As I have mentioned previously, The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, was required reading in the class of my violin teacher, Dorothy DeLay. It still tops my reading list for learning how to learn and perform complex skills. The Inner Game is both a theory of learning and a collection of superbly effective tools. It is also an attractive philosophy of learning. It is applicable in many different contexts.
Since the publication of The Inner Game of Tennis in 1974 several other books followed, applying the principles to other activities such as skiing, golf, music, work, etc. In my opinion the original tennis book is still the best, and should be read first, regardless of your field of interest. Actually, the one I found most helpful was the follow-up book, Inner Tennis: playing the game, which is out of print, strangely.
As the title of the book implies, when we are learning and performing we are not only engaged in an outer game. There is an inner game as well, which is the interaction of different parts of our minds, and how it affects the outer game. That inner game is crucial to our learning and performance in the outer game. How we manage our minds is the Inner Game.
The essence of the Inner Game is the management of attention. Gallwey organizes his ideas about learning and performance into three main topics: Awareness, Trust & Will. We might think of it as Information, Confidence, and Motivation. The aims are to gather pure sensory information about playing actions and their results, undistorted by a cluttered mind (awareness); to have confidence in your learning potential (trust); and to have a purpose that sustains your motivation (will).
A mind divided against itself
The Inner Game approach is summed up in the equation, PERFORMANCE = POTENTIAL - INTERFERENCE. We can maximize our performance by minimizing how we tend to interfere with ourselves. How do we interfere? With thoughts that distract from our awareness.
Since we all have a finite capacity for awareness at any given moment, the more attention you pay to something, the less is available for something else. It is crucial, therefore, to manage our attention properly - to have maximum attention focused on critical elements.
By engaging different parts of the mind in activities at which it naturally excels, in ways that are mutually supportive, self-interference can be drastically diminished, or even entirely eliminated, allowing for the ultimate state of performance excellence, called “flow”. This is when the mind and the activity merge into one single self-less experience. Athletes and performing artists often refer to this as playing “out of your mind”, or being “in the zone”.
Gallwey’s useful simplification is that we have two “parts” or “selves” involved in learning and performance: sensory and conceptual. The sensory part he calls Self 2. The conceptual part he calls Self 1 (because that part likes to take the credit for learning, thinking of itself egotistically as “number 1”).
Self 1, the conceptual part (or “ego” or “conscious mind”) can either support the learning and performance of Self 2 (the part that actually controls actions), or it can interfere. Very often it interferes. How? By doing conceptual things that distract from sensory awareness: by annexing a substantial part of your capacity for awareness, by over-control, by judging, by dredging up the past and imagining the future (catastrophizing), etc.
This might be a helpful analogy: think of Self 2 as the driver of a vehicle, and of Self 1 as the back-seat driver. The back-seat driver can behave in helpful ways, or in distracting ways. By overwhelming the driver with instruction, or being overly critical, or raising the driver’s anxiety levels, or interfering with the driver’s critical awareness, or simply chattering too much about irrelevant stuff, the back-seat driver can seriously hamper good driving. Alternatively, by focusing the driver’s attention on essentials, and only when truly helpful, the back-seat driver can actually contribute to good driving.
The challenge is to engage self 1 in ways that contribute to Self 2’s task, instead of disrupting it. When Self 1 is acting as a supportive back-seat driver, instead of as a disruptive one, Self 2 can learn much faster and perform much better. It is set free to actualize its full potential. Gallwey calls it “letting go”: letting go of Self 1’s clumsy and self-defeating attempts to control the actions of Self 2.
Trust is a positive relationship that needs to develop between self 1 and Self 2. It is built on the realization that the incredibly complicated neural processing required for quick, accurate and subtle movements are beyond the capabilities of Self 1. The most effective role for Self 1 is that of setting goals and of focusing awareness. Not control and judgement, but awareness.
Since Self 1's domain is conceptual thinking, it should have conceptual tasks that are helpful to Self 2. What could such tasks be?
Instead of disrupting awareness in the moment with judgments and attempts at control, Self 1 can be usefully engaged to focus awareness. This is done by giving it descriptive and measuring tasks. By having to describe and/or measure what is observed, awareness is sharply focused. To accurately describe to yourself whether a note is higher or lower, for example, or your bow is closer or further away from the bridge - and by how much - observation has to be pretty sharp.
Accurately describing and/or measuring what is happening in the moment can only be done if observation is keen enough. Think of Self 1’s task as that of aiming the lens of awareness and then focusing it.
One of Gallwey’s mantras is, “awareness cures”. When awareness in the moment is pure, feedback to the nervous system is optimal. The higher the quality of the sensory feedback, the more positive the feedback loop. Trust (confidence) follows.
When sensory awareness is diluted by conceptual chatter, feedback and adjustment are poor, resulting in a negative feedback loop: the worse the performance, the more Self 1 tries to control, the weaker the awareness, the worse the results.
Dorothy DeLay used to say that one can only control what you can measure. Measurement is essentially the detection and quantification of differences (distinctions). In differences resides information. Information = news of difference.
Gallwey introduces many different exercises in the context of tennis for focusing awareness. What they have in common is description, measurement and comparison.
Turning wander into wonder.
Immerse the mind in something “wonder-ful”, and it will not wander off to be a nuisance.
Almost all the Inner Game exercises involve description or measurement of some kind. Self 1 seems to be fascinated by measuring things and making comparisons. It keeps the mind engaged, preventing it from wandering off to do things that interfere with performance. By having it notice and describe/measure differences it is kept in “wonder”. Left to its own devices, Self 1 is prone to wander off and engage in all manner of distracting and interfering activities. It tends to be a control freak, harsh judge and doomster, all in one. “There you go again! Same shot you missed last time! You are going to make a fool of yourself if you blow this game! Why do you always blow it when the chips are down?!”
Gallwey makes the critical point that when our limited capacity for attention at any given moment is filled with supportive mental activity, like focusing awareness on the most critical elements of the outer game, and making fine distinctions - noticing and measuring differences - there isn’t any mental space left open for distracting thoughts. In other words, when managed properly, the mind will not wander off to do unhelpful or disruptive things. Anxiety, for example, can only take hold when the mind is not sufficiently engaged with something else.
The tipping point is saliency. Engage the mind with “wonder” or “fascination” more intensely meaningful than the content of “anxiety” and it will opt for the former. The highest rating on the saliency scale wins every time. (See my other posting about memory and saliency).
According to Gallwey, motivation results from having a clear overarching purpose for playing any game, whether it be tennis, the violin, or anything else. He distinguishes between many different kinds of games, each one with its own criteria for success, unique quality of experience, and motivational energy.
One can choose to play the “status game”, or “exercise game”, or “style game”, or “social game”, or “competition game”, etc. He suggests that deliberately playing the “learning game”, is a win-win choice. It is a kind of meta-game, a game of games. Regardless of whether you win or lose the outer game at any one time, if your game is to learn how to learn, i.e. play the inner game, you gain self-knowledge and mental skills for developing your potential to the full. You can always “win” at the inner game, regardless of what happens in the outer game.
I cannot recommend reading The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey strongly enough. I have reread it several times since its original publication in the 1970’s, and my admiration has only grown. Gallwey was way ahead of his time. Do yourself the favour of reading it. It is one of the best books you could read on learning to do anything.