The Inner Game of Tennis’ Strategies for Playing Out of Your Mind

Nothing fancy about it.

The Inner Game of Tennis is for more than just the pretentious folk who dress in all white and bounce neon green balls at each other. It’s for everyone who wants to perform better at anything, but who has fallen into the bad habit of letting their mind get in the way of the stress-free, super-speed learning instincts we had as kids.

It’s a short book well worth reading. This is my even shorter summary.

Start playing out of your mind.

Maybe the best way to introduce to you what the Inner Game of Tennis is about is with a mind trick. The book’s author, Tim Gallwey, suggests using it to ice your opponent’s hot streak.

Simply ask them:

“What are you doing so differently that’s making you play so well?”

That’ll get them back in their head and no longer playing out of their mind.

But the Inner Game of Tennis isn’t about messing with your opponents’ heads. It’s about the opposite: un-learning bad habits so you can play out of your mind in whatever game you choose, from tennis to tiddlywinks to Tetris.

Or, in my case, beach volleyball.

Soon after I started using the Inner Game of Tennis’ techniques, a friend actually approached me between games to say, “Chris, it seems like you’ve improved since last time.”

It’s true. I’m playing out of my mind more. And I’m having more fun, too.

Here’s the summary of my favorite lessons from The Inner Game of Tennis so you can do the same for whatever game you play.

Me trying too hard rather than working on my inner game.
“Don’t screw up…”

Stop trying so hard.

“Letting it happen is not making it happen. It is not trying hard.”

Tim Gallwey

The crux of The Inner Game of Tennis is this:

Quiet your mind and trust your body to subconsciously learn on its own.

It’s the same as how parents allow their children to learn to walk. Parents don’t give detailed step-by-step instructions. They trust their kids to learn from their mistakes on their own.

But somehow in our upbringings, we learn to do the opposite. Our minds become micromanagers of our bodies.

…like when I play volleyball:

When I shank a serve reception into some poor kid’s sandcastle, I get all Tiger Mom on myself for messing up. “You lazy idiot!” I curse myself, “Get your elbows closer together. Keep your eyes on the ball. Square up. Bend your legs.” Blah, blah, blah.

Then I try as hard as I can to do all those things the next time.

And what usually happens? I mess up the next one, too.

Trying too hard backfires. But trying to relax is just as hopeless. The trick is to redirect our focus.

“Hey mind: Where’s the ball’s little pinhole?”

Redirect your focus.

“The best way to quiet the mind is not by telling it to shut up, or by arguing with it, or criticizing it for criticizing you. Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.”

Tim Gallwey

Your mind, like overbearing moms, doesn’t appreciate being told to shut up and relax. So don’t bother trying.

Distract your mind instead.

Get it to focus on something else so your body’s subconscious can do its thing in peace and quiet.

For example:

  • I challenge my mind to spot the little inflation hole as the volleyball comes toward me.
  • If you’re playing tennis, get your mind to say “bounce” out loud every time the ball hits the court and “hit” every time a racket strikes a ball.
  • Count to eight as a ball approaches you so your mind doesn’t worry about flubbing it. (From this article.)

Distract your mind between points, too.

Gallwey recommends focusing it on your breath to stop it from worrying about past and future points. I’ve adopted the 5.5 seconds in, 5.5. seconds out technique James Nestor recommends in his also-worthy-of-a-read book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.

How to be more patient cover image of me watching seedling grow
Quit judging. Observe the growth process. (And maybe read my post on how to hurry up and be more patient.)

Unlearn judgment.

Gallwey likens our improving games to roses growing from seed to flower. At all points in growth, we don’t criticize roses for what they are not; we see, understand, and appreciated the potential and the process taking place.

If you’re put off by such flowery language, what Gallwey’s getting at is this:

Quit judging yourself. Just observe.

Never generalize.

Generalizations are self-fulling. If my mind tells me, “I always f*ck up my serve receptions,” I probably will.

But don’t ignore errors.

Observe what happened—not what should have happened. Then ask for what you want to happen next time. (More on this below.)

