by W. Timothy Gallwey
Note: This Inner Game of Tennis summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise The 35 Best Books on Mindset.
The Inner Game of Tennis Review
In fact, what it teaches is so valuable that I’ve already recommended it to a dozen people who’ve never even picked up a tennis racket. And they’ve applied what they learned to everything from surfing to relationships to business.
How can a book about tennis be so useful? Because as Gallwey notes early, everything in life is a game. And though The Outer Game (the players, rules and objectives) might change, The Inner Game (the struggle against things like anxiety, loss of focus and self-doubt) is common to just about every new challenge we face.
If you play tennis, then The Inner Game of Tennis is a must-read. Follow its simple instructions and you’ll (re)discover more fun and more joy on the court than you ever thought possible (plus your game will jump two or three levels overnight).
But even if you’ve never played at all – if you’re an athlete, student, entrepreneur or anyone else – then I’d still recommend Gallwey’s book.
It’ll help you understand yourself better. It’ll help you realise how incredible you already are. And it’ll remind you that every obstacle is an opportunity; that every moment is a chance to work on your Inner Game and that doing so won’t just upgrade your tennis, it’ll radically transform your life.
The Inner Game of Tennis Summary
Rather than a chapter by chapter breakdown, I’ve structured this Inner Game of Tennis summary by the three main questions the book sets out to answer:
- What Is The Inner Game Of Tennis?
- Why Is Mastering The Inner Game Of Tennis important? and
- How Can We Master The Inner Game Of Tennis?
This isn’t a technical book but if you’re interested in things like a breakdown of the main different tennis strokes then the original is well worth a read.
Gallwey also shares some wonderful and more general insights on the importance of the Inner Game in his final chapter (The Inner Game Off the Court). I’ve left these out of my summary but to get a flavour of his thinking, check out the quotes section.
That’s all my notes. Enjoy the summary!
What Is the Inner Game of Tennis?
All games have two sides…
- The Outer (Physical) Game – characterised by…
- One or more players;
- A playing field;
- Obstacles; and
- A desired outcome.
- The Inner (Mental) Game – played against internal obstacles like…
- Lapses in concentration;
- Self-doubt; and
Why Is Mastering the Inner Game of Tennis Important?
Mastering any game means mastering both its Outer and Inner parts.
But while The Outer and Inner Games of tennis are complimentary…
- Mastering The Inner Game is vital to mastering The Outer Game; and
- The Outer Game is a powerful way to practice The Inner Game.
Mastering The Inner Game of tennis has benefits that generalise far off-court…
- Everything in life can be seen as a game, but while…
- The Outer Game changes with context…
- The Inner Game is common to all of them and…
- Mastering it leads to generalised gains in learning and performance.
How Can We Master the Inner Game of Tennis?
Gallwey offers a number of practical suggestions for mastering your Inner Game.
In General: Master the art of relaxed concentration…
First, learn to trust and respect Self 2…
- Self 1 tries: it is conscious, deliberate and good at…
- Linear, analytical and verbal problem solving;
- Imagining and analysing the past and future; and
- Focusing attention.
- Self 2 puts in effort: it is unconscious, automatic and good at…
- Parallel, creative and non-verbal problem solving;
- Responding to what’s happening now;
- Sensory integration and coordination.
Second, observe and let go of Self 1’s habitual side-coaching…
- Why: Direct observation of Self 1 is the only way to see that it’s holding you back;
- How: Practice intentionally trying vs. not trying at all…
- Self 1: Teaching via words, judging shots (good/bad) vs.
- Self 2: Teaching via showing/feeling, non-judgmental observation (in/out).
- What: When Self 1 gets involved, you’ll notice that…
- ↓ Errors;
- ↓ Mental judgment (good/bad);
- ↓ Loss of focus + thinking;
- ↓ Emotions (usu. frustration);
- ↓ Physical tension;
- ↻ Errors.
- Notes: It’s interesting that…
- Both negative AND positive judgements → expectations that kick off this cycle;
- Judgements often spiral into generalisations: “I played a bad shot” → “I’m having a bad game” → “I’m having a bad day” → “I’m a bad player”; and
- Players who carry a lot of negative self-judgement start the cycle before they even walk on the court.
Third, as you witness the above, change Self 1’s attitude towards Self 2:
- From: Directive, critical, mistrusting, verbal; and
- To: Respectful, trusting, supportive, visual.
