top of page

The Inner Game of Tennis, Part I

I know what you're thinking: "Isn't this a running blog?" And the answer is, yes. It is. But The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey, is in my opinion the single greatest piece of writing on the mental skills of athletes of all kinds. (This blog post is basically a book report) This book is essentially about mindfulness, without calling it mindfulness. He begins by saying, "Neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game."

Of course. We neglect the inner game. We neglect the inner game whether you are an athlete or not. Most people roam around this world neglecting their inner experience, and athletes are well aware that when they do this, it shows in their sport. Mastering the inner game is not simply about showing up in your sport, but about showing up in your life. Having a good mental game is not compartmentalized in only running, those mental gains transcend all aspects of your existence.

He goes on to say, "This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and 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." I think it's safe to say that when we have these obstacles in running, to some degree we experience them outside of running. Maybe running has helped us overcome them in some way, but these are human experiences, not simply athlete experiences.

Stop Trying.

"Images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results." Stop trying so hard. Let some things be easier. Don't OVER-TRY. Think about Paul Rudd trying to teach Jason Seigel how to surf in Forgetting Sarah Marshall: "The less you do, the more you do." As soon as our brains get in the way, it messes with our flow. Gallwey says, "The 'hot streak' continues until he starts thinking about it and tries to maintain it; as soon as he attempts to exercise control, he loses it." Control is the antithesis of flow. Effort and consistency is necessary to learn new skills, of course. And Gallwey recognizes that when we learn new skills, the inner developments are far greater than outward ability: "While learning tennis, you begin to learn how to focus your attention and how to trust in yourself."

The Two Selves & The Art of Relaxed Concentration.

Gallwey identifies the importance of improving the relationship between your two selves. He defines Self 1 as the conscious teller, and Self 2 as the natural abilities and doer. I like to think of Self 1 as the Mind, and Self 2 and the Brain/Body. Self 1 is the "I" concept. Self 2 is the physical being. In order to get the most of the two selves, 3 things are necessary: "1) learning how to get the clearest possible picture of your desired outcomes; 2) learning how to trust Self 2 to perform at its best and learn from both successes and failures; and 3) 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." All of these skills are subsidiary to the master skill, without which nothing of value is ever achieved: the art of relaxed concentration."

Self 1 Must be Quieted: it is always thinking, thinking, thinking, and it interferes with the capabilities of Self 2. Quieting self 1 is essentially embodying stillness, focus, and calm. When the mind is calm and still, creativity comes alive and people can have "peak experiences," per Abraham Maslow. When we figure out how to quiet our minds, we can move freely into a flow state. This is a state of heightened awareness, alertness, and ability to pivot. We are self-assured and things feel effortless. We don't need to think, we just act, and we don't have to try. Many people achieve this ability to quiet the mind by practicing meditation or other mindfulness based practices. In order to move fast, we must find stillness. Quieting our minds silences the frenetic energy of our minds that we engage in to avoid. "Quieting the mind means less thinking, calculating, judging, worrying, fearing, hoping, trying, regretting, controlling, jittering or distracting." Can you tolerate stillness? What are you avoiding with all the doing?

Non-Judgment: It is a natural human inclination to judge, and finding the ability to be non-judgmental is difficult. It is a core aspect of mindfulness and one of the first things to accomplish in sharpening your inner game. We need to stop judging ourself, our races, our workouts as either good or bad. Only without judgment can we be focused in a relaxed way. For the runners, a great exercise in this is to do a true Fartlek. Not a fartlek where you've pre-programmed your watch to whatever segments of time. A true fartlek in which you go with the flow and incorporate spontaneous bursts of speed into your run. When we judge ourselves, we tighten up, we think too much, and our performance declines. Judgment supports the false notion that control is possible. Control is made up. Relinquish an attachment to it.

Gallwey points out that when we judge ourselves, we often start generalizing. Instead of just saying, "Oh that was a shit interval," we think "Gosh, I suck," "I'm so slow," "I'll never be fast." He describes this process as follows: "First the mind judges the event, then groups events, then identifies with the combined event and finally judges itself." This leads to self-fulfilling prophecies because what other option is there when you've limited the possibility of success in your mind? "I think therefore I am," works the other way, too. I don't think I am, so I am not. By employing a mind of non-judgment, we assess events simply as they are without adding any subjectivity to it. Judgment makes us tense and tension limits our ability to be fluid on a physical level and mentally.

Gallwey includes an analogy in his book which I will include here:

"When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as "rootless and stemless." We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishments required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don't condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is."

The first step is to see things as they are. Our personal judgment interferes with accuracy of perception. We must see things clearly and accept them as they are. When our minds are ruled by judgment we distort reality. When we unlearn judgment, we are able to see things undistorted, as they are, and our minds can become calmer. Unlearning judgment leads us to become more aware of what is. Our bodies (self 2), can do so much more when freed from the constricting nature of a judgmental Self 1. Our self-judgments undermine our self-belief and trust in our bodies (self 2). Acknowledging and respecting our capabilities increases trust in our bodies (self 2).

Trust in Self 2: When we learn to use our minds (self 1) non-judgmentally, we are able to trust our bodies (self 2) more. When we trust ourselves, we gain self-confidence. Appreciating our bodies is something we can do every moment. Our bodies are incredibly complex and do millions of things simultaneously. Human beings, life itself, are incredible. Yet we often criticize our physical bodies and brains. This proclivity to self-criticism leads to an urge to overcontrol and takes up way too much space and keeps the mind unfocused.

Trusting yourself means letting your body do what it does. We must be able to trust that our bodies and brains are competent, which is easier said than done until we come to that pivotal life moment when we learn to trust ourselves. By allowing our bodies to do what they do, we take our minds out of it and prevent our minds from judging and interfering. When we try too hard or think too hard about what we're doing, we end up messing things up and create more physical tension than necessary. We get in our own way. Gallwey points out that when we think about which muscles to use to hit a back hand, we end up using too many, waste energy, and interfere with the effective use of other muscles. This happens in running too. We think too much about trying to employ our glutes and we end up overusing and employing muscles that waste energy. We become rigid, uncoordinated, and end up impeding forward movement.

In order to trust our bodies, we cannot identify with the action. If we view a workout or performance that didn't go as hoped, as a reflection of who we are, we will surely be upset. This goes for the reverse as well. We cannot identify with a solid performance as reflection as who we are also, because our identities are not wrapped up in a performance or workout. When our identities are wrapped up in the quality we judge of our actions or performances, it creates an unstable self-image. We must understand that we are separate from the things we do. You are not your body. And you must trust your body to learn and do and be. Let the rose grow, as Gallwey says.

How do we let it grow? How do we let it happen?: We create a relationship between our mind and body that is not based on "criticism and control, the symptoms of mistrust," but a relationship of respect and trust. The attitude must change: we must move from the mind which it looks down upon the body in a shaming way, to the mind that reveres the body in a respectful way, a mind of humility. We come to a place of self-respect and free ourselves of any attachment to success or failure. "We simply know our goal and take objective interest in the results."


Gallwey, Timothy W., 1974. The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. New York, Random House, Inc.

44 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Tell Your Story.

One of my all time favorite books is Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke. It is the greatest book to read when you are going through a transition, seeking answers within yourself, and just t

On Belief.

Belief is such a tricky subject. It seems so simple, yet is so complex. It is interwoven with your self-concept, judgment from others, and your why. It is completely distinct from expectations, data,


bottom of page