Book: The Inner Game of Tennis

When I played tennis as a teenager, I remember reading The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by Tim Gallwey. Near the end of my recent sabbatical + birthday vacation, after almost seven weeks of tennis where I played at least five days a week, I decided to read it again.

It held up. Written in 1974, Gallwey uses the concept of Self 1 (the thinking part) and Self 2 (the feeling / doing part). Self 1 is constantly critiquing, analyzing, and telling Self 2 what to do. Self 2 – when it ignores Self 1 – just does. This leads to the idea of the inner and outer game, which is beautifully summarized in the Wikipedia article about Tim Gallwey.

“In every human endeavor there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.” (Morgan, Ted, Oz in the Astrodom, New York Times, December 9, 1973, p.96)

For the first two weeks, I decided to try to learn to play tennis left handed. I grew up playing right handed, even though I write and throw a ball left handed. I used beginner mind and was doing pretty good when I hurt my left wrist while running during the third week when I was almost hit by a car leaving a parking lot and used my left hand to hop over the hood of it.

So, for a week I played right handed as my left wrist healed. I enjoyed it so much I just stayed with it.

By the fifth week, I was hitting great. I was moving reasonably well on the court and my fitness level and comfort with playing points had gone up a level. During one of my morning lessons, I lucked out and got Arturo, a masterful teacher who Amy and I referred to during our time at Rancho Valencia as “the philosopher.” At some point during my lesson, Arturo said simply, “Stop thinking and hit the ball.”

I carried that thought around with me for the next two weeks. I literally stopped thinking about the mechanics of any of my strokes. I visualized my movements when I was getting ready for a drill, or after I’d hit a number of balls, but I stopped criticizing myself, actually bent my knees (instead of shouting to myself “bend your knees” when I didn’t and missed a shot), and just played.

I hadn’t read The Inner Game of Tennis yet, but I downloaded it on my Kindle. And then just hit the ball for the last few days of our trip. I felt as good on the court as I ever have, even at the top of my game at age 14.

As I read the book on our couch in Boulder yesterday, I smiled. It reinforced the simple message that Arturo tossed out in the middle of a lesson. It made me think of many conversations I’ve had with Jerry Colonna at Reboot. And then, I poked around the web and saw that this book, and Gallwey in general, is often referred to as the founder of the business coaching movement.

If you play tennis, do yourself a favor and read this book. Your Self 1 will thank you and your Self 2 will be left alone a little more in the future to do its thing.

  • mbyrne

    There are other YouTube videos, this is a short one for anyone not familiar with Gallwey.

    • Cecelia Feld

      In art as in tennis, first you learn, then you “do.” It helps answer the question “how long did it take you to make that painting/print.

  • mbyrne

    Also, very relevant, (and excuse or excise the link,) Charlie Hoehn’s book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety

  • I read the and found it useful

    But your post reminded me more of

    Pleasure to read a post again (no pressure)

  • Dariel Luciano

    Great post. I played tennis in high school, but haven’t played in years and I’ve been thinking of picking it back up. I’ll check out the book too!

    • I’ve had an awesome time rediscovering tennis as an adult.

      • Dariel Luciano

        One of the things I loved about it as a pose to other sports was that there was no timer, so you could always make a comeback, even if you were several games behind. Do you find that it feels familiar or totally new?

        • Very familiar. I watch a lot of pro tennis (it’s our default channel on our TV). It’s never over until it’s over is a common refrain.

          • Dariel Luciano

            I still watch some pro. Exciting until the end. Thanks for the feedback. Now to fish through piles of garage stuff to find my rackets.

          • Buy a new racket. The tech changes rapidly. I dumped all my two year old ones for a new Wilson Blade 104 – huge difference.

          • Dariel Luciano

            I was just thinking that. Even if I found my old ones, they’d need to be restrung and retaped. Might as well restring/retape a new racket. Do you play in a league back home or friends/fam?

          • League: Not yet.

          • Dariel Luciano


  • Kind of ironic that a leftie trains to play right handed when everyone else in the tennis world would love to be leftie. 🙂

    • Yup! I never understood why I was taught to play right handed.

      • Cecelia Feld

        You probably told your instructor that’s what you wanted to do. You can be very persuasive!

        • I’m skeptical of that one. I have a feeling the pro (JL) decided that’s how I was going to do it…

  • You should still learn left-handed just so you can pull an Inigo Montoya and say during a match, “I admit it, you are better than I am, but I know something you don’t know… I’m not left-handed!”. This post makes me pine for the days of regular tennis practice. I need to get a new racket and just do it.

  • I think I will go look at this read. However, just grokking the tone of this piece, you and I have totally different views of the game. ALL I think about is my mechanics. Am I making good contact in the center of the racket? Is my weight balanced? Am I moving to the ball? Am I setting up and hitting it out front? Its weird but I almost use that stuff to block everything your getting at, the thinking stuff. To me at this point in my life I just want to hit good balls with good pace, I want to hit every ball within3 ft of the baseline and get a good workout. Its the only thing that keeps me from blowing up like a balloon.

