2008-10-04: The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game of Tennis (1974, 1997)

by W. Timothy Gallwey (1938-)

This book was recommended, and I read it, as an exemplary explanation of a little-expressed facet of the human mind. I don’t much care about tennis.

Gallwey’s core message is that most of what we do, whether playing tennis, driving a car, or our ordinary work, is handled mostly automatically by a large part of our mind that he calls Self 2. This corresponds to the unconscious, procedural knowledge we’ve all developed over many repetitions of a variety of related activities. However, under many conditions, the conscious part of our mind, which he calls Self 1, attempts to take over control, and reduces the level of performance. Self 1 communicates to and about Self 2 in words, but Self 2 doesn’t understand words. The general approach is apparently compatible with a lot of cognitive science that has been done in the years since his first edition.

A few high points:

Pg 71, on the Inner Game Way of Learning, Step 4:

Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning

Though the player knows his goal, he is not emotionally involved in achieving it and is therefore able to watch the results calmly and experience the process. By so doing, concentration is best achieved, as is learning at its highest rate of speed; making new changes is only necessary when results do not conform to the image given. Otherwise only continuing observation of the behavior undergoing change is necessary. Watch it change; don’t do the changing.

The process is an incredibly simple one. The important thing is to experience it. Don’t intellectualize it. See what it feels like to ask yourself to do something and let it happen without any conscious trying. For most people it is a surprising experience, and the results speak for themselves.

This method of learning can be practiced in most endeavors on or off the court. The more you let yourself perform free of control on the tennis court, the more confidence you tend to gain in the beautiful mechanism that is the human body. The more you trust it, the more capable it seems to become.

Pg 93, Games People Play on the Court

That something else besides tennis is being played on the courts is obvious to the most casual observer. … He will see the stomping of feet, shaking of fists, war dances, rituals, pleas, oaths and prayers; rackets are thrown against fences in anger, into the air for joy, or pounded against the concrete in disgust. Balls that are in will be called out, and vice versa. Linesmen are threatened, ball boys are scolded and the integrity of friends questioned. On the faces of players you may observe, in quick succession, shame, pride, ecstasy and despair. Smug complacency gives way to high anxiety, cockiness to hang-dog disappointment. Anger and aggression of varying intensity are expressed both openly and in disguised forms. …

[With credit to Eric Berne’s Games People Play,] a brief guide to the games people play on the tennis court. … to be read as a key to discovering how to have more fun while playing …

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame A: Perfect-o.  How good can I get? … measured against a standard of performance

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame B: Compete-o.  I’m better than you. … measured against the performance of other players … Its not how well I play, but whether I win or lose that counts.

Main Game 1: Good-o, Subgame C: Image-o.  Look at me! … measured by appearance. Neither winning nor true competence is as important as style.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame A: Status-o.  We play at the country club. It’s not so important how good you are as where you play and who plays with you.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame B: Togetherness-o.  All my good friends play tennis. You play to be with your friends. To play too well would be a mistake.

Main Game 2: Friends-o, Subgame C: Spouse-o.  My spouse is always playing, so …

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame A: Health-o.  Played on doctor’s advice, or as part of a self-initiated physical improvement or beautification program.

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame B: Fun-o.  Played neither for winning nor to become “good,” but for fun alone. (A game rarely played in its pure form.)

Main Game 2: Health-o–Fun-o, Subgame C: Learn-o.  Played out of Self 2’s desire to learn and grow.

Gallwey’s formulation of sub-games is useful in understanding the various motives in activities, as well as obstacles in performance.

Pg 108, The Meaning of Winning

[After describing a conversation with his very competitive father, and exploring the attitude of a surfer toward the waves] The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents. He values the obstacles the wave puts between him and his goal of riding the wave … because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort.  … The potential may have always been within him, but until it is manifested in action, it remains a secret hidden from himself. The obstacles are a very necessary ingredient to this process of self-discovery.

From this example the basic meaning of winning became more clear to me. Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. 

Pg 117, Building Inner Stability

[After discussing the futility of trying to “manage stress” through Self 1, which is instrumental in creating the stress in the first place] The cause of most stress can be summed up in the word attachment.  Self 1 gets so dependent upon things, situations, people and concepts within its experience that when change occurs or seems about to occur, it feels threatened. Freedom from stress does not necessarily mean giving up anything, but rather being able to let go of anything, when necessary, and know that one will still be all right. It comes from being more independent – not necessarily more solitary, but more reliant on one’s own inner resources for stability.

The wisdom of building inner stability … seems to me to be an obvious requirement for successful living. The first step toward inner stability may be the acknowledgement that there is an inner self that has inherent needs of its own. The self that has all your gifts and capabilities, with which you hope to accomplish anything, has its own requirements. They are natural demands that we didn’t have to be taught. Each Self 2 is endowed by birth, regardless of where that birth took place, with an instinct to fulfill its nature. It wants to enjoy, to learn, to understand, appreciate, go for it, rest, be healthy, survive, be free to be what I is, express itself and make its unique contribution.

Self 2’s needs come with a gentle but constant urging. A certain feeling of contentment attends a person whenever he or she is acting in sync with this self. The fundamental issue is what kind of priority are we giving to the demands of Self 2 in relation to all the external pressures?

The book is well worth reading, even by those who aren’t interested in tennis. Gallwey has also written or co-written books applying the ideas to other fields. There are several videos online related to the subject, but one I particularly like is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieb1lmm9xHk.


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