The Inner Game of Tennis

The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance

By: W. Timothy Gallwey

Published: 1974

Read: 2020


Most people focus on improving their “Outer Game” (their technique, etc.). They ignore the “Inner Game”, what goes inside their head.

However, often it is the Inner Game that keeps us from performing at our best. We often think too much and we try too hard. We are too concerned with outcomes. With how results make us look. This makes us stressed and unable to concentrate.

The key to spontaneous, high-level performance is to “just let it happen”. The key ingredients for “letting go”, for not interfering are:

  • Quiet mind: don’t self-judge, but observe.
  • Natural learning: don’t try too hard, but learn from trial and error.
  • Relaxed concentration: don’t think, but focus on something in the here and now.

In the process, you unlearn old bad habits not by fighting them, but by starting new ones. You learn new habits by doing, practicing. You learn faster by using images, visualizing outcomes.

Improving your inner skills lowers stress and makes you a more stable performer. You can use these skills over and over again, because you often face the same internal challenges (external challenges vary much more). The inner skills you develop in sports also have broad applicability outside of sports.

Playing the Inner Game means you don’t (only) play to win. You play to use the obstacles thrown at you to discover what you are capable of. You discover your “thirst”. You discover what truly satisfies you.

Worth Reading

I loved reading this book, even though it lacks most of what I normally like: a neat structure and clear, categorical reasoning. Instead, the book is a vibey mix of mental concepts and practical observations that are loosely related. But things never get wooly or vague. Observations are clear and convincing, even as sometimes they seem to appear out of nowhere.

Much of the book’s is about how to get yourself in a state often called “flow”. Most other authors describe flow as a mystical state where time slows down and balls move in slow-motion. Peak experiences that only top athletes can aspire to. This book does away with the mythical stuff and is refreshingly practical. Yes, flow may be a tricky state to achieve, but there are fairly simple steps you can take to improve your chances of spending some/more time in a flow state.

In the same way, the concept of spirituality, which is not explicitly a subject of the book, is demystified. To still the mind, you need to put it somewhere. I don’t think you can be more concise. That somewhere can be meditation, breathing exercises or any other tool you can think of.

Many suggestions make intuitive and practical sense. For instance, I already knew, but now I more deeply understand the importance of visualization. For years, it was hard to become a better swimmer by listening to verbal instructions. As the book says: they are easy to remember, hard to execute. Things only clicked (somewhat) once I watched footage of myself underwater. Even more so when I watched footage of people that knew how to swim.

You don’t have to play tennis or compete in any other sport to enjoy this book. You may want to skip a couple of sections that delve deeper into the game of tennis. But for the most part, its takeaways are sufficiently universal to keep you interested.

Key Takeaways

  • Use images.
    • Visualize desired outcomes.
    • Images are better than words.
    • Instructions are easy to remember, hard to execute.
  • Learn by doing.
    • Experience precedes knowledge.
    • Remembering knowledge is not the same as remembering experience.
  • Drop bad habits, start new ones.
    • People develop characteristic patterns of acting and thinking.
    • These patterns form and strengthen because they serve a function or goal.
    • If the goal changes or there is a better way to achieve it, change.
    • Don’t fight or try to improve old (bad) habits.
    • Start new ones.
  • Focus (on “something”).
    • Slow down or still the chattering mind.
    • To still the mind one must learn to put it somewhere (focus).
    • Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested.
    • Focus on the here and now (a ball, a bounce, breathing, anything).
    • Focus requires practice.
  • Compete to overcome obstacles, not to prove yourself.
    • Overcoming obstacles drives progress, learning, discovery of ability.
  • Find out and pursue what you want (the inner thirst…).
    • Less stress.
    • More stability.
  • Don’t judge.
    • We are always looking for approval, avoiding disapproval.
    • But, no errors, no learning.
    • Judgments become self-fulfilling prophesies.
    • Natural learning requires trial and error.

