Do you like hitting fuzzy yellow balls around a small court?
Or are you simply after some Zen-esque life philosophy?
In either case, the Inner Game of Tennis has you covered.
Not only will make your existence better through actionable strategies that you can apply on the tennis court, but also make your life on this little globe that much better.
We’ll dive into the book shortly, but first some background on why I wanted to read this classic and the awesome results it’s produced.
My tennis career
I’ve been playing tennis since I was about 4 or 5 years old, drawn to the sport after watching my older brother in his coaching sessions.
My childhood was filled with after school and weekend practice, as well as summer tennis tournaments.
However, but the age of 18 I’d more or less had enough and embarked on the steady mission of becoming drunk and fat at university.
Seeing Federer going strong at 38 brought me back to the fold though, and I decided a year or two ago (at the age of 34) to dust off the old racquets and return to the beautiful game…
Albeit, a lot heavier and slower.
The problem? Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the player I remembered.
Although I saw glimpses of my former game, it only surfaced in the briefest intervals, before I returned to my error-strewn ways.
Luckily, around two or three years ago, I stumbled upon the wonderful art of meditation and have been practising almost daily ever since.
So, when a friend mentioned this book to me, I thought it would be a great fit. Well, it certainly was.
I’ll explain the results at the end, but first, let’s dive into The Inner Game of Tennis summary.
The Inner Game of Tennis summary
Every game is composed of an inner and outer game.
To give a successful outer performance means first mastering the inner game.
There are two selves in each of us:
- Self 1 is the conscious mind
- Self 2 is the unconscious mind
tldr – if we relax the conscious mind and let the unconscious mind work its magic, we perform better
When we try to improve our performance we often to try appeal to the conscious mind, over analysing our performance, overthinking our technique and using tactics like self-talk.
When we hit a bad shot we verbally berate ourselves, our conscious self continually monitoring the performance of self 2, making us unable to relax.
This places excessive pressure on ourselves and creates internal tension between the conscious self and the unconscious self, which is responsible for high performance.
When we remove the internal critic and relax into self 2 we become almost childlike, entering a state of flow where we act instinctively.
Our shots become fluid and automatic, the game playing us rather than us paying the game.
Using this approach it’s possible to play like a champion.
How to do this?
The first step is to release all judgement about our performance.
Whenever we miss a shot, negative judgements form, which results in overthinking.
Negative judgement only bolsters negative self-image, which in turn, increases the likelihood of repeating the undesirable behaviour.
However, positive thinking and praise is equally unhelpful as it too is a subtle form of thinking, which activates the conscious mind and self 1.
A better method to employ is visualisation, imagining a recording of you playing a great match, leaving the unconscious self unencumbered and free-flowing.
Other methods include focusing on the lines of the tennis ball before impact or counting the ball bounces during the rally.
Such techniques occupy the conscious mind in a single point of focus, quietening the mind and allowing self 2 to do its thing.
An essential element in this process is trust.
Our subconscious mind is highly evolved to perform all manner of processes without our conscious intervention, from breathing to digestion and fine movement.
By trusting our body to perform the correct actions at the correct time, we improve our chances of success.
Mistrust and conscious intervention only hamper our efforts.
Like many things in life, desire for a particular outcome can make it less likely for that outcome to occur.
Trusting ourselves can be tough.
The problem is that our conscious mind continually interjects until we give it a task.
This is where we can employ the practice focused attention and mindfulness.
Paying attention to the movement of the ball through the air or mentally noticing ball bounces and racquet impacts when you strike the ball.
This requires methodical practice, but soon, rather than mind wandering into the past about a previous poor shot or anticipating the future, we’re present in the moment, responding to the rally as it occurs.
This feeds into the concept of greater self-awareness.
When we’re children we learn through observation and action rather than detailed instruction.
For adults, this too is a far superior learning method.
Putting the powers of imitation into practice is something I personally tend to use on court through visualisation and role-playing.
By imagining how Roger Federer would hit a serve before I hit my own, I perform a kind of imaginary observation and imitation.
In contrast, receiving verbal technical advice from a coach simply activates the conscious mind and obstructs progress.
Instead, cultivating awareness through mindfulness is much more effective.
We can do this by feeling our body as it performs an action.
Through simple observation and non-judgmental awareness, we avoid intellectualising our experience and allow our body to naturally discover the most effective way of performing.
It will initiate minor tweaks to imitate what we’ve observed to achieve the same result.
This can be thought of as natural learning or what psychologists call implicit learning.
There is no right or wrong of the resultant technique. What works for some, might not work for others.
It’s more effective to discover your own unique style and approach.
The Inner Game of Tennis has applications beyond the sport.
In a wider context, by relinquishing the control-seeking of self 1, we start to enjoy our performance more.
Rather than the ego-driven desire to win and prove ourselves to others, the activity becomes more playful and pleasant.
Such a perspective allows us to dispense with fear, anxiety and anger.
This needn’t be at the expense of being competitive and trying to win.
Strong competition brings out your best and rivalry can lead to a dance between two (or four!) players who are immersed in the activity and performing at their peak.
But it’s the competition that’s played within that matters most.
Just like a surfer choosing challenging waves to develop their abilities, you can focus on your inner obstacles to hone your skills.
Much like the Stoic philosophy of focusing only on that you can control, Gallwey’s wisdom is universally applicable in other domains of life,
“Stability grows as I learn to accept what I cannot control and take control of what I can.”
In everything we do, there’s an inner and outer game.
By cultivating presence and awareness, we stop worrying about the past or fretting over the future and instead relax into whatever we’re doing.
Our subconscious can then guide our actions and behaviour much more effectively.
Using these techniques we can excel in an area.
My story continued…
Ever since getting back into the tennis, there was one opponent who became my arch-nemesis.
I just couldn’t beat him.
Then I read this book and applied its principles.
Using the techniques outlined in the book to quieten self 1 and trust self 2, I relaxed into each match, getting out of my head and into my body.
Combined with the application of other mindfulness methods during our matches, I soon rediscovered the form of my youth and began beating my opponent.
The skills learnt in The Inner Game of Tennis have since taken my performance to new heights and I’ve applied the principles to areas of life off the court, with pleasing results.
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