The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey

Rating: 9/10

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High-Level Thoughts

It’s about much more than Tennis. It’s about how to get out of your own way so you can perform at your best. How to “get out of your head” so you don’t try to control your unconscious processes with your conscious mind. Kind of like a guide to zen for people who aren’t into all of the “zen-y” parts.

Summary Notes

What is the real game? It is a game in which the heart is entertained, the game in which you are entertained. It is the game you will win. - MAHARAJI

They must clear their minds of all confusion and earn the ability to let themselves play freely.


“It’s not about the tennis,” he reminds me. “It’s not about the win or the loss; if we’re here to experience, then we are free.”


Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game. The outer game is played against an external opponent to overcome external obstacles, and to reach an external goal.

It is the thesis of this book that neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game.

This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.

The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.

This process doesn’t have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen.

Reflections on the Mental Side of Tennis

The most common complaint of sportsmen ringing down the corridors of the ages is, “It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know!”

I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results. One question perplexed me: What’s wrong with trying? What does it mean to try too hard?

A player in this state knows where he wants the ball to go, but he doesn’t have to “try hard” to send it there. It just seems to happen—and often with more accuracy than he could have hoped for. The player seems to be immersed in a flow of action which requires his energy, yet results in greater power and accuracy. The “hot streak” usually continues until he starts thinking about it and tries to maintain it; as soon as he attempts to exercise control, he loses it.

The next time your opponent is having a hot streak, simply ask him as you switch courts, “Say, George, what are you doing so differently that’s making your forehand so good today? If he takes the bait—and 95 percent will—and begins to think about how he’s swinging, telling you how he’s really meeting the ball out in front, keeping his wrist firm and following through better, his streak invariably will end. He will lose his timing and fluidity as he tries to repeat what he has just told you he was doing so well.

The backhand can be used to advantage only on a tennis court, but the skill of mastering the art of effortless concentration is invaluable in whatever you set your mind to.

The Discovery of the Two Selves

Now we are ready for the first major postulate of the Inner Game: within each player the kind of relationship that exists between Self 1 and Self 2 is the prime factor in determining one’s ability to translate his knowledge of technique into effective action. In other words, the key to better tennis—or better anything—lies in improving the relationship between the conscious teller, Self 1, and the natural capabilities of Self 2.

Joan was beginning to sense the difference between “trying hard,” the energy of Self 1, and “effort,” the energy used by Self 2, to do the work necessary. During the last set of balls, Self 1 was fully occupied in watching the seams of the ball. As a result, Self 2 was able to do its own thing unimpaired, and it proved to be pretty good at it. Even Self 1 was starting to recognize the talents of 2; she was getting them together.

Getting it together mentally in tennis involves the learning of several internal skills:

  1. learning how to get the clearest possible picture of your desired outcomes;
  2. learning how to trust Self 2 to perform at its best and learn from both successes and failures; and
  3. learning to see “nonjudgmentally”—that is, to see what is happening rather than merely noticing how well or how badly it is happening.

Quieting Self 1

In short, “getting it together” requires slowing the mind. Quieting the mind means less thinking, calculating, judging, worrying, fearing, hoping, trying, regretting, controlling, jittering or distracting. The mind is still when it is totally here and now in perfect oneness with the action and the actor. It is the purpose of the Inner Game to increase the frequency and the duration of these moments, quieting the mind by degrees and realizing thereby a continual expansion of our capacity to learn and perform.

For most of us, quieting the mind is a gradual process involving the learning of several inner skills. These inner skills are really arts of forgetting mental habits acquired since we were children. The first skill to learn is the art of letting go the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad. Letting go of the judging process is a basic key to the Inner Game; its meaning will emerge as you read the remainder of this chapter. When we unlearn how to be judgmental, it is possible to achieve spontaneous, focused play.

Be clear about this: letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.

Nonjudgmental awareness might observe that during a certain match you hit 50 percent of your first serves into the net. It doesn’t ignore the fact. It may accurately describe your serve on that day as erratic and seek to discover the causes. Judgment begins when the serve is labeled “bad” and causes interference with one’s playing when a reaction of anger, frustration or discouragement follows. If the judgment process could be stopped with the naming of the event as bad, and there were no further ego reactions, then the interference would be minimal.

Judgment results in tightness, and tightness interferes with the fluidity required for accurate and quick movement. Relaxation produces smooth strokes and results from accepting your strokes as they are, even if erratic.

