Book notes: The Inner Game of Tennis

by Timothy Gallwey

The four basic skills in the Inner Game

  1. Letting go of judgments
  2. Art of creating images
  3. Letting it happen
  4. Concentration

Must be consciously unconsciously doing the task at hand.

The player who is “unconscious” has a mind so concentrated, so focused that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or atumatic functions are working without interference from thoughts.

The art of effortless concentration is invaluable in whatever you set your mind to.

The Two Selves

Self 1 (the Teller) and Self 2 (the Doer) are two separate persons.

Self 1 tightens the cheek muscles and purses the lips when hitting a backhand in attempted concentration. But that isn’t needed to hit a backhand.

Self 1 does not trust Self 2, even though it embodies all the potential you have developed up to that moment and is far more competent to control the muscle system than Self 1.

Getting it together mentally involves several internal skills that overcome “trying too hard”:

  1. learning how to get the clearest possible picture of your desired outcomes
  2. learning how to trust Self 2 to perform at its best and learn from both successes and failures
  3. learning to see “nonjudgmentally”—to see what is happening rather than merely noticing how well or how badly it is happening

The above skills are subsidiary to the master skill: the art of relaxed concentration.

Quieting Self 1

Embrace childlikeness again.

Don’t generalize. Instead of judging a single event as “another bad backhand,” it starts thinking, “You have a terrible backhand.”

First the mind judges the event, then groups events, then identifies with the combined event and finally judges itself. They end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.

Judgment begins when the serve is labeled “bad” and causes interference with one’s playing when a reaction of anger, frustration, or discouragement follows. Judgmental labels usually lead to emotional reactions and then to tightness, trying too hard, self-condemnation, etc. This process can be slowed by using descriptive but nonjudgmental words to describe the events you see.

The first step is to see your strokes as they are. They must be perceived clearly. Without personal judgment.

When the mind is free of any thought or judgment, it is still and acts like a mirror.

Awareness of What Is

In tennis you must know where the ball is and where the racket head is.

You watch the ball but you must feel where you racket head is. Feeling it gives you the knowledge of where it is. Knowing where it should be isn’t feeling where it is. Knowing what your racket didn’t do isn’t feeling where it is. Feeling where it is is knowing where it is.

Don’t rely on reminder phrases to repeat good results. Eventually it will stop working. Instead observe the racket with detachment and interest. You will feel what it is actually doing and your awareness increases. Then, without any effort to correct, you will discover that the swing begun to develop a natural rhythm.

Self 1 is always looking for approval and wanting to avoid disapproval, this subtle ego-mind sees a compliment as a potential criticism.

When we “unlearn” judgment we discover, usually with some surprise, that we don’t need the motivation of a reformer to change “our bad” habits.

Acknowledgment of one’s own or another’s strengths and efforts can facilitate natural learning, whereas judgments interfere. What’s the difference? Acknowledgment of and respect of one’s capabilities support trust in Self 2. Self 1’s judgments, on the other hand, attempt to manipulate and undermine that trust.

Trusting Self 2

Self 2 inner intelligence learns with childlike ease. Respect it.

“Trying too hard” is what happens when Self 1 doesn’t trust Self 2. This results in using too many muscles and mental distraction and lack of concentration.

Trusting your body in tennis means letting your body hit the ball.

Letting it happen is not making it happen. Nor trying or controlling. Those are Self 1 verbs. They produce tight muscles, rigid swings, awkward movements, gritted teeth and tense cheek muscles. Resulting in mishit balls and frustration.

Swinging a golf club hard usually involves tensing your muscles. But go at a calm speed and let the club swing and the ball ends up going the same distance with half the effort. Do not identify with your swing. You are not your bad swing.

When first learning to swing let it learn, then once your body knows how just let it happen. Self 2 when adapt and learn from bad swings.

So the beginner’s secret is: allow the natural learning process to take place and to forget about stroke-by-stroke self-instructions.

First, WATCH. Absorb visually the image in front of you. This image completely bypasses the ego-mind, and seems to be fed directly to the body. Then you feel how it is to imitate those images. Then do.

Three ways to communicate with Self 2

Sensory imagery is Self 2’s native tongue.

1. Ask for Results

Don’t try to hit the ball. Just ask Self 2 to do it and let it happen. Don’t make any conscious effort to correct. Simply let go and see what happens.

Give Self 2 a clear visual image of the results you desire.

2. Asking for Form

First you must give Self 2 a very clear image of what you are asking it to do. This can be done by holding your racking in front of you in a proper follow-through position and looking at it with undivided attention for several seconds. You may feel foolish, BUT it is vital to give Self 2 an image to imitate.