So if I hit a serve reception off my fists instead of my forearms, I stop my mind from saying, “Use your forearms, knucklehead!” All I do is observe, “Hmm. That shot went off my fists.” Then I politely suggest to my subconscious, “Next time, let’s see if we can hit it off our forearms.”

And don’t compliment yourself either.

If I succeed at receiving the next serve off my forearms, I don’t compliment myself saying, “Boo yeah! You’re the man, Chris.” All that does is open the door to potential criticism because, as Gallwey puts it, “if you’re pleased by one thing, you’ll be disappointed by the opposite.”

Acknowledge.

“All right! That one went off my forearms and right where I wanted it to go,” observes what happened without bestowing judgment.

Try doing it like this guy. (Source: Wikipedia)

Forget the words.

“Images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and… trying often produces negative results.”

Tim Gallwey

The Inner Game is “simply forgetting the unnatural ways of learning that we have accumulated.” And the most unnatural of all learning, Gallwey claims, is verbal instruction.

The problem with words is two-fold: they are too specific, and they can take on different meanings.

Consider, “Keep your wrist firm when you spike,” for example. How firm? Firm in what position? How long do I keep it firm?

A coach could write a couple of pages outlining the intricate details. Good luck remembering that and applying it all.

So dump the words and use sensory images.

See it:

Watch an expert. Then imitate. Watch yourself, too, if you can. You can instantly recognize the differences, even if you’re unable to explain it in words. Then imitate again.

Feel it:

When you successfully imitate and hit a good shot, focus on finding that feeling. Visualize repeating it, then ask your body to do it again—but without giving any verbal instruction on how to do so.

Speaking of showing instead of telling…

Rather than read my ramblings, watch this old-school video of Gallwey teaching his Inner Game technique to a middle-aged lady in a mumu:

Stop being bossy.

Rather than be a nasty, nagging, hyper-critical drill sergeant of an instructor, have your mind ask your subconscious for what it wants nicely.

Ask for results.

Visualize what you hope to achieve—the clearer, the better—and request your body do the same.

Ask for form.

Deliberately hold the form of a specific movement you hope to replicate for a few seconds. Focus on the feeling of it. And ask your body to please try to do it next time.

And, most fun of all, ask for qualities.

Ask your body to act as if it’s a superstar on a magazine photoshoot. Let it play with exaggerated confidence and panache. Exhibit zero self-doubt after every shot. React as if the ball went exactly where you expected it, even if it didn’t.

Giving your body the freedom to act like a superstar allows some superstar-like qualities to seep in.

Me failing to hit a shot.
“Thanks for helping me improve with such a challenging shot!”

Quit competing.

“True competition is identical with true cooperation.”

Tim Gallwey

While I was already of the opinion that life is not a competition, The Inner Game of Tennis took it to another level. Gallwey essentially says even competition shouldn’t be a competition.

You and your opponents are helping each other improve. By doing your best to put obstacles in each other’s paths to winning, you’re pushing one another to raise your games to overcome them.

So rather than hope that my opponent screws up and serves the ball into the net or hits it to my partner instead of me, I hope they give me their best shot every time. That way I can get better at my receptions.

Similarly, I’ve stopped feeling bad about playing to my opponents’ weaknesses. I’m helping them turn them into strengths.

But that’s not to say I still don’t want to win.

Since learning the “What are you doing so differently that’s making you play so well?” trick, I use it all the time to try to mess with my opponents’ minds. Because they need my help to get better at playing the Inner Game, too.

Me hitting a shot properly.

Summary of My Inner Game Summary

The best bite-sized summary of The Inner Game of Tennis is this one I found in a surprisingly good Buzzfeed article about how professional athletes and coaches use it:

Performance = Potential – Interference

And the biggest source of interference comes from our minds.

So let’s recap:

To stop your mind from getting in the way by trying too hard:

  • Distract it so it shuts up and relaxes.
  • Tell it to observe and ask nicely instead of being bossy and judgmental.
  • Find the feeling and trust your body to replicate it.

That’s how you get better and win, even if it’s not a competition.

It’s been working for me.

Not to sound bossy, but suggest you try it, too.

And if you want more explanation, read the book:

Keep Improving Your Game

Chris and Kim having fun
Chris and Kim having fun

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