The Inner Game of Tennis



I've been reading a very unusual book about sport, a classic really, called The Inner Game of Tennis, written by Tim Gallwey and published in 1974. I picked it up at a free bookstore in Holland. Two tennis players had recommended it to me as one of the few good books on tennis out there. What I didn't expect was it would be such a wise book about spirituality.

Gallwey was a very competitive tennis player, who found that his nerves would often interfere with his playing. In a big tournament match, he choked on a very easy volley in front of thousands of spectators, and he writes that he still goes over the shame of that point in his mind.

He somehow managed to win the game, and sat waiting for the next match, trying to gather his thoughts. He thought, 'what's the worst that can happen?' He could lose 6-0 6-0. He'd be ashamed for a while, and then life would go back to normal. So 'what's the best that could happen?' He could win 6-0 6-0, then he'd go on to another match, which he'd either win or lose, then life would go back to normal.

Then he asked, 'what do you really want?' 'The answer was quite unexpected. What I really wanted, I realized, was to overcome the nervousness that was preventing me from playing my best. I wanted to overcome the inner obstacle that had plagued me for so much of my life. I wanted to win the inner game.' He set up himself a new intrinsic goal. He eventually set up a school dedicated to this new approach, called the Inner Game Institute of Tennis.

Tim Gallwey

Tim Gallwey

Gallwey put forward a dual process theory of mind, at least a decade before cognitive psychologists like Daniel Kahnemann did. He suggested there are two selves: Self 1, which is analytical and ego-driven, prone to worrying and ruminating, and Self 2, which is more unconscious, intuitive and physical.

The secret to the Inner Game is to get Self 1 out of the way, to stop being so self-critical and anxious, and simply let your body play the game, without being too outcome-oriented. You can get Self 1 out of the way by training your attention on each point, for example, or on the sound of the ball - giving your Self 1 some activity to keep it busy so it can let Self 2 do the work.

It's an approach partly inspired by eastern philosophy, and the idea of wu wei, or doing by not trying too hard. Gallwey quotes DT Suzuki's forward to Zen and the Art of Archery:

As soon as we reflect, deliberate and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes....Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. 'Childlikeness' has to be restored after long years of training in self-forgetfulness.

What, then, is the goal of the Inner Game, if not winning trophies? It is a sort of inner treasure. I'll quote the entire last page, as it's unusually beautiful for a sports book!

Out of all the human experiences possible, which does the player of the inner pursue? What do we really want to tune into? What do we really want to see and hear, and what do we really want to do? These are the questions that the player of the inner game finally arrives at, and continues to ask until he has found his answer.

Found what? That which he can love and which gives him complete satisfaction. For only when man is paying attention to something he really loves can he concentrate his mind and find true satisfaction. So the search is on, the search for the goal of the inner game. Players of the game have given many names to this goal. Some call it self-knowledge, some call it soul, others reality. It has been called Peace, Truth, Love, Joy, Beauty, Super-Consciousness, and God, as well as many other names in other cultures. But the name is not important because no one has ever found satisfaction by repeating the name; nor have labels helped people learn where to look or how to find that which the names refer to. Those who have experienced the reality behind the label say that it is beyond names which can be spoken and beyond a beauty which can be described.

When one undertakes the quest for this priceless treasure, when one searches for the secret which is capable of meeting the deepest longing within his heart, then he has truly embarked on the Inner game. At that point, all the inner skills described in this book will be of help, but the player's most valuable assets will be his sincerity and determination.

My own experience is that the true goal of the Inner Game is to be found within. Nothing outside of ourselves is ever permanent enough or sufficient to satisfy completely, but there is something within every human being that is not mentioned in psychology books. It is not a concept, a belief, or something that can be written in words. It is something real and changeless; its beauty and its value have no limits. It is the very source of all our potential; it is the seed from which our lives grow. It is the origin of every experience we have ever had of love, truth or beauty. Its presence within can be intuited, deducted and read about, and it can be experienced directly.

When one finds one's way to the direct experience of it, when one can actually meet face to face with the essence of life, then he has achieved the first - but not the final - goal of the Inner Game. When the lighthouse of the home port is in sight, the ship's radar can be turned off and the navigation aids set aside. What remains is to keep the lighthouse in sight and simply sail toward it.

Gallwey calls this final goal the discovery of Self 3. What a remarkable tennis coach. It sounds like a wonderful technique to create better human beings, though I wonder if it necessarily works for the elite sportsperson, who is of ncessesity very much focused on winning tournaments and climbing the rankings. Think how victory-oriented great sportsmen like Michael Jordan or Rafael Nadal are, how much they hate losing.

When I've been teaching philosophy to Saracens, I've sometimes raised the idea that the true goal is not just to win trophies but to have a great and rounded life. But then...I'm not a professional sportsperson! And neither was Gallwey. So is this method really appropriate to help train the greyhound of professional sportspeople to chase the mechanical rabbit of victory?

Anyway, here is a video of him at work: