The Inner Game of Tennis By: Rev. Anthony Makar
A couple of years ago, in the fall of 2015, I found myself winning my Ultimate League tennis matches again and again. Against people who had beat me in previous seasons, too. Soon I learned that I had qualified for the post-season tournament, and I had been added to an initial bracket of 64 contenders for the City Finals Championship.
I kept on winning those matches as well. From 64 our contender group shrunk to 32, from 32 to 16, from 16 to 8, and the competition bracket kept spreading on the page to the right, like a sideways-growing apple tree, but the apples are names, and there was my name: in the quarter-finals, in the semi-finals, and then, amazingly, I got in.
City Finals, baby.
Now, if you’ve ever played tennis before, you hear things coming out of most other people’s mouths, or your own. “Focus!” “Keep your eyes on the ball.” “Step up to the shot.”
All this is evidence of the game that’s going on in one’s head, separate and apart from the game that’s unfolding in the external world.
Several times I have played with people who I swear are offspring of John McEnroe. This one guy screamed so loud, I was frightened for my safety, although he was only screaming at himself. Smashing his racket against the chain-link fence, or the net.
His inner game of tennis essentially made him his own worst enemy, and made the outer game that much easier for me to win.
But back to City Finals. My opponent was a big man. I was quicker and had better strokes, but my inner tennis game wasn’t going so well. I was trying too hard. I was talking to myself more than usual. “Come on!” “Move!” “Keep your eyes on the ball!”
He’s serving, and I’m staring so hard at him from across the court that my eyes hurt. That’s me trying to focus. But all it led to–together with all the talk–was increased tightness and tension in my body. Muscle conflict. Wasted effort.
My face was tight and my lips scrunched up, as if doing that was going to make my backhand better.
He was pulling ahead, and what I did was turn up the heat. “Come ON!” I scolded myself even louder than before. “Move!” “Keep your EYES on the BALL!”
I lost the inner game.
I lost the outer game, too.
For the thoughtful person, practically anything can serve as a route to engaging the fundamental questions of life. Here, the fact of my talking to myself while on the tennis court begs a certain question to be asked: Who is the one talking, and who is the one being talked to?
A further fact that begs yet another question has to do with the manner by which the one talking addressed the one being talked to. The talker is treating the one being talked to as an untrustworthy idiot who apparently forgets to keep his eyes on the ball immediately after he is ordered to, so he needs reminding again and again and again.
It resonates with an image that comes from the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud: how the human situation is like a horse and buggy “in which the driver frantically struggles to control a hungry, lustful, and disobedient horse while the driver’s father sits in the back seat lecturing the driver on what he is doing wrong.”
2000 years ago it is Paul in the Christian scriptures (Galatians 5:17), crying out, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”
The issue is perennial. Paul, Freud, me, you. Therefore one of the great aims of spirituality is being healed of such self-divisions so that we can accomplish the valuable things we set out to achieve.
I highly recommend the book by Tim Gallwey, entitled The Inner Game of Tennis, as a source of profound insight and guidance. Not just for your tennis game.
You take your relationship to yourself into everything you do.
Tennis just becomes the occasion to glimpse the complexity of what’s happening.
First thing Tim Gallwey does is ask the questions I did, about who is the one talking and who is the one being talked to, and he says, “Obviously, the ‘I’ and the ‘myself’ are separate entities or there would be no conversation, so one could say that within each player there are two ‘selves.’ One, the ‘I,’ seems to give instructions; the other, ‘myself,’ seems to perform the action. Then ‘I’ returns with an evaluation of the action. For clarity let’s call the ‘teller’ Self 1 and the ‘doer’ Self 2.”
Self 1 and Self 2, teller and doer, are indeed very different, and to add to my understanding of them, I went to the work of positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his description of the two very different processing systems at work in the mind at all times.
Tim Gallway’s Self 2 corresponds to what Jonathan Haidt calls the “automatic processing system,” which, without any conscious effort at all, enables thousands of operations to take place within you simultaneously, including the mind boggling coordination of muscle movements necessary that allow a person to play tennis or any other sport.
This automatic processing system, this Self 2, is our body with its gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions. It hears everything, it never forgets, it is the exact opposite of unreliable and stupid. It is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years in the making. If automatic processes could be compared to software, says Jonathan Haidt, we could say that Self 2 “has been through thousands of product cycles and is nearly perfect.”
Which cannot be said for Self 1. Self 1 corresponds to the “controlled processing system” of the mind, which is new on the evolutionary scene. Its value is in how it liberates the human organism from the tyranny of here-and-now sensation and instant gratification. It allows us to set intentions and plan for the future. Words are how it expresses itself. It’s the part that gets us on the tennis court to begin with.
But, if it were compared to software, it would be at 1.0. “The language parts work well,” says Jonathan Haidt, “but there are still a lot of bugs in the reasoning and planning programs.”
Where tennis is concerned, consider some of these “bugs in the system.”
One example is Self 1’s penchant to imagine itself as Tennis King. Self 2 is the nearly perfect part of us, and if ever we are to play up to our full potential, it’s going to come from Self 2, but Self 1 acts like its all-important, volleys a stream of verbal commands at Self 2 without caring that Self 2 speaks a very different language—not of words, but of images.
