Dec 26 2015

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.