#ReadingNotes: The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey is a classic on the psychology of sports performance, with wider applications. Our ego-mind tries to hard, and stops us from realising our potential. We need to: let go of self-judgements; let our actions happen; use our ego-self to direct natural learning processes; and concentrate.

Fundamentally, the book claims there would be no problem with competition if one’s self-image were not at stake. Indeed, true competition is a form of collaboration, where both players benefit by their own efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other.

“The difference between being concerned about winning and being concerned about making the effort to win may seem subtle. But in the effect there is a great difference.

When I’m concerned only about winning I’m caring about something that cannot wholly control. But one can control the effort one puts into winning one can always do the best one can at any given moment.”

The book combines tennis specifics with insights of Buddhism. My tennis (and piano playing, and more) all improved when I took the lessons into practice.

This post is part of the #ReadingNotes series, see here for more (including format and use of bulletpoints).

My rather battered copy of the book


Many of our difficulties in tennis or mental in origin. As tennis players we tend to think too much before and during our shots. We try too hard to control our movements. We are too concerned about the results of our actions and how they might reflect on our self image. In short, we worry too much and don’t concentrate very well.

Key concepts

  • Self 1: the conscious ego mind.
  • Self 2: the body and unconscious mind.

This is the nub of the problem: Self 1 does not trust Self 2, even though the unconscious, automatic self is extremely competent. Self 1 is responsible for the error, but he heaps the blame on Self 2 and then, by condemning it further, undermines his own confidence in Self 2.

Thus there are two games involved in tennis

  • The outer game played against the obstacles presented by an external opponent and played for one or more external prizes.
  • The inner game played against internal and emotional obstacles for the reward of increasing self realisation that is knowledge of one’s true potential.

Perhaps the most indispensable tool for man in modern times is the ability to remain calm in the midst of rapid and unsettling changes.

The ‘inner games’ people are often playing in tennis [and in life]:

Primary gameGood-oFriends-oHealth-/Fun-o
AimAchieve ExcellenceMake or keep friends.Mental or physical health or pleasure.
MotiveProve oneselfDesire for friendship.Health or fun
Sub-gamesPerfect-o: Reach the highest standard possible but never able to close gap with true perfection, leading to discouragement and trying too hard.

Compete-o: Defeat others to get admiration and control. But someone will always be better, and forces constant comparison and fear of defeat.

Image-o: Look good but trying to please everyone leads to confusion about who really are.
Status-o: Improve status, but always fear of losing social position.

Togetherness-o: desire acceptance but need to find time and fear ostracism.

Partner-o: see my spouse as otherwise lonely.
Health-o: prolong youth but doubts.

Fun-o: desire enjoyment but struggle to learn subtleties of the game.

High-o: Raise one’s awareness but subject to fluctuations of the ego-mind.

This requires the learning of several inner skills:

The art of letting go of self-judgments:

“When we to the rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we plant do not criticize it. [Instead we] give it the water and nourishment required of a seed….The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.” [emphasis added]

  • Be clear about this: letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.
  • Self 1 is always looking for approval and wanting to avoid disapproval, this subtle ego-mind sees a compliment as a potential criticism [because it is something that could have gone wrong]. Compliments are criticisms in disguise! Both are used to manipulate behaviour, and compliments are socially acceptable.

Letting it happen:

  • Without conscious effort, billions of cells are functioning. The truth is that everyone who inhabits a human body possesses a remarkable creation the physical body is a tremendously sophisticated and competent servant.
  • Remember, you are not your tennis game. You are not your body. Trust the body to learn and to play as you would trust another person to do a job and in a short time it will perform beyond your expectations. Let the flower grow.
  • The cause of all stresses and frustrations can be summed up in the word attachment. Self 1 becomes so dependent on things situations, people and concepts within his experience, that when change occurs or seems about to occur, he freaks out.
  • There are only two possible approaches to dealing with upsetting circumstances in the present wants to change the circumstance. The other is to change the mind which is experiencing the upset.
  • Though sometimes employed to mean that mean a time of passiveness the phrase “Let it happen” actually refers to a deep acceptance of the fundamental processes inherent in life.
  • Letting go means allowing joy to come into your life instead of contriving to have a good time.
  • Letting go in this sense means letting go of our attachment to the idea of controlling our own development.
  • Abandon is a good word to describe what happens to a tennis player who feels he has nothing to lose. He stopped caring about the outcome and plays all out. This is the true meaning of detachment. It means letting go of the concern of Self 1 and letting the natural concern of a deeper Self takeover.

