At first I thought maybe the entry for “The Inner Game of Tennis” on the reading list was a typo. What does tennis have to do with ITP or anything non-tennis related for that matter? Nevertheless, I was intrigued and decided to find out for myself. I quickly realized the book’s relevance to ITP and life in general. While the book does focus a lot on game of tennis, I think it would do itself a favor by emphasizing the book’s subtitle – The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance – because it provides a far more accurate description of what the thesis and theory behind the book are.
On the other hand, both the main title and subtitle might mislead one to think it’s a self-help book, or a “how to succeed in business” or “how to get ahead of everyone else” type of book. But it’s really none of these things. At least not if you read it the right way. It can get a little watered down at parts when Gallwey prescribes a heavy dose of tennis analogies and technical tennis explanations. I guess you can’t blame him though since he came up with his theory while he was a tennis teacher, and spent the majority of his professional career employing his theory on the court. But more recently Gallwey has introduced the Inner Game approach to corporations and individuals in a variety of fields and I can understand why.
The Inner Game of Tennis is a fascinating study of the mind, and the struggle between what Gallwey refers to as the two selves: Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1, the “conscious teller” is the part of the brain that gives instructions to the Self 2, which is the part of the brain that translates our knowledge of technique into physical action. To use a tennis analogy, Self 1 is the side of the brain that’s consciously focusing on your form, swing, how hard you’re hitting the ball. Self 1 judges Self 2 and is often heard saying things like, “Why can’t I hit the ball straight today?”, “my serve f@*king sucks”, etc. Self 2 is the part of the brain that would like to just perform the physical action as it has learned to do so. Gallwey’s main point is that Self 1 is untrusting and judgmental of Self 2 and interferes with the natural abilities of Self 2.
Gallwey explains that your body learns to do most things naturally without judgment such as walking into a room, turning on the light and sitting in a chair to read. Or how a child begins walking after seeing others walk, then imitates the action, and ultimately continues to walk even after falling a few times, because the Self 2 realizes it’s better than crawling. Gallwey explains that “the process by which the body learned and performed these actions is no different from the process by which it learns and plays the game of tennis”.
This applies to a lot of things outside of the court such as taking an important test, playing an instrument, performing, problem solving. The theory of Self 1 and Self 2 can explain why when we are warming up, practicing an instrument, or in dress rehearsal, we tend to do well because Self 1 thinks it’s not important. Then when it’s time for the real thing (a match or opening night), you perform worse than you did in practice because Self 1 is now aware of the importance. Self 1, untrusting and judgmental, doesn’t believe that Self 2 can do the job on its own and takes over.
There are a few instances in recent memory that I find fit this theory. One, for example, physical computing. In the beginning, I struggled with the labs because (I think) my Self 1 was very aware of how little experience I had. When something didn’t go right I found my Self 1 doubting and putting down my Self 2. As a result, I kept making errors and becoming more discouraged. Then one day I was working on a lab that wasn’t due any time soon and I wasn’t nervous or really thinking too hard about what I was doing, and next thing I knew I had done everything right on the first try.
Speaking of physical computing, during office hours with Tom Igoe a few weeks ago (before I started reading The Inner Game of Tennis), he said something along the same lines as Gallwey’s theory that struck me: when you all of a sudden start doing well and feeling like you “get it”, you become self-conscious of your success and start to question it. As I read The Inner Game, I was reminded of this conversation. Perhaps Tom was the one to add this book to the list??
Another memory that came to mind was my experience preparing for and taking the LSAT. I scored 5-7 points higher on all of my practice exams (which were taken in a simulated test environment to the real thing) than I did the two times I took the official exam. I have no doubt that my Self 1 is partially to blame for that. Although looking back I suppose I owe Self 1 a thank you. Had I scored 5 points higher on the real thing, I might have actually ended up applying to and attending law school (gasp!).
So how do we try to overcome the power of the self-doubting, distracting, Self 1? One way, Gallwey argues, is to focus on imagery. The best way to “speak” to Self 2 is in its native language which is sensory images. Movements are learned through visual and “feeling images”, and getting a clear image of what you want to happen is the most useful method for communication with Self 2. Instead of letting Self 1 tell Self 2 to keep your wrist tight, keep your feet moving, swing through, see in your mind the image of yourself doing these things. Similarly, as we planned our physical computing midterms, we were advised to imagine what you ultimately want your project to be, and then worry about how to execute it.
A good analogy for how we should treat the learning process is to act like an umpire would in a tennis match. When one player serves a double fault, that player call is a terrible shot and is unhappy. The other player judges it as good and is pleased. Then there is the umpire who simply calls the ball as he sees it. By calling things how they are, we can accept them, learn from them, and try to correct them.
Gallwey says, “When the mind is free of any thought or judgment, it is still and acts like a mirror. Then and only then can we know things as they are.” The way to do this, Gallwey argues, is keeping our minds concentrated on the here and now. But I think most of us would agree that this is not an easy task. Gallwey’s discussion about this really resonated with me:
It’s perplexing to wonder why we ever leave the here and now…they are the only place and time when one ever enjoys himself or accomplishes anything…Most of our suffering takes place when we allow our minds to impinge the future or mull over the past. Nonetheless, few people are ever satisfied with what is before them at the moment. 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.
I think most people would agree with Gallwey after reading this concept, but I had never really thought about it this way before. Why do we leave the here and now when we indeed suffer the most when we indulge in reliving the past and daydreaming about the future.
The Inner Game of Tennis and the theory of the two selves provide a compelling explanation for why we often come up short when we feel as though we have tried our hardest and why, on the contrary, the when we aren’t trying so hard we are surprised by the results. Even though Gallwey’s process for letting Self 2 shine seems like a lifelong battle against Self 1, I think that simply being aware of the two selves is incredibly valuable. I have already recommended this book to a few people close to me that I think could benefit a lot from simply looking at one’s learning and performance in this light.