The Inner Game of Tennis and Real Life

I have recently finished reading Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”. As mentioned on Goodreads, it is: “a revolutionary program for overcoming the self-doubt, nervousness, and lapses of concentration that can keep a player from winning.” I am no tennis player. To be precise, I am no player at all, but a bit of golf now and then. Nevertheless, I found the book very relevant also for “games” outside the “court”.

While reading the book I have saved some thoughts I found especially noteworthy in the context of life. In this post I would like to share them with you, maybe inspire you to read this book yourself and reflect on certain ideas it contains. Before I begin, I don’t intend to write a book review, nor do I agree with all these thoughts. The reason for capturing them is that I found them worthy to dwell on. Thus, let us begin.

Firstly, Gallwey emphasizes the art of relaxed concentration as the cornerstone of the best performance. In other words, to reach your peak you need to have a still mind, you need to let go of the judging process of your performance and just see the events as they are. This might sound somewhat counter-intuitive, because one might believe that without labeling your performance as good or bad it is hard to trace progress and further improvement. On one hand, I agree. On the other hand, I do understand the point Gallwey was trying to make. Judgmental labels lead to emotional reactions, which in turn forces us to try harder than required and consequently make us lose the right focus.

Secondly, he brings forward an example of kids learning by mirroring and claims that this is the most efficient way of learning (“fortunately most children learn to walk before they can be told how by their parents”). Furthermore, he describes a childlike method of simply starting a new habit instead of trying to get rid of the old one. Thus, when we are desperately trying to break a certain habit and then form another one instead, we are actually over-engineering the whole process. “A child doesn’t have to break the habit of crawling, because he doesn’t think he has a habit.” – says Gallwey.

Thirdly, Gallwey insists that we need to find the perfect rhythm for ourselves which “may be slightly different from what might be dictated by some universal standard called correct”. This point I find especially ingenious, provided how often we try to apply generic standards to ourselves, instead of searching for our unique way. How often we compare ourselves to others while no comparison is actually needed. Once again, here one might disagree and wonder how can we understand how good we are without comparing ourselves to other “players”. I talked about benchmarking in one of my recent posts (here). Yet to add to that, you can achieve your maximum performance not by attempting to win over somebody, but by demonstrating a high degree of personal excellence. The metaphor Gallwey uses is the surfer who “waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents”, not because he is trying to beat other surfers.

So in a nutshell, what does the author understand by the Inner Game of learning? In essence there are four principles: 1. Observe, non-judgmentally existing behavior; 2. Ask yourself to change, programming with image and feel, but no commands.; 3. Let it happen; 4. Non-judgmentally, calm observation of results until the behavior is automatic.

As you see there is a lot of emphasis on the “non-judgmental” part; Gallwey comes back to it over and over again. This concept is based on the assumption that most of “our suffering takes place when we allow our minds to imagine the future or mull over the past”. We lose our energy on things that we cannot change anymore or on things that do not exist yet, not allowing us to fully embrace the present moment.

A separate point the author makes closer to the end of the book is about love and respect which, sadly, frequently are made dependent on winning or doing well in a competitive society. But Gallwey rightly asks:

“Who said that I am to be measured by how well I do things? Who said I should be measured at all? Like Jonathan Seagull are we not an immeasurable energy in the process of manifesting, by degrees, an unlimited potential?”

That “Jonathan Seagull” he mentions is the main hero of the amazing little book by Richard Bach “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” which is actually full of inspirational and thought-provoking ideas. It is a tiny book you can easily read in a couple of hours and is truly worth every minute of it. So if you haven’t yet – I really recommend you to read it!

Finally, Timothy Gallwey shares a very inspiring quote describing how he prefers to see himself:

I prefer to regard myself as a seed of a tree, with my entire potential already within me as opposed to a building which must have stories added to it to achieve a greater height

Thus, we are already complete and worthy; we are already talented and capable; we don’t need to add extra to become better; we just need to develop what’s already inside. Be it in the game of tennis, on the golf field, or just in our everyday environment.

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4 thoughts on “The Inner Game of Tennis and Real Life”

  1. Crazy as it sounds, I get the nonjudgmental critic comments. For whether it is sports, work, or something else…if we are working hard towards something we want in life…we tend to be our own worst critics. This is a very thought provoking write, well penned.

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