Key Concepts


  • Every game is composed of two parts.
    • Outer game: external opponent, obstacles and goals.
    • Inner game: inside the mind of the player.
  • Most of the focus is on the outer game.
    • Improving techniques, etc.
    • Instructions are easy to remember, hard to execute.
  • Mastery or satisfaction requires attention to inner game.
    • Unlearn habits of mind that inhibit excellence in performance.
    • Examples: lapses of in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, etc.
  • Inner game allows you to “just let it happen”.
    • Relaxed concentration allows for natural learning.
  • Improving inner game helpful in “life” as well.

Relaxed concentration: the state of playing “out of your mind”

  • Consciously unconscious play.
    • Thinking but not over-trying.
    • Concentrated, focused, still mind.
    • Unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts.
  • Implications:
    • Images are better than words.
    • Showing better than telling.
    • Too much instruction worse than none.
    • Trying often produces negative results.

Self 1 and Self 2

  • Within each player, there are two selves: Self 1 and Self 2.
    • Self 1: gives instructions, evaluates actions (conscious).
    • Self 2: performs the action (unconscious).
  • Relationship between Self 1 and Self 2.
    • Determines ability to translate knowledge, technique into action.
    • Self 1 typically does not trust Self 2 and “interferes”.
    • Improve relationship -> improve ability.
  • Trying hard versus relaxed concentration.
    • Trying hard = Self 1 is in control.
    • Relaxed concentration, effort = allow Self 2 to do its work.
  • Getting from “trying too hard” to relaxed concentration.
    • Clear picture of desired outcomes.
    • Quiet down Self 1, trust Self 2 to learn from trial and error.
    • Observation, but no judgment.

Quieting the mind (Self 1)

  • Constant thinking of Self 1 interferes with the natural capabilities of Self 2.
    • Harmony between the two selves exists when the mind is quiet and focused.
    • Only then can peak performance be reached.
    • Focus, without trying to concentrate.
    • Spontaneous, alert, childlike.
  • Getting it together, requires slowing the mind.
    • Less thinking, judging, controlling, etc.
  • Slowing the mind requires unlearning certain mental habits.
    • Acquired since we were children.

Step 1: let go of mental self-instructions.

  • The act of assigning a negative or positive value to your experiences.
    • Always looking for approval, avoiding disapproval.
  • Judgment process starts evaluation, thinking process.
    • Thinking process -> correcting (bad experience) or repetition (good experience) process.
  • Negative impact.
    • Trying too hard, tightness, lack of fluidity.
    • Judgmental mind extends itself: negative generalizations.
      • One stroke is bad -> having a bad day -> bad at tennis -> quitter, etc.
    • Judgments become self-fulfilling prophesies.
      • Judgments become expectations, convictions.
  • Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors.
    • It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.
    • Use descriptive but nonjudgmental words to describe the events.
    • Errors can be seen as an important part of the developing process.
  • Even compliments can backfire.
    • Avoid positive as well as negative judgments.
    • Both engage the judgmental mind (creates a standard of good and bad).
    • Compliments create potential for messing up in the future, potential criticism.
  • Unlearn grooves.
    • Most people fall into patterns from which they seldom depart.
  • Observe: see things as they are.
    • Non-judgmental awareness.
    • Visual imagery, non-critical attention, detachment, awareness of what is.
    • Forget standards for right and wrong.
    • Find what is best for you, natural rhythm.

Step 2: let things happen.

  • Focus attention without thinking.
    • Detached interest.
  • Allow mistakes and errors.
    • Don’t identify with mistakes.

Step 3: create images.

  • Trust the body, allow for natural learning.
    • Learn from the inside out.
    • Flow.
    • Encourage trust in and respect for Self 2.
    • It is competent, sophisticated.
  • “Native tongue” of Self 2 is imagery.
    • Get the clearest possible image of your desired outcomes.
  • Movements are learned through visual and feeling images.
    • Watching and imitating the actions of other.
    • Feeling your own actions.
  • You don’t learn through verbal instructions, but by doing.