Then before hitting balls, swing the racket several times, letting the racket stay flat and allowing your self to experience how it feels to swing in this new way. Once you start to hit balls, it is important not to try and keep your racket flat. You have asked Self 2 to keep it flat, so let it happen! Self 1’s only role is to be still and observe the results in a detached manner. Very important to not consciously try to keep the racket flat.

3. Asking for Qualities

Play the role of a pro. Adopt professional mannerisms and swing the racket with supreme self-assurance. Above all, your face must express no self-doubt.

Of the four styles of tennis (defensive, aggressive, all-about-style, hustler) choose to adopt the style that is most unlike the one you previously adopted. This will greatly increase a player’s range.

Discovering Technique

Instructions are relative and need to be expressed in your own experiential terms.

The best use of technical knowledge is to communicate a hint toward a desired destination. The hint can be delivered verbally or demonstrated in action, but it is best seen as an approximation of a desirable goal to be discovered.

Changing Habits

Groove theory of habits: Instead of digging your way out of old deeply-entrenched grooves/habits, start new ones!

It is the resisting of an old habit that puts you in that trench. Starting a new pattern is easy when done with childlike disregard for imagined difficulties.

Making a Change

  1. Nonjudgmental Observation
  2. Just observe the habit that you want to change without making any adjustments. Notice all aspects of it. After 5 minutes of observing you will notice what change might make most sense. Let yourself feel the change most desired, then observe a few more times.

  3. Picture the Desired Outcome
  4. Picture your serve with more power. Perhaps watch the motion of someone with more power. Don’t overanalyze. Just absorb and try to feel what he feels. Then imagine yourself hitting the ball with power, using the stroke natural to you. In your mind’s eye, picture yourself serving, filling in as much visual and tactile detail as possible.

  5. Trust Self 2
  6. Begin serving but don’t make any conscious effort to control the stroke. Resist temptation to hit the ball harder. Simple let your serve begin to serve itself. Having asked for more power, just let it happen. Keep Self 1 out of it. Be patient and trust the process. Letting it happen doesn’t mean going limp; it means letting Self 2 use only the muscles necessary for the job. Be willing to allow Self 2 to make changes withing changes, until a natural groove is formed.

  7. Nonjudgmental Observation of Change and Results
  8. Watch the results calmly and experience the process. If you feel you want to help, DON’T! By so doing, concentration is best achieved. Important to still have lack of concern of where ball is going. Serve until you have reason to believe that a groove has been established. To test the groove, serve a few balls solely attending to the ball. If the serve is serving itself, then a groove has been started and used. Don’t intellectualize it.

Self 1 wants to return the next day so that it thinks it deserves the credit. It’s ego satisfaction.

Concentration: Learning to Focus

While performing well under the relaxed concentration of Self 2, Self 1 wants to gain credit. Self 1 thinks about how it did it, make a formula out of it and thus bring it into Self 1’s domain where it can feel in control.

Death knell: “I’ve found the secret to the serve.”

You must let it go. But it is hard. How to do it?

To still the mind one must learn to put it somewhere. It cannot just be let go; it must be focused. As one achieves focus, the mind quiets. Practice is needed to learn this art.

In tennis, the ball is the most practical object to focus on.

The focused mind only picks up on those aspects of a situation that are needed to accomplish the task at hand. It is not distracted by other thoughts or external events, it is totally engrossed in whatever is relevant in the here and now.

1. Watching the ball

The most effective way to deepen concentration through sight is to focus on something subtle, not easily perceived. Notice the seams of a ball as it spins. Things slow down. The mind forgets to try too hard.

To prevent boredom of seam-watching, be endlessly curious. Be an empty cup.

Bounce-hit exercise. Say “bounce” when ball bounces off ground, and “hit” when ball hits racket.

Notice the flight of the ball before and after each hit.

Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested. Not staring or forcing focus. No squinting or straining.

2. Listening to the ball

Listen for the sweet spot. The crack.

Practice of listening to the ball is best used during practice. Then during a match you’ll automatically listen for the right sound.

3. Feeling

Must know where the ball and racket is. The critical time to know the position of the racket is when it is behind you.

The greatest attention should be placed on the feel of your arm and hand at the moment just before they swing forward to meet the ball.

Become aware of rhythm.

Focus on the feel of the ball at impact. Notice subtle differences.

It’s almost impossible to feel or see anything well if you are thinking about how you should be moving. Forget shoulds and experience is.

Notice these three senses one at a time and at your own rhythm.


Attention is focused consciousness.

Must learn to to focus awareness in the now. The greatest lapses in concentration come when we allow our minds to project what is about to happen or to dwell on what has already happened.