The first step is to see your strokes as they are. They must be perceived clearly. This can be done only when personal judgment is absent. As soon as a stroke is seen clearly and accepted as it is, a natural and speedy process of change begins.

The key that unlocked Jack’s new backhand—which was really there all the time just waiting to be let out—was that in the instant he stopped trying to change his backhand, he saw it as it was. At first, with the aid of the mirror, he directly experienced his backswing. Without thinking or analyzing, he increased his awareness of that part of his swing. When the mind is free of any thought or judgment, it is still and acts like a mirror. Then and only then can we know things as they are.

No matter what a person’s complaint when he has a lesson with me, I have found that the most beneficial first step is to encourage him to see and feel what he is doing—that is, to increase his awareness of what actually is. I follow the same process when my own strokes get out of their groove. But to see things as they are, we must take off our judgmental glasses, whether they’re dark or rose-tinted. This action unlocks a process of natural development which is as surprising as it is beautiful.

Uncomfortable without a standard for right and wrong, the judgmental mind makes up standards of its own. Meanwhile, attention is taken off what is and placed on the process of trying to do things right.

Then I asked the women if they were aware of something different going through their minds during the second series of balls. Each of them reported being less aware of their feet and more intent on trying to keep from hitting balls into the net. They were trying to live up to an expectation, a standard of right and wrong, which they felt had been set before them. This was exactly what had been missing during the first set of balls. I began to see that my compliment had engaged their judgmental minds.

Always looking for approval and wanting to avoid disapproval, this subtle ego-mind sees a compliment as a potential criticism. It reasons, “If the pro is pleased with one kind of performance, he will be displeased by the opposite. If he likes me for doing well, he will dislike me for not doing well.” The standard of good and bad had been established, and the inevitable result was divided concentration and ego-interference.

By ending judgment, you do not avoid seeing what is. Ending judgment means you neither add nor subtract from the facts before your eyes. Things appear as they are—undistorted. In this way, the mind becomes more calm.

THE FIRST INNER SKILL to be developed in the Inner Game is that of nonjudgmental awareness. When we “unlearn” judgment we discover, usually with some surprise, that we don’t need the motivation of a reformer to change our “bad” habits. We may simply need to be more aware. There is a more natural process of learning and performing waiting to be discovered. It is waiting to show what it can do when allowed to operate without interference from the conscious strivings of the judgmental self.

Trusting Self 2

it seems inappropriate to call our bodies derogatory names. Self 2—that is, the physical body, including the brain, memory bank (conscious and unconscious) and the nervous system—is a tremendously sophisticated and competent collection of potentialities. Inherent within it is an inner intelligence which is staggering. What it doesn’t already know, this inner intelligence learns with childlike ease.

As long as Self 1 is either too ignorant or too proud to acknowledge the capabilities of Self 2, true self-confidence will be hard to come by.

the relationship between Self 1 and Self 2 is analogous to the relationship between parent and child. Some parents have a hard time letting their children do something when they believe that they themselves know better how it should be done. But the trusting and loving parent lets the child perform his own actions, even to the extent of making mistakes, because he trusts the child to learn from them.

The more important the point, the more Self 1 may try to control the shot, and this is exactly when tightening up occurs. The results are almost always frustrating.

Fortunately, most children learn to walk before they can be told how to by their parents. Yet, children not only learn how to walk very well, but they gain confidence in the natural learning process which operates within them. Mothers observe their children’s efforts with love and interest, and if they are wise, without much interference. If we could treat our tennis games as we do a child learning to walk, we would make more progress.

The trick is not to identify with the backhand. If you view an erratic backhand as a reflection of who you are, you will be upset. But you are not your backhand any more than a parent is his child.

Getting the clearest possible image of your desired outcomes is a most useful method for communicating with Self 2, especially when playing a match.

Self 1’s only role is to be still and observe the results in a detached manner. Let me stress again that it is important not to make any conscious effort to keep the racket flat. If after a few strokes the racket does not conform to the image you gave Self 2, then image the desired outcome again and let your body swing your racket, making sure Self 2 isn’t giving it the slightest assistance.

I often suggest that as an experiment they adopt the style that seems most unlike the one they have previously adopted. I also suggest that they act the role of a good player, no matter what style they have chosen. Besides being a lot of fun, this kind of role-playing can greatly increase a player’s range.

