Winning the inner game

In all our work, games, and striving, regardless of the external differences, there is a singular interior struggle at play. This is the contest between our conscious, intellectual self and our unconscious, embodied self. This is the thesis put forward by Timothy Gallwey in his classic book, The Inner Game of Tennis. In it, he uses the game of tennis as a lens for investigating this inner game and giving strategies for winning it

The Inner Game of Tennis was first published in 1974. It is an acknowledge classic in the genres of self-help and sports psychology. Indeed, Gallwey himself has produced a series of five other “Inner Game” books that all develop the themes of this one or examine them through different sports, e.g. golf. The book draws heavily from zen philosophy and from 20th century psychologists like Abraham Maslow. A lot of the ideas and anecdotes are at this point so commonplace as to be cliched. But this is in part due to the book’s impact.

The basic premise of the book is that the human personality is fundamentally split into two sub-personalities, what Gallwey calls “Self 1” and “Self 2.” Self 1 is the the conscious mind, intellectual and scrutinizing. It abstracts from sense perception and creates rules. It plans for the future. It seeks control.

Self 2 is the unconscious mind, everything our nervous system is doing that we do not perceive directly. It’s the muscle memory, reflex and adrenaline. It works independently of any higher control. For example, you do not have to consciously think about breathing, pumping blood, or walking. Self 2 is running in the background handling all of these tasks.

Of course, the body and mind are capable of much more complex tasks than simply walking around. Humans can, for instance, play tennis. It was while working as a tennis instructor that Gallwey realized that the more people obsessed over perfect technique and overthought their game, the worse they actually performed. When he coached them to stop thinking about the rules and technique and just focus on something like the movement of the ball, their performance improved dramatically.

The book argues that the key to unlocking this apparent paradox is the Inner Game. Self 1 is trying to control Self 2 and get it to follow the rules perfectly which tends to create stress. Obviously, the body, Self 2, has to learn the rules and technique initially. But once that is done, Self 1 has to learn to get out of the way and let Self 2 do its thing. Our conscious need to be perfectionistic and self-critical does more harm than good. It’s somewhat like yelling, “Why can’t you just calm down?” to a crying friend. It’s never going to work.

The solution then is let go of Self 1 as much as possible in order to empower Self 2. You do this by creating a clear image of the end goal, trusting Self 2 to make the most from both success and setbacks, and becoming “nonjudgemental.” Finding the balance for these two selves is what brings out our most intense focus and “peak performance.”

The book also has a lot to say about tennis. This is something to be aware of if you’re looking for pure, undiluted self-help material. There is a lengthy section on the proper way to serve the ball, and most of the anecdotes are from the sport of tennis. The more broadly applicable principles of the Inner Game have to be gleaned from the tennis talk. Or as Gallwey puts it in the introduction, the psychological principles are “explored through the medium of tennis.”

Overall, the book has some interesting ideas that were revolutionary back when it was released. The idea of letting go of your self-criticism and just allowing your natural instincts to guide you is certainly a powerful antidote to stress, if applied properly.

The Inner Game of Tennis is available for purchase here.

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