Book Notes: “The Inner Game of Tennis”

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Inner Game of Peak Performance
By W. Timothy Galwey
Random House (Revised Edition, 2010)

It’s been many years since I last picked up a racket, and I have no immediate plans to do so. So why read a book about tennis? While The Inner Game of Tennis focuses on the game, Galwey is writing about something deeper and more broadly applicable:

It is the thesis of this book that neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.

I read “game” here in the sense of the infinite game — life, awareness, our engagement with reality. In other words, Galwey’s thesis applies to many domains beyond the court. (The book’s influence has been broader than sports, and Galwey himself wrote several follow-on titles focused on other areas.)

What is this thesis? Essentially, when playing a game, we’re really playing two games: the external game, which we play against an external opponent, obstacle, goal, etc., and an internal game, which plays out within us. This internal game is a conflict between what Galwey calls Self 1 — “the conscious self” — and Self 2, which I read as being one with the object of practice; entering a state of flow in the current area of focus.

While we’re playing the external game, Self 1 layers meaning atop our performance. This internal monologue can be an encouragement, but it often manifests as criticism. Either way, the inner chatter is unhelpful since it distracts us from being present in the moment.

Judgment results in tightness, and tightness interferes with the fluidity required for accurate and quick movement. Relaxation produces smooth strokes and results from accepting your strokes as they are, even if erratic.

To master our area of focus, we must learn to master this tension.

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.

Galwey provides several exercises to help Self 1 behave. Many of these are specific to tennis. I especially liked the suggestion of focusing on the seams as a way to observe the ball with greater focus. Another suggestion is to focus on the breath while serving. It’s not hard to think of analogs for these practices in other disciplines.

If you’ve studied Buddhism or meditative practices, little of this will be surprising. Some passages read like directions from a meditation manual. For example,

can one learn to play “out of his mind” on purpose? How can you be consciously unconscious? It sounds like a contradiction in terms; yet this state can be achieved. Perhaps 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 difference here is that these recommendations come with a practical intent: improving one’s game of tennis. As a result, they have applicability and urgency that isn’t common in books about mastering mental chatter.

You may surmise that I liked The Inner Game of Tennis. But I must note that it was first published in 1971, and the book hasn’t aged well in parts. For example, there’s a particular story used as an illustration that seemed sexist to me.

If you can see past this issue, this book may be helpful. I suspect we could all benefit from paying less attention to our inner critics and focus more on becoming one with the matter at hand — whether it’s a racket, a user interview, lunch with our kids, etc.

You come to a point on the path to mastery where craft is no longer your primary challenge. Instead, progress calls for getting out of your way — out of your head — and become one with the object of your practice. The Inner Game of Tennis offers practical suggestions on how to do so. If you take tennis as a metaphor — and see past the book’s anachronisms — it might help you achieve better performance in whatever area you want to excel in. (Of course, it might also help with your tennis.)

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