  • Experience precedes technical knowledge.
    • At some point, someone experienced something.
    • Through experimentation, discoveries and refinements are made.
    • Language is not the action.
      • Words only represent actions, ideas and experiences.
    • Remembering the knowledge is not the same as remembering the experience.
    • [Perhaps the difference between what is called knowhow and knowledge.]
  • There is no substitute for experience.
    • The more awareness one can bring to bear on any action, the more feedback one gets from experience.
    • The more naturally one learns the technique that feels best and works best for you.
  • How can one person’s experience help another person.
    • Someone else has already discovered one good way of doing things.
    • That person can provide instruction that guides the other’s experiential discovery.
    • Communicate hints to the desired destination, not fixed formulas.
      • Desirable goal to be discovered.

Changing (bad) habits: learning how to learn

  • Changing habits.
    • Learn how to change (difficult).
    • Discover what to change (easier).
  • Learning how to change.
    • Forget unnatural ways of learning that we have accumulated.
    • Not: collection of information.
    • But: realization of something that changes behavior (actions or thoughts).
  • Grooves.
    • We all develop characteristic patterns of acting and thinking.
    • Patterns build up which have a predisposition to repeat themselves.
  • Automatic, hard to break.
    • As grooves deepen, patterns become automatic.
    • Patterns (and grooves) are hard to break.
  • Function and change.
    • Patterns (and grooves) exist because they serve a function.
    • See what function our habits are serving.
    • If we learn a better way to achieve the same end, we can change our habits and do so.
  • Breaking a habit.
    • Habits are statements about the past, and the past is gone.
    • There is no need to fight old habits.
    • Start new ones.
    • Resisting of old habits put you back in the groove.
  • Pursue and observe changes:
    • Non-judgmental observation (relaxed awareness).
    • Picture the desired outcome.
    • Trust Self 2.
  • Avoid “old” way of learning.
    • Criticize, judge past behavior.
    • Instruct yourself with words.
    • Try hard, do it “right”.

Concentration: learning to focus

  • A still mind is an elusive state.
    • Our impulse is to think, control.
      • Endless flow of distracting thoughts.
      • Distorts and interferes with both perception and response.
  • Fighting the mind doesn’t work.
    • You can’t “try to relax”.
  • To still the mind one must learn to put it somewhere.
    • Can not just “be let go”.
    • It must be focused.
  • Where and how to focus the mind.
    • Keeping the mind now and here.
    • Relaxed concentration.
  • The focused mind.
    • Only picks up on those aspects of a situation that are needed to accomplish the task at hand.
    • It is not distracted by other thoughts or external events.
    • It is totally engrossed in whatever is relevant in the here and now.
  • Staying focused.
    • The mind has difficulty focusing on a single object for an extended period of time.
    • Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested.
    • Pursue natural focus by not assuming you already know all there is to know about something.
    • When this occurs, the mind is drawn irresistibly toward the object (or subject) of interest.
    • It is effortless and relaxed, not tense and overly controlled.
  • When attention is allowed to focus, it comes to know that place.
    • Self 1 is occupied and out of the picture (observing, counting, whatever).
    • Self 2 is only thing active.
      • Increased body awareness (watch, feel, listen).
      • More awareness -> more feedback -> patterns emerge.
  • Focus is always here and now.
    • Here: objects of concentration.
    • Now: what is happening in the present.
      • No dwelling on the past or thinking about the future (“what-if”).
  • Requires practice.
    • Every time your mind starts to leak away, simply bring it gently back.
    • Practice “alertness”.
    • Increased awareness slows down time.
  • Breathing.
    • When the mind is fastened to the rhythm of breathing, it tends to become absorbed and calm.
    • There is no better way to begin to deal with anxiety than to place the mind on one’s breathing process.
    • Anxiety is fear about what may happen in the future, and it occurs only when the mind is imagining what the future may bring.
    • When your attention is on the here and now, the actions which need to be done in the present have their best chance of being successfully accomplished, and as a result the future will become the best possible present.
  • Self 2 in control.
    • Harmony, balance, poise.
    • Flow.
    • Always there.
    • Comes at its own timing.
    • Thoughts and thinking come and go.
  • The here and now.
    • The only place and time when one ever enjoys himself or accomplishes anything.
    • Most of our suffering takes place when we allow our minds to imagine the future or mull over the past.
  • Conflicting desires -> lapsing concentration.
    • Desire that things be different from what they are pulls our minds into an unreal world.
    • Consequently we are less able to appreciate what the present has to offer.
    • Our minds leave the reality of the present only when we prefer the unreality of the past or future.
    • Part of the process of attaining a concentrated state of mind is to know and resolve any conflicting desires.
  • Relax.
    • Relaxation only happens when “allowed”.