And finally, see The Inner Game as the end and The Outer Game as the means…
- Recognise and let go of your real Outer Game (desired outcome):
- To achieve excellence: to prove yourself, to be the best, for attention/praise;
- To make friends: to network, for friendship, to connect with your partner; or
- For health/joy: to exercise, to relax, to have fun, to learn.
- Embrace the moment-by-moment effort to let go and stay centred; and
- Understand the (wider) importance of The Inner Game (see above)
- Recognise and let go of your real Outer Game (desired outcome):
During Practice: Let Self 2 learn naturally…
Commit/limit Self 1 to non-judgmental sensory observation.
- Focus on…
- Sights: ball position, trajectory, spin;
- Sounds: shot rhythm, shot resonance; and
- Sensations: body and racket position.
- So you can…
- Gather as much data as possible for Self 2; and
- Keep Self 1 too busy for side coaching.
- Focus on…
Then, work on…
- Building new habits instead of fixing old habits;
- What feels right/ready (not what’s worst or what you “should” work on); and
- Improving one very specific feeling/movement at a time:
- Isolate: pick one thing and don’t worry if other things suffer; then
- Integrate: bring what you’ve worked on back into the whole.
And use mental images to communicate desired outcomes – ask for:
- Results: Where should the ball go?
- Form: What should my body do? What should it look like?
- Qualities: How should it feel (offensive, defensive, formal, competitive)?
Note: Use external sources to inspire and improve mental images (i.e., watch pro tennis)
During Matches: Stay fully present; let it happen…
Absorb Self 1 entirely by focussing…
- During points: On the spin of the ball; and
- Between points: On the breath.
The Inner Game of Tennis Quotes
“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.”
“It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know!”
“Images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and trying often produces negative results.”
“A better way to describe the player who is ‘unconscious’ is by saying that his mind is so concentrated, so focused, that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts… The ability to approach this state is the goal of the Inner Game.”
“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.”
“Getting it together mentally in tennis involves learning of several internal skills: 1) learning how to get the clearest possible picture of your desired outcomes; 2) learning how to trust Self 2 to perform at its best and learn from both successes and failures; and 3) learning to see “nonjudgmentally” – that is to see what is happening rather than merely noticing how well or how badly it is happening. This overcomes “trying too hard.” All these skills are subsidiary to the master skill, without which nothing of value is ever achieved: the art of relaxed concentration.”
“Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.”
“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and under-developed; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each stage, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”
“If we could treat our tennis games as we do a child learning to walk, we would make more progress.”
“The best use of technical knowledge is to communicate a hint toward a desired destination.”
“The most effective way to deepen concentration through sight is to focus on something subtle, not easily perceived.”
“Even before we received our first praise of blame for our first report card, we were loved or ignored for how well we performed our very first actions. From this pattern, one basic message came across loud, clear and often: you are a good person and worthy of respect only if you do things successfully.”
“The value of a human being cannot be measured by performance – or by any other arbitrary measurement… We are what we are; we are not how well we happen to perform at a given moment.”
“For the player of the Inner Game, it is the moment-by-moment effort to let go and to stay centred in the here-and-now action which offers the real winning and losing, and this game never ends.”
“When it comes to overcoming obstacles, there are three kinds of people. The first kind sees most obstacles as insurmountable and walks away. The second kind sees an obstacle and says, I can overcome it, and starts to dig under, climb over, or blast through it. The third type of person, before deciding to overcome the obstacle, tries to find a viewpoint where what is on the other side of the obstacle can be seen. Then, only if the reward is worth the effort, does he attempt to overcome the obstacle.”
“When a player comes to recognize, for instance, that learning to focus may be more valuable to him than a backhand, he shifts from being primarily a player of the outer game to being a player of the Inner Game. Then, instead of learning to focus to improve his tennis, he practices tennis to improve his focus.”
“Perhaps the most indispensable tool for human beings in modern times is the ability to remain calm in the midst of rapid and unsettling changes… Inner stability is achieved not by burying one’s head in the sand at the sight of danger, but by acquiring the ability to see the true nature of what is happening and to respond appropriately.”
“Freedom from stress does not necessarily involve giving up anything, but rather being able to let go of anything, when necessary, and know that one will still be alright.”
“Focus of attention in the present moment, the only one you can really live in, is at the heart of this book and the heart of the art of doing anything well. Focus means not dwelling on the past, either on mistakes or glories; it means not being so caught up in the future, either its fears or its dreams, that my full attention is taken from the present.”
“Stability grows as I learn to accept what I cannot control and take control of what I can.”
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