The Inner Game of Tennis – The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey
27 February 2020

“The truth is that everyone who inhabits a human body possesses a remarkable instrument.” – pg 35

Habits are statements about the past. And the past is gone.” – pg 74

“When love and respect depend on winning or doing well in a competitive society, it is inevitable (since every winner requires a loser and every top performance many inferior ones) that there will be many people who feel a lack of love and respect.” – pg 108

“The longer I live, the greater my appreciation of the gift that life itself is. This gift is much greater than I could have imagined, and therefore time spent living it in a state of stress means I am missing a lot – on and off the court.” – pg 127

“…mankind has been so absorbed with overcoming external challenges that the essential need to focus on inner challenges has been neglected.” – pg 134

Unsurprisingly, the main point of this book is not solely improving tennis.

The Inner Game of Tennis is about calming the inner critic, trusting your natural learning process, and practicing non-judgement awareness on, and off, the court.

I view life as one big arena – a game with many sub-games, and sub-games within those sub-games, and sub-game within those until you get to the ultimate sub-game — the ones inside your mind that have an overarching effect on all games in your life.

If you’d like to become a medical doctor (goal), you have to get to college and do exceedingly well (game), which means scoring above others on examinations (sub-game) and routine coursework (sub-game). You may even need a letter of recommendation from a faculty member, which is another sub-game focusing on social likability.

All the while, you may be fighting internal deeper sub-games around self-image and insecurity, making the above sub-games all the more difficult to realize.

These games are being played whether we like it or not. And as we get lost in the sea of internal and external competitive forces, we may lose sight altogether of why we’re playing in the first place: because we want to enjoy ourselves.

The book focuses on returning to a childlike wonder when approaching games we want to participate in. Our adult motivations (the need to feel superior, the need for attention, the need for acceptance among peers) introduce mental obstacles that hinder the natural growth needed to foster genuine passion and great performance.

One example posed in the book was the process of a child learning to walk. The child cannot take instruction from adults – she doesn’t understand language at this point. The child, through a series of personal trial and error, finds the appropriate time and balance for herself — outside of the influence of her parents and the external world. The child does not define herself by her accomplishment – the ability to walk – and has no expectations that others should treat her better now because of it. The reward is the action, and nothing more. In short time, she will be running all over the house.

How many of us in our adult lives expect to run before we even learned to walk yet?

I definitely suffer from a need to execute at a high level in a short amount of time, and I mental chastise myself when I can’t emulate a pro’s performance during my second attempt at anything.

The problem with telling yourself off mentally is you can start to believe it, and your mind is blocked with negativity that makes your goal even further out of reach.

In this way, we can be our own worst enemies.

The Inner Game of Tennis provides a framework that unlearns emotional attachments to outcomes and returns our mind to childlike wonder when approaching new opportunities.

The biggest takeaway for me was identifying society’s focus on “accomplishments as identity” and realizing I do not personally have to subscribe to that framework.

The other tactical recommendations for success, like outcome visualization and a focus on breathing, are well documented in other books on mental peak performance. What makes this book special for me is repositioning the mind to go back to the natural learning process — the one before we knew how to speak and knew how to be insecure with ourselves.

By un-marrying our own emotional attachments to an archaic hierarchical system predicated on quantifying the unquantifiable, we can achieve the clarity of mind needed to understand our pursuits in a sobering light. In doing so, we can select which adventures are actually for deep personal fulfillment and which are suggestions to satisfy the ego-mind alone.

In the end, the goal is to live a more fulfilled life, closer to one’s own set of personal desires and creative curiosities. And this book on tennis gives you the set of tools to do 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.” – pg 10

“Perfectly, thoughtlessly executed action, and afterward, no self-congratulations, just the reward inherent in his actions.” – pg 16

“The first skill to learn is the art of letting go the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad.” – pg 17

“It is the initial act of judgement is what initiates the thinking process.” – pg 18

“Both mental processes (self-criticism and self-congratulations) end in further evaluation, which perpetuates the process of thinking and self-conscious performance.” – pg 19

“Be clear about this: letting go of judgements does not mean ignoring errors.” – pg 20

“Judgement results in tightness, and tightness interferes with the fluidity required for accurate and quick movements.” – pg 21

“When the mind is free of any thought or judgement, it is still and acts like a mirror. Then and only then can we know things as they are.” – pg 24

“Uncomfortable without a standard for right and wrong, the judgmental mind makes up standards of its own.” – pg 26

Always looking for approval and wanting to avoid disapproval, the subtle ego-mind sees a compliment as a potential criticism. It reasons, ‘If the pro is pleased with one kind of performance, he will be displeased with the opposite. If he likes me for doing well, he will dislike me for not doing well.’ The standard of good and bad had been established, and the inevitable result was divided concentration and ego-interference.” – pg 29

“But the trusting and loving parent lets the child perform his own actions, even to the extent of making mistakes, because he trusts the child to learn from them.” – pg 36

“If we could treat our tennis games as we do a child learning to walk, we would make more progress.” – pg 37

“…a child’s progress to learning to walk is never hindered by the idea that he is uncoordinated.” – pg 38

“Words were not learned by Self 2 until several years after birth. No, the native tongue of Self 2 is imagery: sensory images.” – pg 41

“Getting the clearest possible images of your desired outcomes is a most useful method for communicating with Self 2, especially when playing a match.” – pg 43

“…it is vital to give Self 2 an image to imitate.” – pg 43

“To experience the difference is to know the difference.” – pg 44

“You should free yourself from any emotional reaction to success or failure; simply know a goal and take objective interest in the results.” – pg 45