Recognize the game you play

  • Games.
    • Player (at least one).
    • Goal.
    • Obstacle (between the player and the goal, external and internal).
    • Motive (for playing).
    • Field (mental, physical).
  • The importance of winning the game.
    • We live in a culture of achievement.
    • People tend to be measured by their competence in various endeavors.
    • You are a good person and worthy of respect only if you do things successfully.
    • Self-worth = achievement, performance.
    • Love and respect depend on winning or doing well in a competitive society.
  • Compete to prove yourself.
    • Self-image is at stake.
    • Self-respect rides on how well one performs in relation to others.
    • Fear, insecurity, self-doubt, uptightness.
  • Results in playing many subliminal or ulterior games.
    • Lie beneath the surface of human interaction.
    • What appears to be happening between people is only a small part of the story.
    • Difficult to express spontaneity and excellence when heavy ulterior games are played.
  • Need to disengage from achievement trap.
    • Value of an individual human being cannot be measured by performance.
  • The game worth playing: overcoming obstacles
    • A desire to win that is not an ego trip (plus accompanying fears and insecurities).
    • Winning is not an end in and of itself.
    • Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal.
    • The more challenging the obstacle, the greater the opportunity to discover your potential.
    • Obstacles are a necessary ingredient for discovery and exploration of latent capacities.
  • The rewarding process.
    • Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved.
    • The process is an experience of your own resources and generates self-knowledge.
  • Competition becomes cooperation.
    • Competitor provides the obstacles you need to improve.
    • Duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you (and vice versa).
    • Give each other the opportunity to progress.
  • Care about making the effort, not about winning.
    • Winning is out of your control.
    • Making an efforts is under your control.
  • Inner skills are valuable in and of themselves.
    • Almost every human activity involves both the outer and inner games.
    • External goals are many and various.
      • Require the learning of many skills to achieve them.
    • Inner obstacles come from only one source.
      • Skills needed to overcome them remain constant.
  • Broad applicability to other parts of life.
    • Learning to welcome obstacles in competition automatically increases one’s ability to find advantage in all the difficulties one meets in the course of one’s life.
    • Tool for human beings to remain calm in the midst of rapid and unsettling changes.

Inner stability and stress

  • External pressures are accelerating.
    • In pace and intensity.
    • Increasing need to know more.
    • Stretches our competencies.
  • Change = stress.
    • Change challenges existing attachments, dependence on things, people, etc.
    • Change threatens to take away these “things”.
  • Freedom from stress.
    • Not about giving up anything.
    • About being able to let go of anything, when necessary.
    • About being independent.
    • About being more reliant on one’s own inner resources for stability.
  • Acknowledge inner instead of external needs.
    • To enjoy, to learn, to understand, appreciate, go for it, rest, be healthy, survive, be free to be what it is, express itself and make its unique contribution.
    • Outer demands tend to get internalized and become inner needs.
    • Discover true inner needs.
    • Life long learning process.
  • Brings about stability.
    • Know that there is nothing wrong with the essential human being.
    • Trust Self 2.
    • Focus on the here and now.
    • Accept what I cannot control and take control of what I can.

Winning the Inner Game

  • Any attempt to define an answer to this question is an invitation to Self 1 to form a misconception.
  • Give the individual a chance to feel the need of his own being.
  • Discover and follow the inner thirst and to discover what is truly satisfying.

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