Self 1 is a drama queen. Another bug. Self 1 has the special power to project itself imaginatively into the past and forward into the future, which is why it can think strategically. But the downside is that it can get lost in time. It’s like this: you’re on the court playing, and all of a sudden you’re worried about what happens if you don’t win, what your friends will say, and so on. Big dramas unfolding, which create distractions for Self 2 as it’s just trying to hit the ball.
Yet another bug in the system: Self 1 doesn’t like to delegate. Self 1 was the part of me at City Finals that tightened my face and scrunched up my lips, because it was trying to take over control of my backhand from Self 2. Doesn’t matter that Self 1 can do just one thing at a time, whereas a backhand requires hundreds of simultaneously coordinated actions and the sort of processing that only Self 2 is capable of.
Bugs in the system. Par for the course for Self 1’s being so evolutionarily recent in development.
And there’s still more.
Judgmentalism, which interrupts the natural learning process with thoughts of “bad” or “good.” You get so caught up with feelings of wrongness that you stop paying attention to what you are in fact learning and where that is taking you. Even positive judgments create tension and tightness in us, interfering with performance, because you get caught up in wanting to reproduce what was so “good” and this creates its own kind of tension that undermines performance.
And the judgmentalism spreads. You hit enough “bad” forehand shots that you start to generalize about yourself: “I am bad at forehands.” Say that enough to Self 2 and it begins to live down to these expectations, as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet another amazing ability of Self 2. Give it a role to play, and it can play it to the hilt.
But the outrageous thing here is that Self 1 is ultimately responsible for all the trouble. If it could just set the intention, communicate it to Self 2 in a language that it understands, and then allow Self 2 to run with it and make it happen! That’s how you win the inner game! But Self 1 is glitchy. It is greedy. It wants to both direct and star in the show. It interferes, and tension is the result, and the tennis shots hit the net or go wide, and Self 1 blames Self 2, and it just gets worse from there….
“Self 1 likes the idea of playing in the zone,” says Tim Gallwey, “especially the results that usually occur. […] But there is one catch; the only way to get to there is to leave Self 1 behind.”
And then he says, “Another way to look at the zone is that it comes as a gift. It is not a gift that one can demand, but one you can ask for.”
So let’s turn to that now. Self 1 is the one who would be asking; evolution added Self 1 to our human makeup so that asking for specific things could be possible.
But after it asks, what needs to happen next?
Self 1 needs to trust Self 2 to get the job done. Self 2 is the doer, which has been hundreds of thousands if not millions of years in development, and it is nearly perfect.
Let it hit the ball.
Ask once. You don’t have to jabber at it endlessly.
Just let Self 2 hit the ball.
It’s analogous to letting a baby learn how to walk. Tim Gallwey says,
Fortunately, most children learn to walk before they can be told how to by their parents. As a result, children not only learn how to walk very well, but they gain confidence in the natural learning process which operates within them. Mothers observe their children’s efforts with love and interest, and if they are wise, without much interference. If we could treat our tennis games as we do a child learning to walk, we would make amazing progress. When the child loses his balance and falls, the mother doesn’t condemn it for being clumsy. She doesn’t even feel bad about it; she simply notices the event and perhaps gives a word or gesture of encouragement. Consequently, a child’s progress in learning to walk is never hindered by the idea that he is uncoordinated.
That’s Tim Gallwey.
Just imagine what it would be like for that child learning how to walk, if a caretaker kept yelling RELAX at it!
If, when the kid lost its balance and fell, it felt judged on.
Would that kid even get to the point of walking?
If they got there, what would their walking even look like?
Does anyone ever relax when they yell at themselves, RELAX?
Healing the division between Self 1 and Self 2 is on Self 1. Self 2 is always functioning impeccably and is constantly available to give the gift of the zone—of time standing still—but Self 1 needs to ask in a spirit of humility and then to let go, in deep trust that Self 2 knows what it’s doing.
That’s winning the inner game.
There is an old Hindu story about a thief who was trying to avoid arrest. He darted into an ashram, pulled on the characteristic garb of a yogi, sat down in meditation like he’d seen yogis do before, poured himself into pretending to be a yogi, all so as to avoid arrest. And what happened was that he became enlightened.
Pretending is about deeply feeling the image of or shape of something you are not.
The child pretends that it can walk and tries and falls and tries and falls and does that all the way to walking. It pretends itself into walking.
The magic of Self 2 is that it responds to deeply felt images as if they were true.
Is there something these days that you are trying so very hard at, and your Self 1 is shouting commands at your Self 2, and all your telling is not translating into doing, things feel even more awkward that before, things feel bad, and the judgment has spread into a generalized certainty about yourself, that YOU are BAD, and it’s a downward spiral from there?
Stop. Breathe. Rebuild trust with yourself. See yourself again as if for the first time. Find room to be amazed that there is a part of you—your Self 2—that has been hidden underneath all the words and judgments of Self 1, and it is deeply capable and wise, it is a jewel, it is a pearl of great price.
Instead of setting intentions that it has to live DOWN to, why not set intentions it’s got to live UP to?
If you can get clear enough about the future you are wanting, and communicate that intention to Self 2 in the form of deeply felt images, transformation happens.
Pretend yourself there.
Maybe you don’t win the tennis match.
Maybe you don’t win the lottery.
But what if you found timelessness? What if you found effortlessness and joy?
I’d play that sort of game. In a heartbeat.