Letting go of judgments, the art of creating images and “letting it happen” are three of the basic skills involved in the Inner Game.

Discovering Technique

It seemed that the mother knew exactly how much it needed to “show,” when to encourage and when encouragement was no longer needed. It knew it could trust a great deal in the instinct of the child, once it was “jump-started.”

maybe the error was in not trusting Self 2 enough and relying too much on Self 1 control. It is as if we would like to think of ourselves more as an obedient computer than as a human being.

In short, if we let ourselves lose touch with our ability to feel our actions, by relying too heavily on instructions, we can seriously compromise our access to our natural learning processes and our potential to perform. Instead, if we hit the ball relying on the instincts of Self 2, we reinforce the simplest neural pathway to the optimal shot.

too many verbal instructions, given either from outside or inside, interfere with one’s shotmaking ability.

So the question that remains is how one person’s greater level of experience can help another person. The short answer is that a valid instruction derived from experience can help me if it guides me to my own experiential discovery of any given stroke possibility.

Can the backhand be hit with a wrist that is too loose to give control? Certainly. But can it also be hit with a wrist that is too firm? Yes, of course it can. So as helpful as this instruction might appear, you cannot use it successfully by merely “obeying” it. Instead you use the instruction to guide your discovery of the optimal degree of tightness of your wrist. This of course can be done by paying attention to the feel of your wrist during your stroke and does not necessarily have to be put into language.

If you asked a group of teaching professionals to write down all the important elements of hitting a forehand, most would find it easy to distinguish at least fifty, and they might have several categories for each element. Imagine the difficulty for the tennis player dealing with this complexity. No wonder self-doubt is so easy to come by! On the other hand, understanding the swing, and remembering its feel, is like remembering a single picture.

Changing Habits

Tips are a dime a dozen, and there are good ones and bad ones. But what is more difficult to come by is a workable way to apply tips, to replace one pattern of behavior with a new one. It is in the process of changing habits that most players experience the greatest difficulty. When one learns how to change a habit, it is a relatively simple matter to learn which ones to change. Once you learn how to learn, you have only to discover what is worth learning.

Why is it so easy for a child to pick up a foreign language? Primarily because he hasn’t learned how to interfere with his own natural, untaught learning process. The Inner Game way of learning is a return toward this childlike way.

It is much more difficult to break a habit when there is no adequate replacement for it. This difficulty often exists when we become moralistic about our tennis game. If a player reads in a book that it is wrong to roll his racket over, but is not offered a better way to keep the ball in the court, it will take a great deal of willpower to keep his racket flat when he’s worried about the ball flying out of the court.

Often, in fact, the harder we try to break a habit, the harder it becomes to do.

It is a painful process to fight one’s way out of deep mental grooves. It’s like digging yourself out of a trench. But there is a natural and more childlike method. A child doesn’t dig his way out of his old grooves; he simply starts new ones! The groove may be there, but you’re not in it unless you put yourself there. If you think you are controlled by a bad habit, then you will feel you have to try to break it. A child doesn’t have to break the habit of crawling, because he doesn’t think he has a habit. He simply leaves it as he finds walking an easier way to get around.

Here is a simple summary of the traditional way we have been taught to learn, contrasted with the Inner Game of learning. Experiment with this method and you will discover a workable way to make any desired change in your game.

Step 1: Nonjudgmental Observation

Where do you want to start? What part of your game needs attention? It is not always the stroke that you judge as worst which is the most ready for change. It is good to pick the stroke you most want to change. Let the stroke tell you if it wants to change.

After you have watched and felt your serve for five minutes or so, you may have a strong idea about the particular element of the stroke that needs attention. Ask your serve how it would like to be different. Maybe it wants a more fluid rhythm; maybe it wants more power, or a greater amount of spin. If 90 percent of the balls are going into the net, it’s probably quite obvious what needs to change. In any case, let yourself feel the change most desired, then observe a few more serves.

Step 2: Picture the Desired Outcome

Let’s assume that what is desired in your serve is more power. The next step is to picture your serve with more power. One way to do this might be to watch the motion of someone who gets a lot of power in his serve. Don’t overanalyze; simply absorb what you see and try to feel what he feels.

