The Inner Game of Tennis

Written as an instruction manual for improving one’s tennis game, Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis covers far wider ground; not only does it present an attractive theory of learning, but it becomes a compelling (albeit implicit) argument for a Stoic approach to life.

Its learning theory states that the subconscious is not only capable, but better off, performing complex (physical) tasks without interference by the conscious self. The conscious self should be used as a neutral observer and goal-setter, communicating these to the subconscious with images, sounds, and feelings. Common self-criticism of ones actions (“how could I be so stupid”, “I suck”, etc.) interfere with the effective performance of tasks. The learning process is (page 73):

  • Step 1: Observe, non-judgmentally, existing behaviour.
  • Step 2: Ask yourself to change, programming with image and feel.
  • Step 3: Let it happen!
  • Step 4: Nonjudgmental, calm observation of the results leading to continuing observation of process until behaviour is in automatic.

The (thinly) veiled argument for Stoicism arrives in the guise of the argument for playing the inner game. The inner game is the game over which we are in direct control: concentration, observation, and actions. The external game is the game whose outcome depends on external factors: opponents, chance, or circumstance. Gallwey argues that the inner game is the one most worth playing.

Particularly pertinent is the section on marrying an abandon for external outcome with a passion for achieving excellent outcomes by noting that overcoming difficult obstacles has intrinsic value. The point is not to overcome the other person (in tennis), but the obstacles he presents. Thus Stoicism: be concerened about the effort to win, not the winning itself. This, incidentally, also maximises your chance of winning the external game.

Concentration is not staring hard at something. It is not trying to concentrate; it is not thinking hard about something. Concentration is fascination of mind. When there is love present, the mind is drawn irresistibly toward the object of love. It is effortless and relaxed, not tense and purposeful. When watching the seams of the ball, allow yourself to fall into relaxed concentration. If your eyes are squinting or straining you are trying too hard. Let the ball attract your mind, and both it and your muscles will stay relaxed.

pp. 80-81


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