The Inner Game of Tennis

I have an inner critic who is incessantly telling me I’m not good enough, I’m not trying hard enough, or that I’m not meeting its expectations. Sound familiar? In “The Inner Game of Tennis,” Timothy Gallwey describes ways of calming that inner critic and what doing this can do for your tennis game and, ultimately, your life.

I heard Gallwey in an interview speak about how he helped a symphonic tuba player play better, despite knowing nothing about instruments himself. A coach experienced in one field who could help someone in another intrigued me. Perhaps I, who avoids any activity involving a ball, could also learn something from a tennis pro.

Gallwey notes that we seem to have two minds, which he calls Self 1 and Self 2. Constantly finding fault, criticizing, instructing, lecturing and pleading, Self 1 pushes Self 2 around. Needing to feel in control, Self 1 is judgmental and even exudes a sense of superiority over Self 2. When we do something well, Self 1 wants to take all the credit. Self 1 overthinks, overanalyzes and is terrified to fail.

The silent partner, Self 2 can find efficiencies and implement skills we don’t know we have; it works best when Self 1 is quiet or absent. Self 2 is trustworthy and skilled. Without thinking, it knows how hard to hit a ball to get it over the net and land in the right spot. Off the court, it has a good sense of what needs to be done, which direction to go, and which decision to make. What seems to stand in the way of Self 2, in most instances, is the incessant criticism and instructions of Self 1.

In order to allow Self 2 to perform at its best, Gallwey asserts we need to find a way to occupy and distract Self 1. He suggests developing the skill to quiet Self 1 and to focus. Paying attention to the way something feels or sounds can distract Self 1 and keep it busy doing something unimportant, so Self 2 can do what is important. On the tennis court, this could be focusing on the seams of the tennis ball as it bounces around the court, or listening for the different sounds the ball makes as it hits the court or the strings of the racket. Off the court, it might be listening to, but not controlling, how you breathe. Your breathing is the one thing you will always have with you.

Learning to let go of your self-criticism on the tennis court is no different than learning to let go of judging your child or coworker. Focusing in a stressful situation, or letting go of the expectations or demands imposed or taught to us by others, is a learned skill and requires practice.

Being able to focus the mind and not let Self 1 run away with its criticism, hopes or instructions doesn’t mean not thinking. It means deciding who does the thinking. Practice focusing can happen on a tennis court, or while preparing food, driving or even in a high-pressure meeting. Through practice, one can learn to fully focus on a conversation and be completely present while another person is speaking, instead of drifting off in your own head or trying to compose your response.

The next time your inner critic, your Self 1, starts to tell you that you don’t measure up, or that you should be doing it another way, give it something else to do. Trust yourself.