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The Inner Game of Tennis

By: Timothy Gallwey

"Attention is focused consciousness, and consciousness is that power of knowing." 92

Timothy Gallwey's book "The Inner Game of Tennis" doesn't just apply to tennis, or sport for that matter – although I did recently listen to a podcast with Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks Superbowl winning coach, where he cited the Inner Game as a must read.

It also comes up in coaching conversations – outside of sports – all the time. It's a powerful exploration of how we can think differently. When we learn to let go and trust our instinct, we can be more authentic and effective in many situations. It's also good advice for coaching or mentoring people – don't tell them what to do; help them observe what they are doing. As Timothy Gallwey notes, "My compliments are criticisms in disguise. I use both to manipulate behaviour" (p.29).

Self 1 and Self 2

The book introduces the idea of two selves: self 1 – the conscious mind and self 2 – the unconscious mind. Self 1 always tells us what to do and what we did wrong, and self 2 is the unconscious mind that tends to react and is often capable of doing more than we expect. The Inner Game argues that we should practice non-judgemental looking, just observing what's happening.

Self 1 always wants to tell us what to do, but that judgement can hinder us from improving. So we need to let go of judgement. This doesn't mean ignoring mistakes, "it simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them. Non-judgemental awareness might observe that during a certain march, you hit 50 percent of your first serves into the net. It doesn't ignore the fact…Judgment begins when the service is labelled "bad"..." (p.20). The same is true in our engagements with others – we judge how we've engaged. It was a "good" or "bad" conversation rather than just observing what happened.

"Self 1...always looking for approval and wanting to avoid disapproval…" (p.29). Nonjudgmental awareness is the ability to see events as they are without adding judgment. It can be a powerful communication and leadership tool when we use it to observe our and others' interactions. Instead of labelling communication as "bad," leaders can observe the mistake and encourage learning from it without judgment. It's a key tool in creating psychological safety in a team; you observe what happened without trying to make meaning.

It is the process of observing that creates the space for everyone to grow and reduce conflict. Regarding sports, Timothy Gallwey notes, "I have found that when players break their habitual patterns, they can greatly extend the limits of their own style and explore subdued aspects of their personality" (p.48). This happens when we shift from judgement – self 1 – to observation to self 2. It helps the whole team move away from the need to prove themselves and the underlying competition that goes with this. "What is seldom recognised is that the need to prove yourself is based on insecurity and self-doubt. Only to the extent that one is unsure about who and what he is does he need to provide himself to himself or others" (p.116).

How can we practice non-judgemental awareness?

"Focus of attention in the present moment, the only one you can really live in, is at the heart of this book, and at the heart of the art of doing anything well" (p.130). Attention is focused consciousness; it comes from where your attention is and not by forcing it. It would help if you let your attention find its focus and not the other way around (p.87). In practice, what Timothy Gallwey is getting at is that we need to relax and not try and force judgement, but be in the meeting, on the tennis court, in the conversation and be present at that moment. Be aware of what is happening and dismiss judgemental thoughts to see what is going on. "Awareness of what is, without judgement, is relaxing, and is the best precondition for change" (p.75).

In practice, this means that you need to "…yourself (Self 2) observe whatever it finds interesting, and ignore comments from Self 1, which will want to be making up little formulas for you to follow. As you observe, certain things will "stand out" or come to the foreground of your attention spontaneously" (p.66). In a meeting, this might mean that you observe a changing feeling in the room, or you hear people's voices rising. You might then try to engage others in that observation to see if they are also noticing it. From there, you can make sense of what to do next.

The benefit of practice practising nonjudgmental awareness, and focusing attention, is the creation of a more constructive and engaging team environment. Individuals will inevitably feel safer if they know that they are not being judged and that where there is tension and conflict, it will be identified as an observation and without judgement. The concept of the two selves can help leaders become more self-aware and better at guiding their teams.

It's not surprising that the Inner Game of Tennis is on so many people's reading lists, from coaching to leadership.


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