Recognising and trusting the natural learning process:

  • By the word learning, I do not mean the collection of information, but the realisation of something which actually changes one behaviour either external behaviour such as a tennis, stroke, or internal behaviour, such as a pattern of thought.
  • The primary role of Self 1 is to set goals for Self 2 and then let Self 2 perform.
  • There are three basic methods of programming Self 2. By this I mean communicating to Self 2 what you want from it.
    • Programming for results. Giving Self 2 a clear visual image of the results you desire.
    • Programming by identity. Giving Self 2 a role to play (ie a confident player, an attacking player, a defensive player etc).
    • Programming by form.
      • Step one. Observe, non judgmentally, existing behaviour.
      • Step two. Ask yourself to change programming with image and feel.
      • Step three. Let it happen!
      • Step four, non judgmental calm observation of the results leading to continuing observation of process until behaviour is automatic.

Gaining some practical experience in the art of concentration.

  • The art of concentration is basically the art of experiencing ever more fully whatever is in the here and now for you.
  • The quiet mind cannot be achieved by means of intellectual understanding. Only by the experience of peace in a moment when the mind is relatively still is one sufficiently encouraged to let go more concretely, the next time.
  • It is self evident that one cannot experience anything outside of consciousness. Consciousness is that which makes all things and events knowable.
  • When attention is allowed to rest in one place, it comes to know that place because attention is focused consciousness and consciousness is that power of knowing.
  • How do I stay concentrated in the here and now? Focus attention on breathing.
  • Normally we tend to concentrate only when suddenly we consider important is happening but the player of the inner game recognises increasingly that all moments are important ones worth paying attention to for each moment can increase his understanding of himself and life.

The meaning of competition

  • It is when competition is used as a means of creating a self image relative to others, that the worse that a person comes out. The ordinary fears and frustrations become greatly exaggerated.
  • There would be no problem with competition if one’s self-image were not at stake.
  • Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached.
  • In true competition, no person is defeated. Both players benefit by their own efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other.
  • The difference between being concerned about winning and being concerned about making the effort to win may seem subtle. But in the effect there is a great difference. When I’m concerned only about winning I’m caring about something that cannot wholly control. But one can control the effort one puts into winning one can always do the best one can at any given moment.
  • Thus for the player of the inner game, it is the moment by moment effort to let go and to stay centred in the here and now action which offers the real winning and losing and this game never ends.

The discovery of Self 3

  • What do we really want to tune in to? What we really want to hear and see and what do we really want to do? These are questions that a player with the inner game finally arrives at and continues to ask himself until he has found his answer: That which he can love and that which gives complete satisfaction.
  • When one finds one’s way to the direct experience of it, when one can actually meet face to face with the essence of his life, then he has achieved the first — but not the final — goal of the  inner game.
  • When the player of the Inner Game has …found his way to the direct experience of Self 3, he gains access to the catalyst capable of finally stilling his mind. Then his full potential as a human being is allowed to unfold. He plays the rest of the game in increasing joy of expressing with love his unique humanness, and in accordance with this own given talents and circumstances.


  • Nothing interesting to add.


  • I play my best tennis (and piano, and facilitation) when I get my conscious self out of the way.
  • I love the attitude to competition being to not make it about one’s own status or identity. But instead benefiting from trying to overcome obstacles, whatever the final result.
  • I learnt a lot from the quote that a rose is complete at any point in time, and also can be growing and developing at that moment. By temperament, I am a perfectionist who feels that I am incomplete and need to grow toward completeness. The rose metaphor removes the need to seek perfection, or to judge oneself now in order to motivate for change.
  • There are strong overlaps with:
    • Sociticism, recognising the world as it is (which is not the same as accepting that the world will always be as it is now) and acting with virtue.
    • The flow state named by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
    • Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa, especially in the notion that existence is wonderful and previous.


  • If this is all so natural, how come we find it so difficult to let go? Why hasn’t the evolution of societies weeded out the ones which make winning the inner game hard? The book doesn’t really rty to answer these questions, which implies something important is missing in this model of experience.


  • Bring into my professional and life practices.

1 thought on “#ReadingNotes: The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

  1. Pingback: Powerful Times S1. E35. Prof Tim Jackson | David Bent

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