Book Review: The Inner Game Of Tennis, By W. Timothy Gallwey

Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game Of Tennis is a quick read that is packed with wisdom on how to achieve peak performance. Although it concerns tennis on the surface, the book is really a deep insight on mind and body.

The Author

W. Timothy Gallwey is a former semi-pro tennis player turned performance coach. He wrote The Inner Game after struggling with his own performance, particularly the mental side. Gallwey has since turned the success of this first book into a series of related “inner game” titles, and a tennis and performance coaching career.

The Book

The Inner Game Of Tennis is a masterpiece by pure happenstance – Timothy Gallwey is not really known for anything outside this one book, and his follow-up titles have not achieved anywhere near the same success or relevance. But a masterpiece this is, and a very quick read at that – the whole book is barely over 100 pages, and can easily be read in an afternoon.

The Inner Game

The focus of the book is the “inner game” in its title, which gives it major relevance outside the superficial subject of tennis. This isn’t really a book about tennis at all. On the surface, Gallwey will use tennis as the medium for his examples, but almost every point made is a deeper insight about performance, and how to bring body and mind into sync.

It is the thesis of this book that 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.

Self 1 and Self 2

Gallwey splits the process of how we go about things into two “selves”, Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the “teller” – the voice in our heads that plans what we are going to do, reviews our performance, and provides commentary as we’re in the moment. Self 2 is the “doer” – how our body goes through actually carrying out the instructions from Self 1.

The Inner Game‘s core concept is that Self 1, the “teller”, is a constant interference with our actual performance and results, which come from the “doing” of Self 2. The example given is when a player is said to be playing “out of his mind”, or playing “unconsciously”. In these situations of someone being “on fire” or “in the zone”, they are operating purely on Self 2 without any interference from Self 1. You’ve probably experienced this yourself if you’ve played a sport of any kind, or even spent some spare minutes shooting crumpled paper into a trashcan.

Quieting Self 1, Trusting Self 2

Only when Self 1 stops sitting in judgment over Self 2 and its actions can he become aware of who and what Self 2 is and appreciate by the processes by which it works. As this step occurs, trust is developed, and eventually the basic but elusive ingredient for all top performance emerges – self-confidence.

The bulk of The Inner Game Of Tennis is dedicated to an exploration of how Self 1 and Self 2 interact in determining how we perform, and how to use this understanding to our advantage. Self 1 is all logic and ego-mind. Ego traps us and makes us focus on the wrong things – how we see ourself is nothing to do with how we perform, but confusing the two is almost inevitable in how society conditions us. Gallwey demonstrates through the example of tennis how Self 1 can interfere – such as criticizing ourselves after bad shots, or building up additional pressure in match-point situations. He then dedicates significant attention to how to “quiet” Self 1, and achieve focus. Much of this advice borrows from Zen philosophy, and the result is that just reading The Inner Game feels meditative. Anyone who has studied mindfulness or is aware of its core concepts will find this familiar – but Gallwey smoothly introduces these ideas without making them seem “new-agey”, and the concrete example of tennis performance always makes his points seem actionable and relevant.

Self 2, the “doer”, is all physical, all about flow. Self 2 learns by observing, and doesn’t need any words. If you’ve ever practiced something “in the zone”, you’ll notice that eventually you get the hang of it in an unconscious way. Eventually, you can figure it out by yourself. Hitting a tennis ball, for example, is ultimately all about physics, and how your body exerts force and angle on the ball. None of this involves words or thoughts – and the body is perfectly capable of calibrating shots to achieve a desired result, if our mind can get out of its way.

Beyond Tennis

The Inner Game may as well have been written under this shortened form of the title, because its content is really more about mind, body, ego, flow, and how these affect our performance. Almost every chapter of this short book can serve as a quick analysis of one aspect of performance. We’re often our own worst enemies, because we get caught up in unproductive thought patterns and habits. Reading The Inner Game Of Tennis is a strong step to establishing positive mind memetics.

It is not helpful to condemn our present behavior patterns as “bad”; it is helpful to see what function these habits are serving, so that if we learn a better way to achieve the same end, we can do so. We never repeat any behavior which isn’t serving some function or purpose. It is difficult to become aware of the function of any pattern of behavior while we are in the process of blaming ourselves for having a “bad habit.” 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.

Impact

The Inner Game Of Tennis has been a successful bestseller for four straight decades, and remains a classic in the field of performance improvement. It is a favorite of Pete Carroll and Steve Kerr, Super Bowl and NBA Champion coaches respectively, who reportedly read it multiple times a year and distribute it to their players. Steve Kerr was a 5-time champion as a player, and has seen rapid success in his transition to coaching – and he gives much of the credit for his approach to The Inner Game. Pete Carroll actually wrote the foreword to the latest edition, which details how he has used the book in his own life and to motivate his players to achieve peak performance.

The Verdict

This book is a must-read, particularly for any athlete or anyone engaging in competitive sports. While it is most useful for anyone trying to bring mind and body into harmony to perform, it is still incredibly valuable for anyone looking to perform in general. If you ever find yourself inexplicably failing when you know you’re capable of better; or crumbling under pressure; or having difficulty improving despite plenty of practice; The Inner Game will help you overcome those obstacles.

Ultimately, this is a very short book, barely longer than a Reader’s Digest magazine and the same size. One afternoon of reading could unlock a whole new dimension to your performance that you didn’t know existed, and help you overcome performance problems that may have seemed hopeless. Highly recommended.

The Inner Game Of Tennis (Amazon link)

One comment Add yours
  1. Bought the book on the back of this review – glad I did. Definitely worth reading, not just for sports but I’m finding the mindset approach useful for my writing as well.

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