Step 3: Trust Self 2

Begin serving again, but with no conscious effort to control your stroke. In particular, resist any temptation to try to hit the ball harder. Simply let your serve begin to serve itself. Having asked for more power, just let it happen. This isn’t magic, so give your body a chance to explore the possibilities. But no matter what the results, keep Self 1 out of it.

Step 4: Nonjudgmental Observation of Change and Results

As you are letting your serve serve itself, your job is simply to observe. Watch the process without exercising control over it. If you feel you want to help, don’t. The more you can bring yourself to put trust in the natural process that is at work, the less you will tend to fall into the usual interfering patterns of trying too hard, judging and thinking—and the frustration that inevitably follows.

When you try hard to hit the ball correctly, and it goes well, you get a certain kind of ego satisfaction. You feel that you are in control, that you are master of the situation. But when you simply allow the serve to serve itself, it doesn’t seem as if you deserve the credit. It doesn’t feel as if it were you who hit the ball. You tend to feel good about the ability of your body, and possibly even amazed by the results, but the credit and sense of personal accomplishment are replaced by another kind of satisfaction.

But of course the instant I try to make myself relax, true relaxation vanishes, and in its place is a strange phenomenon called “trying to relax.” Relaxation happens only when allowed, not as a result of “trying” or “making.”

Concentration: Learning to Focus

Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it. Learning to focus is the subject of this chapter and to whatever extent we learn this primary art, it can benefit us in most anything we do.

Then one day my roommate, another professional, challenged me to a match. I accepted, saying half jokingly, “But you better watch out, I’ve found the secret to the serve.” The next day we played and I served two double faults the first game! The moment I tried to apply some “secret,” Self 1 was back in the picture again, this time under the subtle guise of “trying to let go.” Self 1 wanted to show off to my roommate; it wanted the credit.

The focused mind only picks up on those aspects of a situation that are needed to accomplish the task at hand. It is not distracted by other thoughts or external events, it is totally engrossed in whatever is relevant in the here and now.

So the question arises as to how to maintain focus for extended periods of time. The best way is to allow yourself to get interested in the ball. How do you do this? By not thinking you already know all about it, no matter how many thousands of balls you have seen in your life. Not assuming you already know is a powerful principle of focus.

The results were the same as with any effective focus. The exercise would give the player better feedback from the ball and, at the same time, help clear his mind of distractions. It’s hard to be saying “bounce-hit” and at the same time overinstructing yourself, trying too hard or worrying about the score.

Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested. When this occurs, the mind is drawn irresistibly toward the object (or subject) of interest. It

It rarely occurs to a player to listen to the ball, but I have found great value in this focus. When the ball hits your racket, it makes a distinct sound, the quality of which varies considerably, depending on its proximity to the “sweet spot,”

I have found that the practice of listening to the ball is best used during practice. If you become sensitive to sound in practice, you will find that you will then use sound automatically during a match to encourage the repetition of solid shots. The habit will increase the number of balls hit solidly.

Again, you can program the best results by remembering as precisely as possible the feel in your hand, wrist and arm after a good solid hit.

Remember: it is almost impossible to feel or see anything well if you are thinking about how you should be moving.

Though focus of attention helps your tennis, it is equally true that playing tennis can help your focus of attention. Learning focus of attention is a master skill that has unlimited application. For those interested, let me elaborate briefly on some theoretical aspects of concentration.

Probably you were not aware of how your tongue feels in your mouth—but in all likelihood after reading the foregoing words, you now are. While you were reading or listening to the sights and sounds around you, you were not aware of the feeling of your tongue, but with the slightest suggestion, the mind directs the focus of attention from one thing to another. When attention is allowed to focus, it comes to know that place. Attention is focused consciousness, and consciousness is that power of knowing.

Since the mind seems to have a will of its own, how can one learn to keep it in the present? By practice. There is no other way. Every time your mind starts to leak away, simply bring it gently back.

When they were responding quickly enough to hit the top-speed balls and believed they were at the peak of their concentration, I moved the machine to midcourt, fifteen feet closer than before. At this point students would often lose some concentration as a degree of fear intruded. Their forearms would tense slightly, making their movements less quick and accurate. “Relax your forearm. Relax your mind. Simply relax into the present, focus on the seams of the ball, and let it happen.” Soon they were again able to meet the ball in front of them with the center of their rackets. There was no smile of self-satisfaction, merely total absorption in each moment. Afterward some players said that the ball seemed to slow down; others remarked how weird it was to hit balls when you didn’t have time to think about it. All who enter even a little into that state of being present will experience a calmness and a degree of ecstasy which they will want to repeat.