“(On mental imitation) You are quite consciously playing a role, but in the process, you may become more aware of the range of your true capabilities.” – pg 48

“To me, it makes senses to build any system of instruction upon the best possible understanding of natural learning, the learning process you were born with.” – pg 50

“I would say that the natural learning process is so encoded, and that we would do well to acknowledge and respect it.” – pg 51

“I believe that it is most important to recognize that, fundamentally, experience precedes all technical knowledge.” – pg 52

“Language is not the action, and at best can only hint at the subtlety and complexity contained in the stroke.” – pg 52

“The more awareness one can bring to bear on any action, the more feedback one gets from experience, and the more naturally one learns the techniques that feels best.” – pg 54

“No teacher is greater than one’s own experience” – pg 54

“Instead use the instruction to guide your discovery.” – pg 55

“So I believe the best use of technical knowledge is to communicate a hint toward a desired destination.” – pg 56

“In many cases, for a beginner to try to swing like a pro would be like asking a baby to walk before it has crawled.” – pg 67

“Instead allow yourself to focus on whatever most interests you about the movements of the pro you are watching.” – pg 67

“The prevailing learning mindset is a freedom to search for the feel that works for you.” – pg 67

“Use outside models in your learning, but don’t let them use you. Natural learning is and always be from the inside out, not vice versa.” – pg 68

“When one learns how to change a habit, it is a relatively simple matter to learn which ones to change. Once you learn how to learn, you have to only discover what is worth learning.” – pg 71

“The Inner Game way of learning is a return toward this childlike way.” – pg 72

“We all develop characteristic patterns of acting and thinking, and each such pattern exists because it serves a function. The time for change comes when we realize that the same function could be served in a better way.” – pg 72

“It is much more difficult to break a habit when there is no adequate replacement for it.” – pg 72

“A child doesn’t dig his way out of old grooves; he simply starts new ones!” – pg 74

“Awareness of what is, without judgement, is relaxing, and is the best precondition for change.” – pg 75

“There’s nothing wrong with making unconscious changes; you avoid the complication of thinking that you made the change, and thus of the need to remind yourself how to do it.” – pg 75

“When one has tried hard to perform an action ‘right,’ it is difficult not to become either frustrated at failure or anxious about success. Both emotions are distracting to one’s focus, and prevent full experiencing of what happens.” – pg 79

“Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.” – pg 82

“To still the mind, one must learn to put it elsewhere.” – pg 83

“The focused mind only picks up on those aspects of a situation that are needed to accomplish the task at a hand.” – pg 84

“The greatest lapses in concentration come when we allow our minds to project what is about to happen or to dwell on what has already happened.” – pg 93

“Since the mind has a will of its own, how can one learn to keep it in the present? By practice. There is no other way.” – pg 94

“Alertness is a measure of how many ‘nows’ you are alert to in a given period.” – pg 95

“Whether on or off the court, I know of no better way to begin to deal with anxiety than to place the mind on one’s breathing process.” – pg 97

“Self 2 will never be allowed to express spontaneity and excellence when Self 1 is playing some heavy ulterior game involving its self image.” – pg 103

“…they end up setting impossible standards of excellence for themselves and often become more frustrated and tense on the court than off it.” – pg 107

“We live in an achievement-orientated society where people tend to be measured by their competence in various endeavors.” – pg 107

But who said that I am to be measured by how well i do things? In fact, who said that I should be measured at all?” – pg 108

Do we really think the value of a human being is measurable? It doesn’t really make sense to measure ourselves in comparison with other immeasurable beings.” – pg 108

“It is true that competition for many is merely an arena for venting aggression; it is taken as a proving ground for establishing who is stronger, tougher or tougher.” – pg 116

“What is seldom recognized is the need to prove yourself is based on insecurity and self-doubt.” – pg 116

“It is when competition is thus used as a means of creating self-image relative to others that the worst in a person tends to come out…” pg 116

“The tragedy of this belief is not that they will fail to find the success they seek, but that they will not discover the love or even the self-respect they were led to believe would come with it.” – pg 116

“By not trying, they always have an alibi: ‘I may have lost, but it doesn’t count because I really didn’t try.’ What is not usually admitted is the belief that if they had really tried and lost, then yes, that would count. Such a loss would be a measure of their worth.” – pg 117

“The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents.” – pg 120

“The potential may have always been with him, but until it is manifested in action, it remains a secret hidden to himself. The obstacles are a very necessary ingredient to this process of self-discovery.” pg 120

“Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached.” – pg 120

“The process can be more rewarding that the victory itself.” – pg 120

“So I arrived to the conclusion that true competition is identical to true cooperation.” pg 121

“If I assume that I am making myself more worthy of respect by winning, then I must believe, consciously or unconsciously, that by defeating someone, I am making him less worthy of respect. I can’t go up without pushing someone down.” – pg 122

“When I’m concerned only about winning, I’m caring about something I can’t wholly control…But one can control the effort he puts into winning.” – pg 122

“Since it is impossible to feel anxiety about an event that one can control, the mere awareness that you are using maximum effort to win each point will carry you past the problem of anxiety.” – pg 123

“Perhaps the most indispensable tool for human beings in modern times is the ability to remain calm in the midst of rapid an unsettling changes.” – pg 126

“Focus of attention in the present moment, the only one you can really live in, is at the heart of this book and at the heart of the art of doing anything well.” – pg 130