I recently got the chance to study « the inner game of tennis » written by Timothy Gallway, an author who has written and published several books in which he has set forth a new methodology of coaching and for the development of personal and professional excellence in a variety of fields that he calls « the Inner Game ». His methodology is used in various fields of business, health, education, sports and music. I am passionate about tennis and I also got a chance to coach a tennis player and I found this book very helpful for my mental game and also for coaching athletes, therefore I thought I’d share with you some of the main concepts.
Timothy Gallway defines the inner game as the game that takes place in the mind of an individual and its obstacles as lack of concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. The inner game is played to overcome all habits of mind that inhibit excellent performances.
The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills. The person discovers a true basis for self-confidence and learns the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard. The swiss legend, Roger Federer, make it look like he’s not even breaking a sweat during the tennis match. The inner game aims at the kind of spontaneous performance which occurs only when the mind is calm and in line with the body. Therefore, the body finds its own surprising ways to go above and beyond its limitations. We speak about « Being in the zone » as the state of being fully immersed, undistracted, acting without worry or fear of the outcomes. Former Top rated swiss tennis player, Stanilas Wawrika, is hardly beatable when he reaches that state and it is impressive ! His performances against Djokovic in final Roland Garros 2015, and the final Us Open 2016 were unbelievable.
Everything important comes with a psychological game and a proper mental attitude is required to overcome any obstacle.
For example, an athlete’s peak performance never comes when he’s thinking about it. The athlete is conscious but not thinking, and especially not over-thinking; he is consciously unconscious : his mind is so concentrated, so focused that it becomes still. The mind and the body act as one entity where the body accomplishes its unconscious automatic functions without any interference from thoughts. The ability to approach this state is the goal of the Inner game. The development of the skill is required; it’s interesting to learn how to focus one’s attention and how to trust yourself.
On the opposite side, by thinking too much or trying too hard, an athlete produces tensions and muscle conflicts in the body; he starts to blame himself and undermines his own confidence and that’s the vicious circle that leads to losing the inner game and by extension, the outer game as well. In sport, the constant thinking of the ego-mind causes interference with the natural capabilities of the body. The ego-mind comes with reflecting, deliberating, conceptualizing and the original unconsciousness is lost and thoughts interfere. Paradoxically, Performers accomplish greatness when they are not thinking nor calculating; they are free of , inhibitions, cautions, fears, doubts, controls, self-criticism and this is where the Magic happens. What is essential for a performer is the ability to quiet the mind which means less thinking, calculating, judging, worrying, fearing, hoping, trying, controlling or distracting; the mind is therefore still when it is totally in the present moment.
To reach that state, it is essential to let go of judgments. Judgement is the act of assigning a negative or a positive attribution to a situation. Judging provokes a thinking process where we label as « bad » or « good » something that occurred. For me, judgment is the biggest disease of this century; of course, there are such things as right or wrong, but some things can only be seen as they are without adding anything to them. Letting go of judgments doesn’t mean ignoring errors, it simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them. If the judgment process could be stopped with naming a situation « bad », there will be no further ego reactions and interferences would be minimal. Judgmental labels lead to emotional reactions and then to tightness, trying too hard and self-condemnation. The ego-mind thinks, evaluates, judges, criticizes what is wrong, wants to take responsibility for making things better and creates load of suffering and worries when things don’t go our way. This is why it is crucial to develop the skill of nonjudgmental awareness.
Timothy Gallway speaks about the fact of unlocking the process of natural development. According to him there is a natural learning process which operates within everyone. This process is waiting to be discovered by all those who do not know of its existence. Since our childhood, we have been told and instructed to do things a certain way or according to a specific methodology and we underestimate the power of natural learning. For example, a child or an animal learn only by watching (power of imagery) and experimenting with no such things as right or wrong. When we are really interested in something, we encourage our senses as feeling and seeing what we’re doing. This process increases our awareness toward what we’re doing without the judgmental view. Therefore, we learn by experimenting without guidance and without judging; we just let the action flows spontaneously. This concept of letting the natural learning development comes along with letting your body learn by itself. We tend to mentalize everything as the brain received most of our education. Sometime, the body acknowledges things that the brain doesn’t know. For example, if you ask most of people to explain how to tie a tie, most of them would struggle explaining it, the body learnt by doing it and it became automatic. If you ask a tennis player to describe a specific movement, he can struggle as well, because he just let it happen and learned it through repetition without mentalizing it. The player knows the repeated process but having hard time with the verbal instructions; it doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t know at all.
The body learns by watching and experimenting. A picture, an image is worth a thousand words. We learn by watching the actions of others. I, myself, without bragging, learnt tennis only by watching people play, and by playing myself. By watching, it’s not necessarily analyzing the game of somebody, it’s just letting yourself be absorbed by the image you have in mind. The power of image gives a certain intangible such as timing, anticipation, sense of confidence without conscious effort or control. Thus, imagery, sensory images, movements are ways to learn through visual and feeling images.
Basically, letting go of judgments, the art of creating images and letting it happen are three of the basic skills involved in the inner game. In tennis, it is important to silence the thinking mind by letting go of the mental self-instruction, focusing attention and trusting the body to do what it is capable of doing.
The issue comes when the verbal instruction passed on to another person who does not have in his bank of experience the action described in memory, it lives in the mind totally disconnected from experience. The chances are even greater that there will be a split between memory of theory and the memory of action. Therefore, the gap between experience and instruction tend to wide up and conflicts and self-condemnation occur. This is why, it is advised to have very little and well understood instruction and load of experiments and repetitions. 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. To conclude, the more awareness one can bring to bear on any action, the more feedback one gets from experience, and the more naturally one learns the technique that feels best and works best for any given player at any given state of development. There is no substitute for learning from experience. However, even though we have the ability to learn naturally, many of us have forgottenn and many of us have lost touch with feeling. We may need to learn how to feel again and learn how to learn again. In tennis, it is more likely to give somebody an instruction and practice until the body uses the instruction in the appropriate way.
People are complaining about their bad habits all the time. They think they are controlled by those habits and they feel they have to break it. However, fighting the fantasy of an old habits can cause conflicts within ourselves. What Timothey Gallway underlines is there is no need to fight and old habits, or changing habits, what is important is to Start New Ones. It is the resisting an old habit that puts people in tensions. Starting a new pattern is easy when done with a childlike disregard for imagined difficulties. For instance, 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.
These great insights come from the book « the inner game of tennis » that gives very practical exercises on the game of tennis. This is one of the greatest coaching book I have ever read because the lesson learned can be applied in any field of activity whether it is business, sports, acting, dancing, or giving speeches. When one can master the art of relaxed concentration, quieting the mind, letting go of self-judgement, it gives the chance to greatness to express oneself without any tension.