Summary of The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey

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  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023
the inner game of tennis book cover

Short summary: 3 min

Long summary: 20 min

Book reading time: 3h18

Score: 10/10

Book published in: 1972

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  • We have two selves: Self 1, the conscious, and Self 2, the subconscious.
  • Self 1’s main function is to give orders. Self 2’s main function is to execute these orders.
  • Most people fail to perform because they use Self 1 to execute instead of relying on Self 2.
  • Relying on Self 2 to do something is being in flow.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Reflections on the Mental Side of Tennis
Chapter 2: The Discovery of the Two Selves
Chapter 3: Getting it Together: Part I: Quieting the Mind
Chapter 4: Getting it Together
Chapter 5: Master Tips
Chapter 6: Changing Habits: Practical Applications of Inner-Game Learning
Chapter 7: Concentration
Chapter 8: Games People Play on the Court
Chapter 9: The Meaning of Competition
Chapter 10: The Inner Game Off the Court

What The Inner Game of Tennis Talks About

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Short Summary

Humans have two selves. Self 1, the conscious (the ego), and Self 2, the subconscious. When we get angry at ourselves for doing something wrong (“why are you playing tennis so badly today?!”), it’s Self 1 getting angry at Self 2.

Most frustrations come from the fact that we don’t use the selves properly. Most people do everything with Self 1. But the function of Self 1 (the conscious) isn’t to do. When Self 1 does, it always comes across as “trying too hard”.

He who tries too hard, fails.

Self 1’s job is not to do; it is to direct.

Self 1’s job is to tell Self 2 what to do, then to trust Self 2, retreat, and let Self 2 perform.

Self 1 cannot communicate with Self 2 with words, but only with images (visualization). To communicate with Self 2, Self 1 must visualize the desired purpose and ask Self 2 to do it. This requires trusting Self 2, and you need certain skills to do so.

The first one is not judging anything neither as good nor bad. When you do so, you involve Self 1 in matters that depend on Self 2. Just see what is for what it is. In tennis, if the ball is out, it’s out. It’s not bad. It’s just out. Don’t judge.

The second skill is letting go. Letting go of the need to control everything consciously. Letting go and trusting Self 2 with its tasks to learn and practice.

The third one is concentrating. Only when you concentrate can you quiet the mind (Self 1) and give Self 2 the room it needs to work.

Once you quiet the mind, you realize the purpose of competition isn’t to win or become better than others.

Competition is an obstacle that enables you to realize yourself, to transcend yourself. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the experience, the better the transcendence.

Once you have understood this, you can play with a fierce desire to win without the will to crush your opponent. Winning becomes an inner matter of self-actualization.

Pursuing a victory in the activity you enjoy the most in the world is the Inner Game path.

The one that leads to the quiet mind, and to inner freedom.

Summary of The Inner Game of Tennis Written by Timothy Gallwey


Every game is composed of two games.

  1. The outer game, where the player plays against an opponent
  2. The Inner Game, which happens in the mind of the player.

The Inner Game is a battle against lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation.

The most important skill the player needs to develop to win the Inner Game is relaxed concentration.

The secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.

Most people try too hard.

They try to learn things consciously instead of unconsciously. But more on that later.

Chapter 1: Reflections on the Mental Side of Tennis

The most difficult thing for tennis players is the mental game. Indeed, they often say that they are their worst enemies.

This is mostly due to the way they were taught to play tennis.

The Typical Tennis Lesson

In a typical lesson, the instructor tells the student to improve and focus on six or seven stuff all at once. Since it’s too much, students never manage to do it well.

Too much instruction doesn’t help students; it hinders them. When he realized this, the author (who is a tennis instructor) cut in half the volume of instructions he gave his students.

Instead, he told them to watch him play, then visualize themselves playing, then try it on their own.

The results were much better.

The author understood that:

  • Images are better than words when it comes to explaining something
  • Showing is better than telling
  • No instruction is better than too much of it
  • Subconscious trying is better than conscious trying

So, what’s wrong with trying? More specifically, what’s wrong with trying too hard?

