focus too hard to accomplish it.
Step 4: Non-judgmental awareness allows you to self-correct instead of engaging attention on criticism and blame about results or the lack thereof.
I love this inner game model that Gallwey proposes because in retrospect, I now realize what my problem was on the tennis court with some of my forehand strokes. I was overthinking my game and over-correcting for assumed problems. I was too much in my head and attempting to instruct my Self 2 by over trying.
Instead, I would have received great benefit by relaxing and allowing my natural intelligence to play the game that I had previously seen or pictured in my mind.
8. The True Meaning Of Success
“Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved. The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself.”- W. Timothy Gallwey
This above quote from Gallwey reminds me of the instruction from Jim Rohn about the real value of becoming a millionaire is not to get wealthy but the experience and the lessons learnt along the way.
In the same way, Success is not just the achievement of something but for the learning along the journey. And not being attached to the fruits of victory is the value and meaning of true winning.
In other words, playing the game for itself and showing non-attachment is the goal and brings great meaning to success.
Tennis is simply the medium to learn concentration, focus and stability. It is life training for how to be more relaxed under pressure or display unfreakability or imperturbability.
Of course, for more in-depth understanding and great examples of mastering your inner game, pick up this relatively small but insight packed book.
Let me know in the comments below about how you master your inner game and if this post resonated with you.