The Inner Game of Tennis - by W. Timothy Gallwey


The Inner Game of Tennis - by W. Timothy Gallwey

Read: 2022-12-16

Recommend: 8/10

It’s a meditation book to me. It talks about focus and attachment through the game of tennis. It also reminds me of how I can improve in my Marathon training. Sometimes, I set a bar too high that I cannot cross and then feel discouraged after the races. That is Self 1 (The judgemental ego to evaluate) getting in the way of Self 2 (my inner ability to learn). The lifelong lesson of learning to focus never ends.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. Whereas the game and the field would be highlighted by athletic prowess and memorable playmaking, a much more subtle battle would be waged in the minds of those very same players.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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. He aims at the kind of spontaneous performance which occurs only when the mind is calm and seems at one with the body, which finds its own surprising ways to surpass its own limits again and again. Moreover, while overcoming the common hang-ups of competition, the player of the inner game uncovers a will to win which unlocks all his energy and which is never discouraged by losing.

  5. it will be explored through the medium of tennis.

  6. “It’s not that I don’t know what to do, it’s that I don’t do what I know!”

  7. but Dorothy does not understand how to “relax” while also trying hard to hit the ball correctly.

  8. I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand.

  9. images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results

  10. He is conscious, but not thinking, not over-trying.

  11. To test this theory is a simple matter, if you don’t mind a little underhanded gamesmanship. 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.

  12. “I’m talking to myself,” say most people. But just who is this “I” and who the “myself”?

  13. For clarity let’s call the “teller” Self 1 and the “doer” Self 2.

  14. Self 1 does not trust Self 2, even though it embodies all the potential you have developed up to that moment and is far more competent to control the muscle system than Self 1.

  15. By thinking too much and trying too hard, Self 1 has produced tension and muscle conflict in the body. He is responsible for the error, but he heaps the blame on Self 2 and then, by condemning it further, undermines his own confidence in Self 2. As a result the stroke grows worse and frustration builds.

  16. She was a bit surprised, but took the chance to give her Self 2 a knock, saying, “Oh, I can never do anything I try to!” Actually, she was close to an important truth. It was becoming clear that her way of trying wasn’t helpful.

  17. learning to see “nonjudgmentally”—that is, to see what is happening rather than merely noticing how well or how badly it is happening. This overcomes “trying too hard.”

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. What is important to see here is that neither the “goodness” nor “badness” ascribed to the event by the players is an attribute of the shot itself. Rather, they are evaluations added to the event in the minds of the players according to their individual reactions. Mr. A is saying, in effect, “I don’t like that event”; Mr. B is saying, “I like that event.” The umpire, here ironically called the judge, doesn’t judge the event as positive or negative; he simply sees the ball land and calls it out.

  21. What I mean by judgment is the act of assigning a negative or positive value to an event.

  22. As a result, what usually happens is that these self-judgments become self-fulfilling prophecies.

  23. letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.

  24. 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. But judgmental labels usually lead to emotional reactions and then to tightness, trying too hard, self-condemnation, etc. This process can be slowed by using descriptive but nonjudgmental words to describe the events you see.

  25. We walked over to a large windowpane and there I asked him to swing again while watching his reflection.

  26. In the game of tennis there are two important things to know. The first is where the ball is. The second is where the racket head is.

  27. The substituting of a kind of “positive hypnotism” for a previous habit of “negative hypnotism” may appear at least to have short-range benefits, but I have always found that the honeymoon ends all too soon.

  28. Through this experience, I began to see how Self 1 operated. 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.

  29. Acknowledgment of one’s own or another’s strengths, efforts, accomplishments, etc., can facilitate natural learning, whereas judgments interfere. What is the difference? Acknowledgment of and respect for one’s capabilities support trust in Self 2. Self 1’s judgments, on the other hand, attempt to manipulate and undermine that trust.

  30. Trusting your body in tennis means letting your body hit the ball. The key word is let. You trust in the competence of your body and its brain, and you let it swing the racket. Self 1 stays out of it. But though this is very simple, it does not mean that it is easy.

  31. Letting it happen is not making it happen. It is not trying hard. It is not controlling your shots.

  32. When the child loses his balance and falls, the mother doesn’t condemn it for being clumsy. She doesn’t even feel bad about it; she simply notices the event and perhaps gives a word or gesture of encouragement. Consequently, a child’s progress in learning to walk is never hindered by the idea that he is uncoordinated.

