In the book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’, author Timothy Gallway talks about different aspects of learning (or acquiring) a new skill. He argues that key to acquiring any new skill requires contribution from two distinct entities in your brain, which he calls Self-1 and Self-2. Tennis is simply an example author uses to put forward his ideas and provide demonstration. More so, because he had been a tennis coach and a good player himself. The two selves can loosely be equated to System 1 and System 2 discussed by Daniel Kahneman in his famous book Thinking Fast and Slow. I strongly recommend the latter if you haven’t read it yet.

TL;DR; Watch this video.

I liked the writing and found the author quite agreeable most of the times. Perhaps because he did not attempt to make his descriptions appear scientific and novel by supporting with hasty references. Instead, he chose to start with a fundamental premise that continues through the ten chapters of the book, and supports his ideas based on his personal experience as a learner and coach.

Timothy says that a player when learning a skill or playing a game are actually playing two games. First, she is quite visibly trying to learn or do good in the game by following instructions given by the coach. Second, she is playing an ‘inner game’ which exists in her mind between the two ‘selves’. The ‘Self 1’ which is the calculative, judgemental part which is actively trying to execute the instructions, judge performance, and ‘trying hard’ to make it better. The other ‘Self 2’ which is a detached observer of the game and is making the most natural moves to accomplish the task hand, i.e., reach out to the ball and hit it. It is the tussle or the nature of relationship between the two that determines one’s ability to translate knowledge into effective action.

The author then devotes further chapters to describe the relationship between the two and how it can be refined for better learning. The suggested strategies are handful, and I have tried to list a few of them below.

  • Let go of judgements. Judgement provokes thinking process and initiates the processing of ‘fixing’ things (if they are going wrong) or doing it right repeatedly (if they are going right). Observe and absorb events are they are, simply acknowledge. Positive thinking or compliments are also judgement in disguise.
  • Trust your natural learning process. It is doing well to learn you the necessary skills. Let is observe games, observe the events of the game. It will auto correct itself as you try to imagine the ‘correct’ way to do things. Do not force yourself.
  • Showing is better than telling. And in case you are provided instructions, use them as a guide to achieve a particular end rather than following verbatim.
  • Fighting the mind to make a change does not work. What works best is learning to focus it. It involves tricks like trying to watch the seam of the ball or saying bounce-hit as the ball bounces across the court and let the ‘Self 2’ handle the game.
  • Watch ‘other’ games you play. For example, whether you are playing the game to perfect yourself, for fun, to compete or simply to make friends. You are not the game you play. Your self-worth is not determined by the game you play. Ask yourself, ‘What do you really want from the game?’.
  • Give up the attachment with your game with respect to motives and ultimate targets. Enjoy the game.
  • Competition is about making yourself better. Competition is about having a challenging opponent who brings out the best in you. Embrace competition as a natural process of learning.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It does feel repetitive at times but given that it’s a short book (~130 pages), I strongly recommend it.