How to stay concentrated in the here and now between points? My own device, and one that has been effective for many of my students,is to focus attention on breathing.

One caution about “the zone”: it cannot be controlled by Self 1. I have seen many articles that claim to provide a technique for “playing in the zone every time.” Forget it! This is a setup. It’s an age-old trap. Self 1 likes the idea of playing in the zone, especially the results that usually occur. So Self 1 will try to grasp onto almost anything that promises to take you to what everyone agrees is a wonderful place. But there is one catch; the only way to get there is to leave Self 1 behind. So as long as you let Self 1 be the one that takes you there, it will be there too and you will not be able to go into the zone. If you do, even for a moment, Self 1 will say, “Good, I got there,” and you will be out again.

Games People Play on and Off the Court

We live in an achievement-oriented society where people tend to be measured by their competence in various endeavors. Even before we received praise or blame for our first report card, we were loved or ignored for how well we performed our very first actions. From this pattern, one basic message came across loud, clear and often: you are a good person and worthy of respect only if you do things successfully.

But who said that I am to be measured by how well I do things? In fact, who said that I should be measured at all? Who indeed? What is required to disengage oneself from this trap is a clear knowledge that the value of a human being cannot be measured by performance—or by any other arbitrary measurement.

The Meaning of Competition

What is seldom recognized is that the need to prove yourself is based on insecurity and self-doubt. Only to the extent that one is unsure about who and what he is does he need to prove himself to himself or to others.

Why does the surfer wait for the big wave? The answer was simple, and it unraveled the confusion that surrounds the true nature of competition. 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 to the beach. Why? Because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort. It is only against the big waves that he is required to use all his skill, all his courage and concentration to overcome; only then can he realize the true limits of his capacities.

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.

Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved. The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself.

So I arrived at the startling conclusion that true competition is identical with true cooperation. Each player tries his hardest to defeat the other, but in this use of competition it isn’t the other person we are defeating; it is simply a matter of overcoming the obstacles he presents.

Although I believe that is true, it is not necessarily true that all great effort leads to greatness. A very wise person once told me, “When it comes to overcoming obstacles, there are three kinds of people. The first kind sees most obstacles as insurmountable and walks away. The second kind sees an obstacle and says, I can overcome it, and starts to dig under, climb over, or blast through it. The third type of person, before deciding to overcome the obstacle, tries to find a viewpoint where what is on the other side of the obstacle can be seen. Then, only if the reward is worth the effort, does he attempt to overcome the obstacle.”

The Inner Game Off the Court

When a player comes to recognize, for instance, that learning to focus may be more valuable to him than a backhand, he shifts from being primarily a player of the outer game to being a player of the Inner Game.

The people who will best survive the present age are the ones Kipling described as “those who can keep their heads while all about are losing theirs.” Inner stability is achieved not by burying one’s head in the sand at the sight of danger, but by acquiring the ability to see the true nature of what is happening and to respond appropriately. Then Self 1’s reaction to the situation is not able to disrupt your inner balance or clarity.

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 the demands of Self 2 in relation to all the external pressures? It is obvious that every individual must ask and answer this question for himself or herself.

In most lectures that I have given recently, I remind myself and the audience that even though I come from California, I don’t believe in self-improvement, and I certainly don’t want to improve them. Sometimes there is a stunned response. But I don’t think anyone’s Self 2 needs improvement from birth to death. It has always been fine. I, more than anyone, need to remember that. Yes, our backhands can improve, and I’m sure my writing can get better; certainly our skills in relating to each other on the planet can improve. But the cornerstone of stability is to know that there is nothing wrong with the essential human being.

Focus means not dwelling on the past, either on mistakes or glories; it means not being so caught up in the future, either its fears or its dreams, that my full attention is taken from the present. The ability to focus the mind is the ability to not let it run away with you. It does not mean not to think—but to be the one who directs your own thinking. Focusing can be practiced on a tennis court, chopping carrots, in a pressure-packed board meeting or while driving in traffic. It can be practiced when alone or in conversation. It takes as much trust to fully focus attention when listening to another person without carrying on a side conversation in your own head as it does to watch a tennis ball in all its detail, without listening to Self 1’s worries, hopes and instructions.

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