  33. This same kind of detached interest is what is necessary to let your tennis game develop naturally. Remember that you are not your tennis game. You are not your body. Trust the body to learn and to play, as you would trust another person to do a job, and in a short time it will perform beyond your expectations. Let the flower grow.

  34. Once you are competing it is too late to work on your strokes, but it is possible to hold in your mind the image of where you want the ball to go and then allow the body to do what is necessary to hit it there. It is essential here to trust Self 2. Self 1 must stay relaxed, refraining from giving “how-to-do-it” instructions and from any effort to control the stroke. As Self 1 learns to let go, a growing confidence in the ability of Self 2 emerges.

  35. “Asking for qualities” describes this other kind of role-playing. When introducing this idea, I usually say something like this: “Imagine that I am the director of a television series. Knowing that you are an actor that plays tennis, I ask if you would like to do a bit part as a top-flight tennis player. I assure you that you needn’t worry about hitting the ball out or into the net because the camera will only be focused on you and will not follow the ball. What I’m mainly interested in is that you adopt professional mannerisms, and that you swing your racket with supreme self-assurance. Above all, your face must express no self-doubt. You should look as if you are hitting every ball exactly where you want to. Really get into the role, hit as hard as you like and ignore where the ball is actually going.”

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

  37. 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.

  38. So I believe the best use of technical knowledge is to communicate a hint toward a desired destination. The hint can be delivered verbally or demonstrated in action, but it is best seen as an approximation of a desirable goal to be discovered by paying attention to each stroke, and feeling one’s way toward what works for that individual.

  39. “Hit from low to high to produce topspin,”

  40. The player has only two requirements for success: hit each ball over the net and into the court.

  41. “Hold the foil as a bird, not so loosely that it can fly away, but not so tightly that you squeeze the life out of it.”

  42. One way, called the “open stance forehand,” was discovered and propagated by clay-court players who began hitting with weight established on their right, or back foot, instead of transferring weight to the front foot.

  43. Count the cadence of the rhythm you feel by saying, “da … da … da,” one “da” at the moment you start the serve, one at hit, as you bring the racket up, and one at contact. Feel and listen to the rhythm until you find what feels best and works best for you.

  44. The best method is to simply watch without assuming that how the pro swings is how you should be swinging. In many cases, for a beginner to try to swing like a pro would be like asking a baby to walk before it has crawled. To formulate technique while watching the pro or by trying to imitate too closely can be detrimental to your natural learning process.

  45. But Self 2 likes the feeling of flow—of the whole stroke as one thing. The Inner Game is an encouragement to keep in touch with the Self 2 learning process you were born with while avoiding getting caught up in trying too hard to make your strokes conform to an outside model.

  46. It is much more difficult to break a habit when there is no adequate replacement for it.

  47. We never repeat any behavior which isn’t serving some function or purpose.

  48. But when we stop trying to suppress or correct the habit,we can see the function it serves, and then an alternative pattern of behavior, which serves the same function better, emerges quite effortlessly.

  49. 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.


    • STEP 1   Observe Existing Behavior Nonjudgmentally
    • STEP 2   Picture Desired Outcome
    • STEP 3   Let It Happen! Trust Self 2
    • STEP 4   Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning
  51. The process is an incredibly simple one. The important thing is to experience it. Don’t intellectualize it.

  52. 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. If a person is out on the court mainly to satisfy the desires and doubts of ego, it is likely that in spite of the lesser results, he will choose to let Self 1 play the major role.

  53. 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.”

  54. Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.

  55. Just as it is helpful to become more aware of the sound of the ball, it is also useful to practice focusing on the feel of the ball at impact.

  56. “Basketball is a complex dance that requires shifting from one objective to another at lightning speed. To excel, you need to act with a clear mind and be totally focused on what everyone on the floor is doing. The secret is not thinking. That doesn’t mean being stupid; it means quieting the endless jabbering of thoughts so that your body can do instinctively what it’s been trained to do without the mind getting in the way. All of us have flashes of oneness … When we’re completely immersed in the moment, inseparable from what we’re doing.”

  57. 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. Of course, the kind of things needed to be done well to deserve love varies from family to family, but the underlying equation between self-worth and performance has been nearly universal.

  58. When love and respect depend on winning or doing well in a competitive society, it is inevitable (since every winner requires a loser and every top performance many inferior ones) that there will be many people who feel a lack of love and respect.

