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Published in 1974, "The Inner Game of Tennis" by Timothy Gallwey is a little book packed with insights and lessons that go far beyond the game of tennis. It's a powerful guide to overcoming self-doubt, harnessing our potential, and performing at our best.
Although short in length, books like these are never easy to summarize. Instead, I'll reflect upon the five key takeaways that stood out to me.
"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. ... 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."
Back in BL&T No. 50, I wrote about how writing helped me engage with my inner voice, or what Gallwey refers to as Self 1. "By actively engaging with my inner voice, I've become more aware of how I unconsciously experience the world. This recognition has helped me improve my outlook, identify distractions, and ultimately, channel my thoughts more effectively to free up mental space."
I appreciate how Gallwey views the relationship between Self 1 and Self 2 as two people because it's just as complex. It's the limiting beliefs Self 1 tells us that keep us from what we want to achieve, but it takes awareness to hear them and make a change. Activities like writing have helped me get real with Self 1, see where I'm letting those beliefs hold me back, and find a path to overcome them.
"Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them."
Another way I like to think about this concept is just sticking with the facts. When you don't perform as you hoped, it's not worth labeling your performance as 'bad' because we learn nothing. In the process, we make ourselves feel worse. Instead, ask what happened and why. This can be easier said than done, but it's been key for me to continue making progress in all aspects of my life.
Reflecting on my habits and goals, I've found that focusing on the 'what' and 'why' has been more constructive than dwelling on self-criticism. The latter has only created pressure and made me feel like I'm failing, while the former has inspired me to take action.
"No teacher is greater than one’s own experience."
Growing up, I liked to learn things on my own. At a young age, I taught myself the piano. I could never sit down and play Mozart, but I knew enough to start writing music and learning songs I heard on the radio. When I was older, my younger brother Justin got piano lessons, and I decided to join. It was tough for me, though. I felt like I was going backward. I knew enough to perform a song, but not enough to play a solo. The teacher wasn't sure what to do with me. At the recital, I ended up playing and singing my own song. Soon after, I stopped the lessons.
I look back at this and wonder how much more developed my skill would be if I took lessons earlier in life, but was given enough flexibility to do my thing. That can be the challenge with instruction, making the student feel as if there's only one way to get an outcome.
That said, I've come to enjoy taking instruction and have found my way of receiving it. I like to think of it more as a guideline vs. trying to mimic it exactly. I remember powerlifting for the first time. When I tried to do the movements exactly like the coach said, I never got it right. I had to breathe, and let my body find its way through the movement. As a tennis instructor, Gallwey learned to strike this balance with his students, helping them overcome plateaus and hurdles.
"If consciousness were like an electric light shining in a dark forest, by virtue of this light, it would be possible to see and know the forest within a certain radius. The closer an object is to the light, the more it will be illuminated and the greater the detail that will be visible. Objects farther away are seen more vaguely. But if we put a reflector around this light, making it into a searchlight, then all the light would shine in one direction. Now objects that are in the path of the light will be seen with greater clarity and many objects which were previously “lost in darkness” will become knowable. This is the power of focus of attention."
There's so much vying for our attention these days that focus can be hard to come by without making a concerted effort. In the "Road Less Stupid: Advice from the Chairman of the Board" author Keith J. Cunningham introduces the concept of 'thinking time.' Throughout the book, he shares questions that he encourages the reader to sit with and ponder. No phones, no electronics, nothing—just a notebook and pen. When you spend time like this, you get a sense of how it really feels to concentrate, and it's incredible what's possible.
Like anything, focus is a learned skill that takes practice. When I have days filled with meetings, I'm grateful to be able to find focus for even 10 minutes to make progress I otherwise wouldn't. It's no different when it comes to performance. As a musician, some of the best shows I played were ones where I got off stage and thought, what just happened? It was like I went somewhere else for an hour and just returned to Earth.
"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. In true competition no person is defeated. Both players benefit by their efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other. Like two bulls butting their heads against one another, both grow stronger and each participates in the development of the other."
Gallwey's perspective changed how I looked at being 'competitive.' Perhaps it's less about beating our opponent and more about getting satisfaction from a challenging game. In that way, competition becomes a means for personal growth, shifting the focus from external outcomes to internal progress (aka the inner game).
In Gallwey's words, "When I’m concerned only about winning, I’m caring about something that I can’t wholly control. ... When one is emotionally attached to results that he can’t control, he tends to become anxious and then try too hard. But one can control the effort he puts into winning."
When we're not trying too hard, we can focus all of our energy on our performance. In essence, our ability to win the outer game is contingent on mastering the inner game.
"The Inner Game of Tennis" offers timeless wisdom applicable to all facets of life. These takeaways are just a taste. I highly recommend picking up the book if you found value in these insights.
If you're looking for more on this topic, I found "With Winning In Mind" by Larry Bassham to be an excellent companion. While the concepts differ, they serve as parallel guides on the journey to achieving one's best. Refer to BL&T No. 134 for 7 principles from "With Winning In Mind."
How often do you catch yourself judging your own actions as either good or bad? How might this awareness impact your daily experiences?
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