Alertness is a measure of how many nows you are alert to in a given period.

The critical time is between points! The mind leaves its focus on the ball and is free to wander. Focus on the the breath between points to prevent leaving the now.

Getting into the zone is a gift you receive by giving your effort.

Our desire that things be different from what they are pulls our minds into an unreal world, and consequently we are less able to appreciate what the present has to offer. You must resolve these conflicting desires to attain a concentrated state.

Games People Play

Three main games with sub-games. They all have their aim, motive, and external and internal obstacles. (see p. 94 for details):

  1. Good-o

    Aim: To achieve excellence

    Motive: To prove oneself “good”

    • Perfect-o
    • Compete-o
    • Image-o
  2. Friends-o

    Aim: To make or keep friends

    Motive: Desire for friendship

    • Status-o
    • Togetherness-o
    • Wife-o
  3. Health-o–Fun-o

    Aim: Mental or physical health or pleasure

    Motive: Health and/or fun

    • Health-o
    • Fun-o
    • Learn-o

Most end up playing a version of Good-o. We live in an achievement-oriented society where people tend to be measured by their competence.

The value of a human being cannot be measured by performance or by another arbitrary measurement.

What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the best that can happen? What do I want to happen?

The need to prove yourself is based on insecurity and self-doubt.

The basic meaning of winning:

Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved. The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself.

In competition, the duty of your opponent is to create the greatest possible difficulties for you. He is your friend. True competition is identical with true cooperation. No person is defeated. All players benefit by their efforts to overcome their obstacles.

This attitude in action: instead of hoping your opponent is going to double-fault, you actually wish that he’ll get his first serve in.

Thank him for the fight he put up.

Play your competitor’s weak backhand so he improves.

Play every point to win. Don’t worry about winning or losing the match, but rather whether or not I am making the maximum effort during every point.

Maximum effort does not mean Self 1 over-trying. It means concentration, determination, and trusting your body to “let it happen.” Competition and cooperation become one.

It’s the process, not the results

For the player of the Inner Game, it is the moment-by-moment effort to let go and to stay centered in the here-and-now action which offers the real winning and losing, and this game never ends.

All great things are achieved by great effort, but first decide if the reward on the other side is worth the effort.

The Inner Game off the Court

Several inner skills, chiefly the art of letting go of self-judgments, letting Self 2 do the hitting, recognizing and trusting the natural learning process, and above all gaining some practical experience in the art of relaxed concentration.

At first you learn to focus to improve your tennis, BUT then you practice tennis to improve your focus. It’s a shift of mindset away from the external to the internal.

There’s the outer game played against the obstacles presented by an external opponent and played for external prizes; the Inner Game, played against internal mental and emotional obstacles for the reward of knowledge and expression of one’s true potential. Both will happen at same time, which one will you give priority?

Building Inner Stability

Perhaps the most indispensable tool for humans is the ability to remain calm in the midst of rapid and unsettling changes.

Inner stability is achieved by acquiring the ability to see the true nature of what is happening and to respond appropriately.

Instability is result of Self 1 distorting the perception of the event. Then taking misguided action which leads to further undermining our inner balance. A vicious cycle.

The key to handling stress is to build your Self 2’s stability. The stronger it gets, the more it will take to throw you off balance, and the quicker you can regain your balance.

The cause of most stress is attachment. Self 1 gets so dependent upon things, situations, people, and concepts within its experience that when change occurs, it feels threatened.

Freedom from stress involves being able to let go of anything, and know that one will still be all right.

First step to inner stability is to acknowledge that there is an inner self that has inherent needs of its own. Self 2 wants to enjoy, to learn, to understand, appreciate, go for it, rest, be healthy, survive, etc. A certain contentment occurs when in sync with this self. Watch out for self 1 requests disguised as Inner Self 2 requests.

No self-improvement: the cornerstone of stability is to know that there is nothing wrong with the essential human being.

The second step to Inner Stability is FOCUS. Focus of attention in the present moment. Don’t dwell on the past, either on mistakes or glories; don’t get caught up in future fears and dreams.

The ability to focus the mind is the ability to not let it run away with you. It does NOT mean not to think. But be the one who directs your own thinking.

Stability grows a you learn to accept what I cannot control and take control of what I can.

“Abandon” is a good word to describe what happens to a tennis player who feels he has nothing to lose. He stops caring about the outcome and plays all out. It is letting go of the concerns of Self 1. It is caring, yet not caring; it is effort, but effortless.

There is no WINNING the Inner Game. That’s a Self 1 goal. This is a lifelong endeavor where there is no top of the mountain. It’s just the process; the journey. No external credit.

Book notes: The Inner Game of Tennis