Playing Out of Your Mind

The best athletes play unconsciously. Their best games (a “hot streak”) always happen when they expect it the least.

A player in such a state is conscious but does not think consciously about what he does.

This “hot streak” continues until the player “wakes up” and becomes conscious of what he is doing. When he does, he tries to take control of it. As a result, the hot streak ends.

Chapter 2: The Discovery of the Two Selves

When you listen to tennis players, you hear them telling themselves stuff like “come on, why are you playing so badly!?”

Who is the player talking to? He’s talking to himself. If he is talking to himself, it means there isn’t only one person there, but two.

There is the “I”, the person that complains and gives the order, and the “myself”, the person that executes the order – or fails to do so.

Let’s call “I” (“the teller”, the conscious mind) Self 1 and the “self” (the doer, the unconscious mind) Self 2.

The relationship between Self 1 and Self 2 determines the player’s ability to translate skills into effective action (playing well).

The better their relationships, the better the player will play – and inversely.

image 6
Self 1, which is the mind, the ego, has for job to tell Self 2 what to do. Self 2 is the subconscious, the body. Self 1 must give Self 2 space to work properly.

The Typical Relationship Between Self 1 and Self 2

The typical relationship between the Selves is a bad one.

In tennis, players get angry and blame themselves.

Self 1 doesn’t trust Self 2. As a result, instead of telling Self 2 how to play, Self 1 takes matters into its own hands and plays.

But Self 1 isn’t meant to play. That’s the job of Self 2. Self 1’s job is to direct, not to do.

When Self 1 plays, it thinks too much and tries too hard. As a result, it makes errors, which it then blames on Self 2.

The relationship worsens.

Trying Hard: A Questionable Virtue

When the author got a student that couldn’t hit the ball in the center of the racket, he told her to focus on the ball and let the racket hit the ball how it (the racket) wanted to.

He told his student not to try to hit the ball. When she tried not to try to hit the ball, she nailed 9/10 balls.

This shows what happens when the selves work together.

To get the selves to work together, you need to:

  1. Communicate with Self 2 with images (visualization), not words!
  2. Trusting Self 2 with the task you assign it to
  3. Not judging Self 2. Observe what happens, don’t say whether it’s good or bad!

To do these things well, you need to learn how to concentrate.

image 7

Chapter 3: Getting it Together: Part I: Quieting the Mind

As we have seen, the constant interruption of Self 1 prevents Self 2 from doing its job.

For a good relationship between the selves, the mind (Self 1) must be quiet.

When a player is at his best, he doesn’t think or judge. He plays “automatically.”

These moments are called “peak experiences” by the psychologist Abraham Maslow (Aure’s note: it’s called flow).

People that have peak experiences have them “effortlessly” and “feel at one with the experience” they are going through.

You probably had these experiences yourself. These were experiences when you weren’t thinking and were one with the experience.

You could concentrate without actively concentrating.

How do you reach that state?

You need:

  • Not to calculate
  • Not to think
  • Not to anticipate
  • Not to judge
  • Not to worry
  • Not to hope
  • And above all, not to try.

Quietening the mind takes practice and skills.

The first skill is letting go of the judgment we make of our performances.

Letting Go of Judgements

Judging means assigning a positive or a negative value to an event.

To let go of judgments, you should become like an umpire: call it out when it’s out, call it in when it’s in. Nothing is good, nothing is bad. It’s just out or in.

Why shouldn’t you judge? Because judging wakes up the mind.

When you describe something as negative, you think about how to improve it, then you try again, you evaluate, and Self 1 takes the job of Self 2.

If a bad shot is made several times, Self 1 starts generalizing and complains about how you “play so badly today”.

The muscles get tensed as a result, and the player plays even worse.

So, don’t judge.

The errors you make are part of the developing process.

Analogy: when a flower grows, you don’t judge it for being an ugly seed at first.

Seeing, Feeling, and Awareness of What Is

If we hope to learn tennis well, we need to see and feel what we do. To do so, we need not judge.

