The Inner Game

The Inner Game of Tennis1 is a book ostensibly about improving your tennis game, but contains a lot of material about improving your thinking in general. This is evidenced by the collection of other “Inner Game” books—there’s Inner Golf, Inner Skiing, and even Inner Music. Like many “how to improve your game” books, it seems to take one key concept and run with it until there are enough pages that publishers won’t say no, but in this case the concept does seem pretty valuable.

In Inner Game, that concept is the idea of “Self 1” and “Self 2”, basically the conscious and unconscious parts of any individual. They’re reminiscent of Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, but confusingly the numbers are switched. Self 1 is judgy, controlling, and often negative. Self 2 is as pure as the driven snow—it’s essentially your kinesthetic intelligence.

What you’re supposed to do is release Self 1 from duty while practicing your tennis strokes. Self 2 knows what it’s doing, it just needs to be free to experiment and find the method that delivers the best results. If Self 1 is overinvolved, you start seeing lots of tight muscles, tension, and a lack of fluidity from trying to consciously control every muscle at once (which is impossible). When you receive instruction from a tennis pro, you’re meant to use it as an invitation to experiment and find the version of the advice that works for you.

I’ve tried this stuff on the court and it really does seem to work. It’s a bit more fun, at least, to be “in the zone” and letting your subconsciousness handle the complicated mechanics of any given stroke. It leads to an almost meditative state, where you’re just sort of observing your Self 2 doing things for you, and all your conscious focus can be directed onto other things (say, watching the ball, or listening intently for the sound of it hitting the racket).

It’s pretty clear that this kind of hands-off approach could at least have some benefits for physical activity, where you’re relying more on your massive database of experience about how moving through the physical work feels, and less on doing any kind of explicit calculation. Can this be extended to other fields? It’s hard to imagine myself “letting go” while solving a math problem, for instance. Maybe if you’re Ramanujan, and Hindu goddesses appear to you in your dreams with elucidations about mathematical topics, then you really do have a mathematical Self 2. There could be hints of this in everyone—ever tried to solve a challenging puzzle or come up with a proof, and after a few days of letting it simmer, it just comes to you in an instant?

I’m not sure if the way this experience feels leads me to believe it’s the same kind of Self 2 as you see during a tennis match. Tennis Self 2’s insights tend to be immediate, automatic, and reactionary, whereas Math Self 2’s come after long periods of thinking about anything other than the problem at hand, and are more revelatory in nature. There’s a path towards letting Self 2 take over in tennis, but I’m not sure what that looks like for math (or more generally, in any mostly-mental activity). Maybe it really is just the act of telling your other self “let’s figure this problem out” that spurs it to do the work for you.

It would be pretty fair to say that my default mode is analysis. This collection of writing itself demonstrates that pretty thoroughly. Even when I don’t know all that much about a topic, it’s fun to try to come up with satisfying answers just by thinking about it for a while, or by attempting to synthesize what others have said about it. There are definitely other modes of being, though, that make more sense in certain situations. You don’t want to be on a rollercoaster and trying to analyze why it’s fun to zip around. Just enjoy zipping around!


  1. The Inner Game of Tennis. W. Timothy Gallwey. 1997.


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