The Inner Game Of Tennis

Wherever we go, we’re always asking about books. Avid readers, especially of all things softball and baseball, we often ask for recommendations. About a year ago over dinner, a coach in the DBV gave us the title of his favorite book on coaching, The Inner Game of Tennis. It was such an unexpected response we had to give it a read.

In the ‘70s a college professor decided to take a sabbatical and passed his time working as a tennis professional for the local club. Having been a nationally ranked tennis player in his youth, for Timothy Gallwey, it was a natural transition. It was the lessons he learned while providing instructions to others that are The Inner Game of Tennis.

For those familiar with The Zen Art of Archery, by German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel, you’ll find solice in Gallwey’s methodology. In fact, he credits not only Herrigel but the works of Suzuki, as well as Western psychologists, throughout the book.

Written decades before sports psychology was a profession, and the concept of the mental performance coaching was created, Gallwey addresses the concerns of remaining competitive while avoiding seeing the score as the ultimate result by which performance is measured.

Gallwey believes that, “Learning and enjoyment need to be the foundation of the performance triangle.”

The book is definitely a great tool to have on any coach or player’s bookshelf. While basic, and at times wandering, it ultimately reaches the heart of many player concerns. Though time passes and people change, the root issues that are addressed throughout the book remain the same. Throughout, Gallwey addresses the aspects of human nature that can often interfere with an athlete’s ability to act on their nature, or instinctively, in their learning process.

“Quieting the mind is a gradual process involving letting go the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad.”

Gallwey explains that every play has two games that they play simultaneously: the outer game, against their opponent and the inner game, against themselves. An example of an outer game might be the pitcher/batter faceoff. The pitcher is trying to throw strikes and the batter is trying to hit them.

The internal game is “the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.” The meat of this book addresses both techniques for overcoming the habits of the internal game that the mind has created as well as methods to engage your body in its natural rhythms.

The backbone of Gallwey’s teachings is to unlearn, learning. Step-by-step, using tennis as his example, he brings you through the process of learning less like a school lesson and more like you did as a child learning to speak and walk. He concentrates on visualization and allowing players to find their own natural rhythm to a particular movement such as their swing or grip. His teachings focus on engaging as many senses as possible, such as vision and hearing, to help the brain learn without internal dialogue.

Much of the information in the book deals with the game of tennis but can also be applied to swinging a baseball bat. He talks about how to focus on the ball as it approaches, ways to keep your grip loose before contact and the physics of hitting the ball on return to create maximum speed and control the ball’s direction. Most importantly, in our estimation, he discusses wrist control and how the grip one has on the racket, or bat, will correlate to the results available to a hitter as they attempt to snap their wrists on a return or, in the case of softball or baseball, a hit.

Not all of the examples presented in the book will initially resonate with any one reader but the quality in the book is that there are multiple examples of each concept. The information is presented in a variety of ways. Within those variations you are likely to find one that speaks to your own concerns or experiences. That, and the fact that moreover, the book simply deals with the mind of the athlete, are the reasons this book works well across so many disciplines. No matter your sport, the competitive drive in each of us is hardwired in much the same way. Speaking to the internal dialogue of that mindset is what this book is all about.

When first released, the book gained some notoriety. It was the height of “new aged” thinking and, for that reason perhaps more than others, the book was seen as innovative. It became a New York Times best seller and lead to a series of other Inner Game books including Skiiing (1977), Golf, Music (1980) and Work (1999). Following the recession in 2009, Gallwey worked on another edition, The Inner Game of Stress, which he co-authored with one of today’s leading psychologists.

The Inner Game of Tennis was so popular in the 1970s that the process under which Gallwey taught was the subject of newsreels, and editorials, across sports desks. One station even produced a nationally televised series called Inner Tennis which explored themes including concentration, breaking bad habits and overcoming fears.

Gallwey views coaching as follows, “My role was not to teach but to help a student learn.” He said his methods are rooted in three aspects of the mind:

1) Increasing non-judgmental awareness of what is

2) Clarity of goal, clarity of choice

3) Inspiring self-trust

Gallwey believes that, “People have more potential than they think they do and they interfere with that potential more than they’d like to admit. The job of the coach is to reduce interference and grow potential. The techniques of the inner game are designed to do both those things at the same time.”

Since the book’s release, Gallwey has been teaching his methods. He started in the corporate world with companies like Coca-Cola, AT&T and Apple Computers. Eventually, he began a school for coaches and that school now has international programs in Brazil, Italy, Spain, and the Czech Republic.

The school is for experienced coaches who have received certification from an authorized body. The materials are presented in workshops spanning from one to four days in length. The Inner Game principles, techniques, tools, and practice are taught with a focus on self-development and the inner game approach to coaching.