We learn best when we feel and observe what we do when we do it. Because we don’t judge, Self 1 doesn’t get in the way so Self 2 works and improves the action – and we get better. This is the natural learning process.

Don’t try to correct the fault. Let yourself improve through practice and observation.

What about Positive Thinking?

Books often advise replacing negative thinking with positive thinking, but positive thinking isn’t any better.

When you praise, you set a benchmark to repeat at the next trial, which (sub)consciously produces stress and pressure. Self 1 replaces Self 2 and the player doesn’t play well.

Compliments involve Self 1 in Self 2’s work.

Like criticism, compliments are also an attempt at manipulating.

If you see the positive, you cannot not see the negative.

So, don’t compliment yourself. Remain unjudgemental.

Not judging is the first skill to develop.

Chapter 4: Getting it Together

Part II: Letting it Happen

Who and What Is Self 2?

When Self 1 stops judging Self 2, Self 1 effectively tells Self 2 it trusts it.

Once there is trust, the second element needed for high-performance can safely develop: self-confidence.

Take a minute off judging your body to observe it.

As you are reading this, billions of cells are activating to help you breathe and maintain a network of organs, cells, and neurons more complicated than any system humans have ever created.

When you play tennis, your brain can compute at each instant how to keep balance, how to hit the ball, and how to anticipate where it will land.

Your body’s intelligence is beyond anything you can imagine.

Respect it.

Trust Thyself

The only way to get Self 1 and Self 2 to work together is to establish trust between them – that is, you need to trust yourself.

When Self 1 doesn’t trust Self 2, it does its job which leads to trying too hard. The muscles get tensed and tight and the attempt fails.

Self-trust in tennis (or anything else) means letting your brain and body hit the ball. It means letting them do the job, without getting Self 1 to intervene.

When Self 1 “tries too hard”, “consciously tries”, or “makes it happen”, muscles get tensed.

Anatomy teaches that muscles are relaxed, or contracted. When Self 2 is in charge, it knows exactly which muscles to use (contract) and which not to. When Self 1 is in charge, it doesn’t, so too many muscles are contracted.

This leads to:

  • Inefficient use of energy
  • Contraction of muscles that should, in fact, stretch.

Programing Self 2

Now, how can you let the body do something if it never learned in the first place?

By letting it learn.

Self 2 uses information and experience to improve an action. If it has none, practice will enable it to acquire it. Hence the need to practice.

The most important thing during this phase is that Self 1 does not interrupt the learning process!

The main function of Self 1 is to tell Self 2 what to do – and to let it do it by itself.

So, how do you learn?

  1. Watch someone practicing what you want to learn. Don’t think about what you’re seeing. Absorb what you see.
  2. Practice. When you do, don’t think about what you do. Feel it.
  3. Repeat.

Why does watching work better to learn than a detailed theoretical explanation?

Because Self 2 prefers images to words.

As we said earlier, you shouldn’t communicate with Self 2 through words but through images, hence the power of “visualization”. Self 1 should always instruct Self 2 to do something through visualization, not words.

Programing Self 2’s Computer

The primary role of Self 1 is to set goals for Self 2, then to let Self 2 perform.

There are three ways Self 1 can do so.

The first one is programing for results.

Programing for results means visualizing the desired purpose and then letting the body do the work.

It establishes trust between Self 1 and 2.

The second is programing for form.

It is best to change a habit.

This is how it works.

  1. Give Self 2 a clear image of what you are asking it to do.
  2. Close your eyes and visualize the movement.
  3. Practice it off the court, without a ball.
  4. When you do practice with a ball, do not try to replicate the movement you are learning! Let the body do it for you!

The third is programming by identity.

In normal life, when a player judges himself for playing badly, he plays worse, and playing badly becomes part of his identity.

Here, the idea is to do the opposite. Integrate into your identity that you have the potential to be a world champion.

Eg: when the author told his tennis students to imagine they were actors playing a world tennis champion for a movie, the students hit the ball…like professionals.

This isn’t positive thinking, but role-playing. Positive thinking doesn’t anchor any capabilities. Role-playing catapults you to a pro’s level.

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