The Inner Game of Tennis

W. Timothy Gallwey ostensibly explains in The Inner Game of Tennis how to get better at playing Tennis, and he did work as a tennis instructor after his career as a varsity player. But tennis is just a vehicle for explaining his principles which are applicable to all psychomotor skills and beyond. Consequently he cashed in on variations of this book in “The Inner Game of Golf”, “The Inner Game of Skiing” and even “The Inner Game of Music”.

His thesis is that we all know how to learn to crawl, to walk, and yes, to play tennis. Unconsciously. But we don’t let our brain learn in a natural way, because our seemingly superior ability to reflect and correct ourselves interferes with the learning process. The secret in learning is not trying too hard.

Not trying too hard doesn’t mean that we do not need to put in the effort and the hours. Or that we do not care about results. It’s about dispassionately observing results of our attempts. “The ball went about five centimeters too wide”. It’s a simple fact without judgment. Assigning value judgments like “I can’t do this shot” or “I’m a bad player” don’t help in the slightest. But where most people would readily agree with that, Gallwey also admonishes the reader not even to think of it as “I’ve lost a point”.

Gallwey uses a model where our brain is composed of “self 1” and “self 2”. They are not identical to Kahnemann’s System 1 and System 2. While the Inner Game of Tennis of Tennis was first published in 1974, and Kahnemann had already worked on his model in the seventies, his book only came out in 2011, and it’s probably pure chance that both came up with superficially similar looking models.

In Gallwey’s view, the brain’s self 1 is a “teller”. It constantly observes, evaluates, judges and tries to issue corrective orders.

Self 2 is the “doer”. And unfortunately, self 1’s constant nagging and bickering doesn’t help self 2 one bit. Self 1 would be well-advised to simply observe and give pure observations as feedback to self 2, so that self 2 can unconsciously self-correct any erroneous (motor) action.

Whole parts of the book seem trite, a mere re-wording of popular psychology explanations and models: the system of two minds (reminding of Kahnemann, although much different), the “quiet mind”, “flow”, Yoga and meditation.

It really put me off the first time I read the book. All of those concepts are merely mentioned in a few words. Why would I want to read about them here instead of a proper and much better treatment in other books?

The second time, many years later, I realized that all those things weren’t common knowledge in the seventies. While some parts had already been developed (and meditation had been around for a long time!), their boom phase and broad popularity came long after this book.

It’s a short read, and it offers an interesting model of the mind in psychomotor learning, but ultimately it failed in giving me actionable advice beyond “don’t try too hard, don’t judge”.