  59. Do we really think the value of a human being is measurable? It doesn’t really make sense to measure ourselves in comparison with other immeasurable beings. In fact, we are what we are; we are not how well we happen to perform at a given moment. The grade on a report card may measure an ability in arithmetic, but it doesn’t measure the person’s value. Similarly, the score of a tennis match may be an indication of how well I performed or how hard I tried, but it does not define me, nor give me cause to consider myself as something more or less than I was before the match.

  60. The answer was quite unexpected. What I really wanted, I realized, was to overcome the nervousness that was preventing me from playing my best and enjoying myself. I wanted to overcome the inner obstacle that had plagued me for so much of my life. I wanted to win the inner game.

  61. I had lost 6–4, 6–4, but I walked off the courts feeling that I had won. I had lost the external game, but had won the game I had wanted to, my own game, and I felt very happy.

  62. In other words, the more challenging the obstacle he faces, the greater the opportunity for the surfer to discover and extend his true potential.

  63. The obstacles are a very necessary ingredient to this process of self-discovery.

  64. Only by playing the role of your enemy does he become your true friend. Only by competing with you does he in fact cooperate! No one wants to stand around on the court waiting for the big wave. In this use of competition it is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try to create obstacles for him. Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise.

  65. 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.

  66. Thus, for the player of the Inner Game, it is the moment-by-moment effort to let go and to stay centered in the here-and-now action which offers the real winning and losing, and this game never ends.

  67. 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. Then, instead of learning focus to improve his tennis, he practices tennis to improve his focus.

  68. Competition then becomes an interesting device in which each player, by making his maximum effort to win, gives the other the opportunity he desires to reach new levels of self-awareness.

  69. Thus, there are two games involved in tennis: one the outer game played against the obstacles presented by an external opponent and played for one or more external prizes; the other, the Inner Game, played against internal mental and emotional obstacles for the reward of knowledge and expression of one’s true potential. It should be recognized that both the inner and outer games go on simultaneously, so the choice is not which one to play, but which deserves priority.

  70. Focus in tennis is fundamentally no different from the focus needed to perform any task or even to enjoy a symphony; learning to let go of the habit of judging yourself on the basis of your backhand is no different from forgetting the habit of judging your child or boss; and learning to welcome obstacles in competition automatically increases one’s ability to find advantage in all the difficulties one meets in the course of one’s life. Hence, every inner gain applies immediately and automatically to the full range of one’s activities. This is why it is worthwhile to pay some attention to the inner game.

  71. Perhaps the most indispensable tool for human beings in modern times is the ability to remain calm in the midst of rapid and unsettling changes.

  72. 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.

  73. The problem with “managing stress” is that you tend to believe it is inevitable. There has to be the stress for you to manage. I’ve noticed that Self 1 tends to thrive when it is fought. An alternative approach is simply to build on your stability. Support and encourage your Self 2, knowing that the stronger it gets, the more it will take to throw you off balance, and the quicker you can regain your balance.

  74. The cause of most stress can be summed up by the word attachment.

  75. “If I was feeling frightened playing tennis, I don’t see why I would do it!”

  76. Freedom from stress happens in proportion to our responsiveness to our true selves, allowing every moment possible to be an opportunity for Self 2 to be what it is and enjoy the process. As far as I can see, this is a lifelong learning process.

  77. I hope by now you have understood that I am not promoting the kind of positive thinking that tries to assert mentally that things are wonderful when they aren’t. And not the kind that says,“If I think I’m kind, then I am; if I think I’m a winner, then I am.” As far as I’m concerned, this is Self 1 trying to make a better Self 1. The dog chases its own tail.

  78. The part of my life spent trying to compensate for this negativity by being extra good has been neither enjoyable nor rewarding. Although I usually managed to live up to and sometimes surpass the expectations of those I was trying to please or appease, it was not without a cost to my connection with myself.

  79. What else can be done to promote stability? The message of the Inner Game is simple: focus. Focus of attention in the present moment, the only one you can really live in, is at the heart of this book and at the heart of the art of doing anything well.

  80. Stability grows as I learn to accept what I cannot control and take control of what I can.

  81. As I relate this story now, it seems that saying “I accepted death” is ambiguous. I didn’t give up in the sense of quitting. In one sense I gave up one kind of caring and was imbued with another. Apparently, letting go of my grip on life released an energy that paradoxically made it possible for me to run with utter abandon toward life. “Abandon” is a good word to describe what happens to a tennis player who feels he has nothing to lose. He stops caring about the outcome and plays all out. It is a letting go of the concerns of Self 1 and letting in of the natural concerns of a deeper and truer self. It is caring, yet not caring; it is effort, but effortless at the same time.