Master your mind with Inner Game of Tennis

Let's introduce this term first. Timothy Gallwey wrote his first book »The Inner Game of Tennis« in 1974. He presented us with a radically different approach to teaching tennis (and other endeavors) as was the standard practice. He wrote his second book, "Inner Tennis – Playing the Game" in 1976, which somehow was not noticed as much, but is in my opinion even better than the first one.

He masterfully demonstrated the role of the mind in learning and playing tennis and how in most cases it is our biggest obstacle in reaching our peak performance. He also showed us some drills on court with which we can direct our mind to actually help us.

When one realizes that something in his mind is preventing him from reaching his full potential, he becomes the inner player. Now he knows what to work on. But most of the time – he has no idea HOW to do that.

He does understand though that errors in performance usually take place in his mind before they express themselves in actions. So his goal becomes getting rid of these limitations.

Here’s a short list of these limitations – inner obstacles:

- fear (of losing, not improving, looking bad in the eyes of others, …)
- lack of self-confidence
- self-condemnation
- poor concentration
- trying too hard
- perfectionism
- self-consciousness
- frustration
- anger
- boredom
- expectations
- a busy mind
- …

Although this list may look very discouraging, the solutions are few and simple. Some of them though may not be easy to practice.

The Fundamentals of the Inner Game of Tennis

Self1 and Self2

If we take a moment and listen to what is really going on in our minds, we will discover that there is a constant dialogue going on. There seems to be one voice doing all the commanding and criticizing and some other part being quiet and doing the actions.

We can quickly see that their relationship does not feel too friendly. There is one part, Self 1, which constantly tells the other part what to do. It seems to know everything there is about tennis – how to bend the knees, watch the ball, follow through and so on. And then there is the other part, Self 2, who is a silent doer.

And yet, the Self 1 doesn't trust Self 2 much and even takes things in its own »hands« and starts moving the body, tightening all sorts of muscles and makes the arm go where it thinks it »should« go. Since all the fluidity and timing is gone by now, the »arm« usually mishits the shot and Self1 gets one more chance to degrade Self2.

Trusting the Body

This is the first principle of the Inner Game. Tennis is very complex sport and our bodies (Self2) have a fantastic potential and ability to learn without conscious interference. Without the interference of Self1, Self2 shows such a great talent that we are often afraid even to identify with it, since it is so far from our normal expectations. When we actually experience that once in a while, we call these shots – lucky.

The first skill to play the Inner Game is called »letting it happen«. This means gradually building a trust in the innate ability of your own body to learn and to perform. It usually takes some time but you can start right now.

Here's an exercise for demonstration: stand on one leg. Just stand and »listen« to all the muscles in your leg working to keep you in balance. The more aware you are the more muscles you'll feel and how they move – contract and expand. And yet, this is not what you’re doing consciously. You can consciously raise and lower you arm, if you want to (so go ahead and do it). This is a conscious (Self 1) made movement. But these contractions and movements of the muscles in your leg are not conscious. They are subconscious or made by body or Self2.

So letting it happen means that you let the balance happen. You are not consciously holding the balance – you just want to be balanced. That’s the best role of Self 1. To give directions, goals and then lets Self 2 do its magic.

Quieting the Mind

This is the second principle of the Inner Game. Tennis game gives you sometimes just enough time to consciously think during ball exchange. But the capacity of our bodies to perform at their highest potential is in direct proportion to the stillness of our minds. When the mind is noisy, anxious and distracted, it interferes with the nervous system's silent instructions to the muscles.

The main goal of the Inner Game is to control and quiet the mind so that it pays attention to what is essential. As long as the mind tries to play the game, it will be too slow, make big errors and move the body in jerky movements.

If Self 1 gets absorbed by the ball, then Self 2 is free to perform at its peak. And that is the right relationship between Self 1 and Self 2. Only in this case you have control of your mind, able to use it as a tool when it is needed, rather than letting it use you.

One of biggest obstacles of learning is the constant Self1 activity. It prevents us to experience events as they are. It clouds our awareness and projects our fears and doubts into the event – the flying ball or even before that.

One of the main purposes of the Inner Game approach is to increase awareness of what is. If you want to change your tennis – or your life – the Inner Game approach suggests that as a first step you don’t try to change it, but simply increase your awareness of what is.

Experience is the primary teacher in the Inner Game approach. You can learn everything you need to know in tennis through awareness only of your own experience. But to be able to experience events or yourself fully, you need to develop the art of non-judgment.


It means getting rid of the concepts »good« and »bad«. As long as we look at shots as good or bad, we lose clear information of what happened. When the shot is good, we try very hard to make it good again. And when the shot is bad, we try very hard to do it better. Can you imagine trying hard to hold balance? What is the best approach to be balanced? To be quiet in your mind and let your body start finding the solutions of balancing you.

Can we achieve this state of non-judgment or are we so socially programmed that there is no way out? Yes, we can and we do it a lot, we're just not aware of it.


Place a tennis ball 20 feet away from you on the ground and take 5 or 6 tennis balls in your hands. Now throw each one and try to hit that tennis ball on the ground. Just throw the balls one after another and try to hit the ball.

Regardless of the outcome, here are a couple of questions:

- Did you try any less when you missed the ball?
- Did you try much harder when you missed?
- Did you criticize yourself when you missed?
- Did instruct your body what to do for the next shot? (bend you elbow, make a bigger swing, …)

Most of the people say NO to all these questions. And when you play a tennis game?

Do you try less or harder when you miss? Do you criticize or degrade yourself? Do you keep telling yourself what to do next (watch the ball, racquet back …)?

Probably YES.

Let's see what is really happening. When you missed the ball on the first shot (assuming you didn't get very lucky ;)), what did you do next? For most people the answer is: «If I threw too short, I tried to throw further. If I threw too much to the left, I tried to throw more to the right. «

Exactly, and that is the perfect role of Self1. Just to give directions and to notice the outcome – the experience.

And then what happened – did you instruct your arm to move for a bigger swing so that you're able to throw a longer ball? No, you just »let it happen«. It happens automatically. Self 2 did this adaptation. You trusted the body!

And then you threw the next ball and noticed what happened and again let Self 2 do the correction.

The reason why you were able to become Inner Game master in this exercise is because you were in the state of non-judgment. Most people answer that they didn't criticize or degrade themselves. And most people would say that they didn't try harder or less, just adapted to the experience. This non-judgment approach to learning is the fastest way to improvement.

There is no faster way to learn how to play tennis. Our body and brain need many many repetitions to coordinate hundreds of muscles in our body to produce the movement which will bring desired outcomes.

But there are hundreds of ways of slowing this down. And all these are made by the interference of Self 1. Either by constant mental activity which clouds our perception of what happened or by actually trying to move the body parts itself – taking the racket back and under the ball, bending the knees and so forth.

Judging one's performance is slowing or even stopping the growth and learning. But even more devastating is judging oneself. The player who decides that he isn't any good will soon be playing that way. But there is actually no connection between our performance and ourselves. You may be a good tennis player, but maybe you suck at bowling. Does that make you a lesser person? No, and so it doesn't mean, that there something wrong with us, when we miss a tennis shot.

We make these connections in our minds and we can also stay away from making these connections. They only hurt us and stop our growth. The Inner Game approach shows this way to freedom in performance, being in the state of acceptance – of the events and of yourself. And when we can make the transition from tennis court to life with these new acquired ways of looking at ourselves and events around us, we experience freedom.

Explore the rest of the Inner Game section to find out more about certain principles, drills on how to quiet your mind, book reviews which deal with this concept and various articles, which help you understand the Inner Game approach in tennis.


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Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

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