Friday, November 17, 2023

Relaxed, non-self-judgemental concentration will help you find your "Inner Game of Tennis"

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by Timothy Gallwey is a somewhat legendary tome in tennis circles. First published in 1974, I'm finally reading it for the first time and I'm taking away lots of helpful tips.

I long grew up as a John McEnroe-inspired tennis hothead, quick to throw my racket or belt out loud questions to myself asking why I hit a ball a certain way when I knew I should have hit it another, better way. In other words, I'm the perfect audience for this book. At least I used to be. I'm a lot calmer now on the court, but I'm hoping the Inner Game philosophy will get me even closer to tennis zen.

The book, in the most simple of terms, is all about focusing on the present moment, quieting the mind to enhance performance, and letting go of self-judgment. It introduces the concept of Self 1 (the conscious mind, which must be quieted) and Self 2 (the unconscious mind, which must be trusted) and how that inner battle affects the level of success for tennis players.

The book starts with a quote I love from Maharaji: "If I’m entertaining myself in the game, I will win."

And Gallwey writes that the secret to winning any game is in not trying too hard, adding:

  • Players must perform spontaneously and with a calm mind. 
  • The will to win unlocks energy and is never discouraged by losing. 
  • This is similar to a natural process, the one we used when we were learning to walk and talk.

When coaching or learning tennis, it’s important to remember that images are more effective than words, showing is better than telling, and too much instruction is worse than none. In fact, trying too hard at either often produces negative results!

Talking to yourself and coaching yourself - almost like you are two separate people - can make you more tense and worse on the court. Self judging will typically grow and grow until the ego turns it into self-fulfilling prophecies, or generalizations like “my game is trash” or “I’m a poor server.”

However, making your inner instructor nonjudgemental - seeing what is happening rather than how good or how bad it is happening - will help keep you from trying too hard and will help achieve a relaxed kind of concentration.

What does all that mumbo jumbo mean in practice, you may now be asking? Well, here are some tennis tips that I'm hoping to have taken away from reading this book:

  • I'm thinking that the way I may be able to process all of it - in both practice and in the heat of battle - will be to bring out the old sports journalist in myself and report my practices and matches in my head from a neutral perspective, without overly criticizing or overly congratulating myself
  • The author makes the point that there is no problem with assessing your serve and noting that your first serve, for example, was in 50 percent of the time in a match. It’s ok to assess that and try to make improvements. But judging that your first serve was bad will likely lead to tightness, trying too hard, condemnation, and other results that will not be helpful while playing. Blocking out the judgemental will allow you to pick up on details that you might have otherwise passed by while you were either admiring yourself or criticizing your shots and form.
  • In order to return Pete Sampras’ serve, you would have about a half second to make an incredible array of movements and decisions. Even with just returning the serve of an average player, there is about one second for all this. It is “a mind-boggling achievement … yet it is not uncommon.” Keeping in mind all this silent intelligence can allow us to “dissolve the unnecessary self-instructions” and over-control. Here's an experiment: tighten your muscles in your hand and wrist and you will find that the snap of the wrist that generates much of the power of your serve will not snap nearly as fast as if your wrist is not tightened. Similarly, if you’re constantly telling yourself what you did wrong on the last point, your cheeks and other parts of your body will tense and tighten and your game will suffer even more.
  • Players are usually aware of how they hit the ball but not as aware of where they want the ball to go. Don’t try to hit the ball deep or the serve over the net. Just ask Self 2 to let it happen. Step back and envision the arc needed for the shot. If it doesn’t go where you intended, don’t make a conscious effort to correct it, just let go and see what happens next time. One way I'll practice this will be to set a tennis-ball can somewhere on the other side of the court so I can tell myself that that’s where I'm going to aim. Then I'll try watching my improvements with detachment and not by attempting to get it correct.
  • Try role playing as a different type of player than you normally might be. Some players play defensively, some offensively, some play with a “formal” style in which they care more about looking good and stylish than winning, and some will do anything to win and hit the ball in a way that their opponents seem to find most bothersome. Try role playing and being different than your normal type of playing. It will be fun and could extend your range.
I'm going to work on these tips for a while before coming back to read the last two-thirds of this book.

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