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The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game in Competition: Two Selves

In sports, two games are played simultaneously: an outer game and an inner game. One game is physical; the other is mental.

During competition, it’s important to think about what is going on; how the game is unfolding, anticipating the opponent’s next move, etc. This type of thinking is strategic and valuable for winning. However, another layer of thinking is also going on. One way or another, good or bad judgments are happening in your mind. For instance, if you make a good play and receive praise from the crowd, you might say something to yourself like, “Let’s go!!” or make a fist with your hands. On the other hand, if you make a bad play, you might call yourself stupid and say things like, “How could I miss that?” “I’m so stupid,” etc.

It’s almost as if two voices coexist in your head, an angel and a devil. This analogy isn’t that far off from the truth. In the book, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, the concept of “two selves” are discussed. Gallwey says two selves coexist in our minds simultaneously. Self 1 is the ego-driven, critical part of our mind that is never satisfied with anything we do. Then there is Self 2, essentially the unconscious, intuitive part of our mind. Self 1 is the “teller,” while Self 2 is the “doer.” Self 1 is concerned with appearance, the approval of others, and doing things “right.” In contrast, Self 2 casts no judgment, only focused on expressing ourselves authentically with complete disregard for the opinion of others. To go back to the example I said previously, Self 1 would be the voice telling yourself, “How could I miss that?” and “I’m so stupid,” while Self 2 is performing all the necessary moves to generate the result (i.e., making or missing a jump shot) with no inner chatter.

“The first skill to learn is the art of letting go of the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad. Letting go of the judging process is a basic key to the Inner Game…When we unlearn how to be judgmental, it is possible to achieve spontaneous, focused play.” (Gallwey, page 17).

Self 1: ego-driven, condescending

Self 2: natural, intuitive, authentic, unconscious, non-judgmental

The goal, Gallwey discusses, is for Self 1 to observe Self 2 in a detached, non-judgmental manner. It’s almost as if you’re watching someone else play the game. If you make or miss a shot, there is no judgment. You accept the outcome, see it for what it is, make a slight strategic adjustment and move on to the next play. A missed shot or play is not an indicator of your worth as a human being. Mistakes happen! Also, the consequences of being caught up by a bad play or error can potentially alter the game's outcome; it’s not worth it.

To achieve peak performance, Self 1 must take a back seat to allow Self 2 to flourish. The ego is the enemy. When playing in flow, there are no judgments or doubts from the mind. The mind knows exactly what needs to be done and how to execute it. The mind is quiet, calm, and confident. There is no thinking, just execution at the highest level.

“The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard. He aims at the kind of spontaneous performance which occurs only when the mind is calm and seems at one with the body; which finds its own surprising ways to surpass its only limits again and again. This process doesn’t have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen” (Gallwey, introduction).

Quiet the Mind

Less thinking, more doing

“For most of us, quieting the mind is a gradual process involving the learning of several inner skills. These inner skills are really the art of forgetting mental habits acquired since we were children.” (Gallwey, page 17).

The example that Gallwey gives is an infant first learning to walk. When infants learn this process, they do not think, “Why do I keep falling? I’ll never learn how to walk”. Of course, most infants aren’t speaking coherently at this time, but you get the point. You eventually learned to walk, through trial and error, with no self-judgment whatsoever. Gallwey asserts that this way of learning is a natural process we were all born with and should not be interfered with (aka Self 2). The only interference is the judgments we cast upon ourselves (Self 1).

Deep Focus

If the mind has nothing to focus on, it will return to the cycle of judgments (good or bad) that it’s used to. To be focused, the mind must be focused. In other words, the mind must be put somewhere since it cannot just let go. It’ll latch onto something, anything. Remember the saying: an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. One area of focus for the mind can be the breath. In previous blogs, the idea of breathwork is discussed, and how focusing on the inhalation and exhalation of each breath can lower levels of anxiety and arousal. In addition, the breath can be an excellent tool for enhancing focus.


“What I really wanted, I realized, was to overcome the nervousness that was preventing me from playing my best and enjoying myself. I wanted to overcome the inner obstacle that plagued me for so much of my life. I wanted to win the inner game.” (Gallwey, page 113).

Overall, playing sports and competing should be enjoyable experiences. Even professionally, it should not be marred by self-doubt, criticism, and judgment from yourself and others. The joy you got from the game initially should be channeled even at the highest level. Although inevitably, doubts and negative thinking will happen because it’s almost impossible to stop entirely. And that’s not to say some criticism can be a positive experience; it can be the foundation for growth and maturity. However, when it becomes consistent and hinders your well-being, it becomes an issue that needs to be addressed.

We strongly recommend this book as a tool to help you master your inner game.


-Timothy W. Gallwey- The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance


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