    I used to play tournaments when I was in my twenties (we were in Houston then). Tournaments have become like startups for me, something I used to do when I was younger, stronger and had more stamina. I’d go out on a Saturday afternoon to Rice Univ. and play 3 or 4 sets in the 98 degree/99 percent humidity and not even blink. Ah, youth. Now I just work on good movement so I don’t break something. 😉

    • I think you will enjoy the book!

  • Interesting choice to learn another hand. A while back I decided that I was never good at shooting the ball right handed. I play a lot of ultimate frisbee which requires quick snap motions. In basketball it’s all about a smooth shot. So, I figured why not just learn to shoot with my left hand. It’s worked out pretty well. It’s taken some time, but not any longer than a kid learning to shoot. I think it also does something interesting to rewire the brain. Still exploring that. I also love that it kicks against the belief many have that you can’t learn as you get older.

    The best part is that when I shoot left handed it blows the kids minds that I’m actually right handed.

  • Marcus Detry

    Highly recommend reading Mind Gym, by Gary Mack. The premise is that the difference between good days and bad days isn’t physical, its mental. And we spend so much time training the physical side yet ignore mental. Mind Gym trains the mental. Even though its sports-based, it’s a great book for entrepreneurs because it helps with adversity, stress, fatigue, etc.

  • Love the post and focus on adult learning. I just wrote a post on beginners mind where I wrote about picking back up violin after many years.

  • davidcowan

    Brad, that book is the only tennis book I’ve ever read (probably the same year you did) and like you I loved it. I was just talking to my tennis coach about it last week, how even today I focus intently on the ball itself all the way to the point of impact, and only after the stroke take stock of how my swing worked!

    • It’s such a powerful approach, not just for tennis, but for everything we do! Maybe we’ll end up in the same place at the same time in 2016…

  • Arturo showed you the “Force.”

    • Show, he did, The Force, the me.

  • I’m so glad you are back blogging regularly again Brad. My dad bought the inner game of golf when I was a kid and I remember reading it then, I still have it somewhere. I am going to have to dig it out. It’s a great explanation of how really talented sports people are able to perform, they don’t over think what they are doing.

    • Glad to be back! I’ll probably try a few of the other Inner Guides and see how his ideas developed over time.

  • Dave Hall

    Great post Brad. I remember my dad somehow convincing me to read this book around 40 years. It served me well playing both junior tennis in New England and college tennis in New Hampshire. After a 20 year hiatus, it feels great to be playing again. Unfortunately Self 1 and Self 2 are still having long, heated conversations! Happy New Year!

    • Those two Self’s sure like to talk to each other. I’ve been practicing sending them to different rooms.

  • Have you read Levels of the Game by John McPhee? I’ve heard incredible things and it’s the next tennis book up on my reading list.

    • I am reading it right now! It starts incredibly strong.

  • The idea of not thinking is also told about in Positive Psychology that is designed for people to be happy. It is called the flow experience. It is described as time stopping. Also Eckhart Tolle says that the secret to happiness is to be in the moment or present. What is the difference between not thinking or being in the present? No difference. Tim Gallwey learned about this (mentioned in his book) by doing a meditation taught by Prem Rawat. Not only does Self1 make it harder to play tennis but will never let you be happy. But you can be happy by conquering Self1.

  • Tennis is meditation. To hit well meditate don’t think, meditate. Dance with your feet and slow the ball down with your eyes. I’ve had back issue the past few years. Tennis is part of my life that I miss dearly.

    What’s your favorite pro match?

    • Any McEnroe / Borg or Federal / Nadal.

      • The changes in momentum of the 4-5 set matches always made tennis an amazing spectator sport at a level deeper than most sports.

        • And the last decade has been an EPIC period for the long (> 4 hour) match. Incredible, incredible endurance.

          • Did you have the opportunity to play on clay?

          • Very little. As a kid I played mostly on hardcourts. For the past seven weeks in San Diego, I’ve been on hardcourts. Our club in Boulder has some outdoor clay which I will definitely play on when it is warm enough.

          • My take is that you would have been a heck of a stick ball player had you grown up in the streets of NY vs Dallas.

            Ha! “Warm Enough” that’s the operative word for me and tennis!

  • Glenn Zweig

    Just catching up on my blog reading and came across this. I’m right at your 4.0 level. I play in a casual league watching with envy the 5.0 players next to me. That used to be me 30 years ago… If you haven’t read Agassi’s Open autobiography, that’s my favorite. Very eye opening.

    • Open is on my Kindle to read!

      • Glenn Zweig

        O.K. Brad – per your recommendation, I’m finally upgrading my tennis racket. This better make my game look like it did 30 years ago or else I’m holding you personally responsible.