The Inner game of tennis by Timothy Gallwey

This book was written in 1970s by Timothy Gallwey who at the time was a tennis coach and amateur tennis player. The book was written as a manual for tennis players to improve their game. But it has found widespread applicability outside of tennis and even outside of sports to areas as diverse as music, business, writing etc.

Think about a person you admire who is an expert in their field. What are the qualities you think set them apart from others? One obvious quality is that they have better skills in their chosen field. But the thesis of this book is that there is something else apart from the visible aspects that is important to get ahead. Whenever we are trying to learn anything new; there are two types of games – an outer game and an inner game. The outer game is all about the tricks of the trade and the physical aspect of the game including skills. The inner game is about the mental aspect of the game and is equally important if not more important than the outer game.

What really is the inner game? We encounter a mental voice frequently in our life. The voice prevents us in general from learning new things and having new experiences. Lets say we want to learn to play guitar. The voice may tell you that we are too old to learn guitar. Or it may say that you will not have the time to learn or it may give any of the thousands of other excuses for us not to even start. Another example – lets say you want to take a solo trip and are thinking the idea over in your head. The voice may ask you that what would happen if you don’t like it and would then be stuck there all alone. The voice always has these practical sounding but ultimately ridiculous observations and comments.

Sportsmen also suffer from this voice inside their head. It can be critical and distracting and it prevents them from playing their natural game. In 2006, Delhi was playing Karnataka in a Ranji Trophy match. Karnataka put up a score of 446 in their first innings. Delhi while chasing quickly lost 5 wickets and that is when Virat Kohli came in to bat. He stabilized the innings and by the end of the day Delhi were 103 for loss of 5 wickets and Kohli was not out at 40. When Kohli went home that day, unfortunately his father passed away at 3am in the night. Obviously, everyone assumed that he would not come in for play the next day. Hence, his coach and teammates were shocked to see him in the dressing room ready to bat the next morning. Not only did he show up, he went on to make 90 runs and saved Delhi from a follow on. Can we imagine what Kohli must be going through when he was playing that innings. First, there was intense pressure of the match given that Delhi had lost 5 wickets and were chasing a mammoth target. But secondly, he was also dealing with this terrible tragedy. I can imagine his inner voice going berserk thinking about the funeral, which must have been scheduled for that day. He may be wondering about his family and how they are coping with this tragedy. But despite all this, Kohli was able to play a terrific inning. This shows that he has a strong inner game. He was able to suppress / ignore his inner voice and was able to focus on his game for the duration of the play.

We all struggle with this inner voice in various areas of our life. How can we improve our inner game? We can do that by suppressing this inner voice and trusting oneself more.

Suppressing the inner voice. One way of doing this is persistence. We already know that learning anything worthwhile is going to take time. If we want to get in shape, we know that going to the gym can be helpful. But for the first few months, we will have to do all the hard work and there will be no visible results. The results will take 6 months to a year to show. In the meanwhile, we may feel that we should quit because nothing is happening. At such time, we have to ignore that voice and push through knowing that results will come in time. The second way to quiet the inner voice is through focus. This means that we should focus our mind on specific aspects of the game so that the mind does not get a chance to create any distractions. For example, one of the tricks which is used by tennis players is watching the ball when they are playing. Because they are so intensely focused on the ball and its trajectory, their mind does not get a chance to create any distracting thoughts.

Trusting oneself. We need to understand that there is a child within all of us. It is the child who is eternally curious and wants to explore new things and have new experiences. Let us call this our authentic self. It has natural ability to learn new things – whether it be a sport like tennis or learning a new language or learning to play guitar. Now as we have seen, the inner voice interferes and distracts us. This interference, although well intended leads to deterioration in our natural performance. Over time it can lead to our authentic self taking a back seat. When this happens, we will find it difficult to step out of our comfort zone. We may shut down from new experiences and loath to taking any risks in life. We need to give more power and autonomy to our authentic self. We need to trust ourself and our natural ability to learn new things.

In conclusion, I found the book does highlight a very important topic of inner game which is very important in all aspects of life. I felt that the book did an excellent job of explaining the inner game. But it fell short on my expectations on offering solutions to getting better at the inner game. The solutions offered in the book are applicable to the game of tennis. And given that this book is titled “The inner game of tennis”, I’m not sure if that is a valid criticism.

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