How The Inner Game of Tennis author W. Timothy Gallwey is teaching business people new ways to master mental focus, “work free,” and win big.
In the mid-1970s, when Tiger Woods was just learning to crawl, it was tennis, not golf, that was the diversion du jour for corporate climbers and country-clubbers. Thanks to the electrifying play of American professionals like Billie Jean King and Jimmy Connors, it was also a hugely popular spectator sport that inspired people of all ages to crowd public courts from coast to coast.
If you were at all serious about racquet sports back then, either as a fan or a weekend hacker, it’s a good guess you had a dog-eared copy of W. Timothy Gallwey’s seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis, stuffed in your racquet bag.
Based on the author’s hands-on experiences as both a tennis instructor and meditation student, the bestseller (originally published in 1974 and still available in paperback today) took an unorthodox approach to the way that individual sports were taught and learned. And because of tennis’s cultural cachet, Gallwey’s educational philosophy, which was primarily psychological in nature, inspired a generation of professional and personal coaches in various disciplines.
To master your inner game, Gallwey insists, you must get out of your own way and trust your basic instincts. You must let whatever game you’re playing just happen, which requires not only deep concentration but also a Zen-like approach to avoiding self-doubt, perfectionism, and other mental distractions. To aid in the process, Gallwey says, the best coaches and mentors simply help facilitate learning, which is distinctly different from teaching right from wrong or should from shouldn’t.
While showing a rank beginner how to play tennis, for instance, a disciple of the inner game will ask his apprentice to watch as he hits a few balls across the net. Then, instead of asking the student to swing her racket a certain way or put her feet in this or that position, the teacher just hits more tennis balls and asks her to stand still and concentrate on the spin. After doing this for a few minutes, the teacher will tell the student to continue concentrating on the ball’s spin and simply strike it with her racket when it feels right.
At first, the beginner will likely miss the ball completely or it will sail long or short. But if she remains focused on only the ball’s spin, eventually she will unconsciously imitate her coach’s technique — and the ball will cross the net and land inbounds.
“Performance equals potential minus interference,” Gallwey explains. The basic tenets of his philosophy are to teach by example, focus exercises on process rather than outcome, and then get out of the way. And while he’s careful to point out that no two people learn exactly the same way, the approach is applicable in a host of learning environments — tennis or work, professional or personal.
Over the past 40 years, Gallwey has proved his point on the pages of six like-minded how-to books, including The Inner Game of Golf, The Inner Game of Music, and, in 1999, The Inner Game of Work, which translates the author’s philosophy to the workplace and builds on his experiences as an elite executive coach and speaker.
Staying true to the lessons he first learned and then taught in the ’70s, Gallwey built a reputation consulting with companies such as Coca-Cola, Apple, Harley-Davidson, and Deloitte & Touche. Now, at the young age of 75, he’s planning to open a coaching school in his home state of California while continuing to hone his leadership curriculum (most recently in conjunction with the London-based company Performance Consultants International). He’s also writing a book about the culture of Brazilian soccer.
In a wide-ranging, 60-minute interview with Experience Life, Gallwey reminisced about coaching tennis; shared stories about helping athletes, salespeople, and executives master their inner game; and talked about teaching companies how to win big.
Q & A
Experience Life: What first got you thinking about changing the way people were taught to play tennis?
Timothy Gallwey: Traditional tennis instructors watch the student swing in different situations and then use an ancient technique called “Should and Shouldn’t” to prompt — or almost coerce — the student to live up to the instructor’s image of the right way to do things. In the beginning, I followed that prescription and paid most of my attention to the clarity of the instructions I gave. Then, one day I was giving a lesson and was a little bit bored and a little bit tired, and something seemingly terrible happened: One of my student’s bad habits began to change before I had gotten up the energy to start teaching him.
A voice in my head said, “Damn it. I missed my chance.” My twisted logic was that if I’d taught him something and then he’d changed, I would have gotten the credit and he would have paid me happily. In other words, he was upsetting the economy of tennis instruction.
After chastising myself for being lazy, I suddenly had the realization that I was more committed to teaching than I was to the student learning. That shocked me into looking at things from a different perspective.
EL | Is that when you began to consider working on a player’s “inner game”?
TG | The first thing I had to ask was, “What’s going on in the student’s head during my lesson? When the ball is coming, what’s the student thinking?” And, of course, what’s filling his head are all of my instructions. He’s trying hard to do the shoulds and avoid the shouldn’ts, and that becomes visible in him tightening his cheeks, his lips, and his arm muscles. Because he wants positive feedback, he overcontrols. So I thought, “Maybe I’m getting in the way of learning rather than helping it.”
EL | How did this revelation play out on the court?
TG | Let’s say the student is not hitting the ball in the middle of the racket, maybe because she’s getting the racket back too late, or maybe because she’s stepping too close to the ball. The traditional instructor analyzes the cause and then tells the student how she should or shouldn’t address it.
An inner-game instructor doesn’t say, “Try to hit the ball in the middle,” because he knows that the student already knows she should. Instead, he works to put the player in a state of mind where she’s simply just paying attention. For instance, I’d just ask the student to strike the ball and notice precisely where it hits the racket, point to the spot, and do it again. Generally, in the first 30 seconds or so, the ball bounces all around the racket. Then it starts hitting closer to the middle. Most of the time, before a minute or two are up, the player is hitting consistently in the middle. I challenge her and say, “Are you trying to hit the ball in the middle?” And she says, “No. Honest. I wasn’t. The racket did it.”
She had not made a conscious effort to hit the ball in the middle of the racket, but the part of her brain that’s in charge of coordination was noting that when the ball was hit in the right place, it produced a solid sound and a good feeling in the vibration. She also got more power with the same effort. The stroke changes without overthinking.
