“Inner game is what enables you to act. Nothing less, nothing more.” – Tim Gallwey
Back in the 1970s, tennis coach Tim Gallwey published his first book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. He coined the term “inner game” in response to his belief that every player plays two matches simultaneously: the outer game against an opponent, and the inner game against the thoughts and voices in their head – their inner fears and doubts.
The Inner Voice
Whether you’ve played tennis or not, you will no doubt have experienced the inner voice of doubt at some point in your life. In tennis, or any other sport, it’s the one that gives you a running commentary on everything negative that’s happening, or everything you perceive to be negative about your performance. It will say, “You stuffed that up,” or, “You ‘re going to lose,” or, “You’ll never be good enough so you should just give up now…”
The way you think impacts the way you feel, the way you behave, and ultimately the outcomes you experience. If every shot you play in tennis is preceded with a negative thought, then those thoughts are effectively self-fulfilling prophecies. You see, you think you’re going to get it wrong, therefore you get it wrong, but what’s more, no matter what you do, you’re still going to think you got it wrong because your focus is entirely negative. Your perception of your performance becomes entirely negative.
“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.” – Tim Gallwey
Cut the Interference
The inner voice of fear and doubt creates interference, and it’s interference that gets in the way of performance. Allowing negative thinking to go unchecked will without doubt have a negative impact on performance, but, here’s the thing, answering back and fighting the voice of negativity will also impact performance. As Tim Gallwey puts it, “Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.”
So, how do you learn to focus your mind? Well, it’s all about learning how to stay in the here and now. Focusing on what has already happened and therefore can’t be changed is an approach that’s going to keep you stuck where you are, unable to move on. Focusing on what might happen if your worst fears are realised is an approach that’s setting you on track to realising those very fears, so, learning how to focus on what you are doing in the present moment is the only way to keep moving forward and do what needs to be done to get the results you want.
Doing it Right?
At the heart of Tim’s approach to coaching is his belief that not trying too hard holds the key to making improvements in performance – in tennis, sport, and all other areas of life. Trying too hard creates interference. Trying to hit the ball a certain way, trying to hold the racket in a certain way, or trying to play the ball to a certain spot on the court are approaches that leave the mind wide open to negative feedback. If you’re trying too hard to do something in a certain way, what happens if you don’t do it? You see, if you’re not trying to hit the ball in a certain way and you’re just focusing on hitting the ball, you free your mind from so much interference. It’s no longer about doing it right, it’s simply about doing it.
Doing without Thinking
Whatever it is you want to do or do better, doing it and gaining confidence in your ability to do it is the only way to keep moving towards your goal. Doing and achieving not only boosts confidence, it boosts enjoyment, and the more you enjoy doing something, the more motivated you are to keep doing it… The more you focus on what you’re doing in the here and now, not what you already did or what you might do, the more you cut out performance-limiting interference, and you enter a zone of doing without thinking, a flow state, in which your body is free to do what it’s capable of doing without fear or doubt holding you back.
When you learn how to play the inner game, you begin to see improvements in your outer game. What could you do if you stopped trying too hard to do it?
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