EL | This brings us to an important concept in your work: the differences between what you call Self 1 and Self 2.
TG | Right. When most people are performing a task, there’s a conversation going on in their heads. This inner voice is usually obsessed with those shoulds and shouldn’ts, and trying to provide a set of corrections in the moment. I call this Self 1. After a performance, Self 1 will also come back and criticize you for not following its instructions. Then it will repeat the instructions again. In fact, it will repeat itself so many times that pretty soon it will seem to be judging not just your performance, but you. Self 2 is your authentic self, that part of you that Self 1 is constantly talking to: the one that has to perform.
Tennis players who analyze the voice of Self 1 a little more closely begin to see that its instructions are imprecise. For example, it might tell you to “bend your knees.” But it doesn’t say how much or when. Meanwhile, Self 2 [unconsciously] gets you to run across the court, get your racket back, and hit the ball. As I’ve grown fond of saying, “You have a 10-cent computer chip bossing a billion-dollar computer around the court.”
EL | So, ultimately, if Self 2 could somehow quiet Self 1, would we be better off?
TG | Yes. Self 2 is what people are using when they’re in the zone. They don’t hear the noise from Self 1, and the tennis seems to be happening automatically. Or the business presentation or speech you’re giving to a group is coming out fluidly and much better than your notes.
EL| You write a lot about Self 1 and Self 2 in The Inner Game of Work. How does the concept relate to the way we take direction and manage people?
TG | The command-and-control environment in most workplaces is focused on manipulating Self 1. You can see it when senior managers tell subordinates what to do and how to do it — and then give “feedback” on the results of the performance. A good manager, like a good coach, does not tell but empowers Self 2 by asking things like “What’s the goal of your job?” “What part do you know how to do?” “What part don’t you know?”
I often find that even when a person is struggling, what he or she doesn’t know is actually limited. As a result, I’ll often end up asking, “Where can you find those things out?” And the person struggling might say, “Well, I could ask my manager.” And then I might say, “Well, I’m sure she knows, but what if she doesn’t or she’s not available? Where would you find out?” And the person usually comes up with a logical strategy, like talking to another colleague. The result is that the worker leaves confident that he knew most everything, and that what he didn’t know he has the facility and power to figure out.
EL | So, like the coach, is the manager’s job to inspire self-trust?
TG | Self-trust and self-awareness.
When I consult with people in sales, for example, I often ask them, “How many of you are familiar with 5-year-olds?” Most of them raise their hands. I say, “Are they good salespeople?” They think a little bit and, many of them having been “sold” by a 5-year-old, say, “They’re excellent.” I say, “Do they sell the mother in the same way as they sell their father?” Of course, the answer is no.
A real salesperson, as well as a child, has a set of innate skills that develop with experience: how to build rapport with the customer; how to show an interest in the customer rather than in your product; determining what kind of problem he’s trying to solve; figuring out how your product could benefit him. In fact, you shouldn’t call a conversation a sales conversation any more than you should call a tennis lesson a teaching conversation. It’s a buying conversation. That’s what’s really going on, and once salespeople understand that, they put themselves in the place of the buyer and figure out how they can help the customer make the best decision.
EL | Ultimately, then, is it about abandoning coercion as a tactic? Is it about resisting the temptation to manipulate Self 1?
TG | Self-1 types play off of each other. It’s a little bit of an ego game. When the salesman tries to be in control, the customer’s Self 1 kicks in and says, “Wait a second. I’m the one buying. Why is he telling me all this stuff I don’t want to know?”
It also happens with managers and subordinates. In the modern workplace, workers need to be able to make decisions in any given moment that even the best manager could never control. Things are getting too complicated for command and control. You need people at all levels who can be aware, be clear about their goals, and make their own choices.
EL | It’s interesting that oftentimes it’s the manager or the coach who is most resistant to self-analysis and change. Why is that?
TG | Traditionally, the leader is conditioned to believe that in order to gain the confidence of those he leads, he needs to project an image of decisiveness; that he knows what he’s doing. So leaders become the knowers and the tellers, and they fail to ask questions of their subordinates or themselves. It’s an ego trap.
EL | When you’re consulting with people in leadership positions, how do you break them out of that trap?
TG | I tell them to put themselves in the place of the people they’re managing and ask three questions: What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What do they need to succeed?
EL | In other words, you need to put yourself in their shoes.
TG | The tool is called “transpose,” and it’s good for managers to do with employees, for parents to do with kids, and for husbands and wives — because too often we’re looking at things only through our own eyes.
EL | The key to this kind of empathy, it seems, is to really listen. And that’s tough to do when Self 1 is humming in the background. How can we better focus?
TG | Well, step No. 1 is to listen to the other person, not to your own head [thinking] about what you’re going to say next. That is the most common distraction, often because you’re afraid that when the other person finishes, you won’t know what to say. The truth is that if you listen to a person completely, Self 2 will know what to say. And it won’t be just concocted out of our concepts, but it will be according to what the person said.
The second thing to know is that telling a person to listen is like saying to people, “Watch the ball.” Because tennis players have been told to watch the ball since tennis was invented. What they haven’t been told is what to watch: the speed, the seams, the spin, and the height over the net. Similarly, when someone’s speaking, really listening means paying attention to all the variables, like tone of voice and body language.
EL | You’ve written that the ultimate goal should be to empower one another to “work free.” What does working free mean to you?
TG | It means making your own choices as to what you do. And that choice you make may be to follow a manager’s last order, or it may be to question that order. But you trust your instincts, your Self 2.
On a deeper level, you’re not taking orders from Self 1 and all the embedded should and shouldn’ts. You know the difference between what the culture is telling you and what your own wisdom is telling you. You know you’re free the same way you know you’re free when you’re playing a game. You’re doing it because you want to, not because you have to.