The standard way of learning is far from being the fastest or most enjoyable. It’s slow, makes us second guess ourselves, and interferes with our natural learning process. Here we explore a better way to learn and enjoy the process.
It’s the final moment before an important endeavor—a speech, a performance, a presentation, an interview, a date, or perhaps a sports match. Up until now, you’ve felt good and confident about your abilities. But suddenly, something shifts. You feel a wave of self-doubt. You start questioning how well you prepared. The urge to run away and sabotage the whole thing starts bubbling to the surface.
As hard as you try to overcome your inexplicable insecurity, something tells you that you’ve already lost. And indeed, things don’t go well. You choke up, forget what you were meaning to say, long to just walk out, or make silly mistakes. None of this comes as a surprise—you knew beforehand that something had gone wrong in your mind. You just don’t know why.
Conversely, perhaps you’ve been in a situation where you knew you’d succeeded before you even began. You felt confident and in control. Your mind could focus with ease, impervious to self-doubt or distraction. Obstacles melted away, and abilities you never knew you possessed materialized.
This phenomenon—winning or losing something in your mind before you win or lose it in reality—is what tennis player and coach W. Timothy Gallwey first called “the Inner Game” in his book The Inner Game of Tennis. Gallwey wrote the book in the 1970s when people viewed sport as a purely physical matter. Athletes focused on their muscles, not their mindsets. Today, we know that psychology is in fact of the utmost importance.
Gallwey recognized that physical ability was not the full picture in any sport. In tennis, success is very psychological because there are really two games going on: the Inner Game and the Outer Game. If a player doesn’t pay attention to how they play the Inner Game—against their insecurities, their wandering mind, their self-doubt and uncertainty—they will never be as good as they have the potential to be. The Inner Game is fought against your own self-defeating tendencies, not against your actual opponent. Gallwey writes in the introduction:
Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game, and an inner game. . . . It is the thesis of this book that neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance. . . . Victories in the inner game may provide no additions to the trophy case, but they bring valuable rewards which are more permanent and which can contribute significantly to one’s success, off the court as well as on.
Ostensibly, The Inner Game of Tennis is a book about tennis. But dig beneath the surface, and it teems with techniques and insights we can apply to any challenge. It is about overcoming the external obstacles we create that prevent us from succeeding. You don’t need to be interested in tennis or even know anything about it to benefit from this book.
One of the most important insights Gallwey shares is that a major thing which leads us to lose the Inner Game is trying too hard and interfering with our own natural learning capabilities. Let’s take a look at how we can win the Inner Game in our own lives by seeing the importance of not forcing things.
Self 1 and Self 2
Gallwey was not a psychologist. But his experience as both a tennis player and a coach for other players gave him a deep understanding of how human psychology influences playing. The tennis court was his laboratory. As is evident throughout The Inner Game of Tennis, he studied himself, his students, and opponents with care. He experimented and tested out theories until he uncovered the best teaching techniques.
When we’re learning something new, we often internally talk to ourselves. We give ourselves instructions. When Gallwey noticed this in his students, he wondered who was talking to who. From his observations, he drew his key insight: the idea of Self 1 and Self 2.
Self 1 is the conscious self. Self 2 is the subconscious. The two are always in dialogue. This is similar to Daniel Kahneman’s notion of system 1 and system 2.
If both selves can communicate in harmony, the game will go well. More often, this isn’t what happens. Self 1 gets judgmental and critical, trying to instruct Self 2 in what to do. The trick is to quiet Self 1 and let Self 2 follow the natural learning process we are all born competent at; this is the process that enables us to learn as small children. This capacity is within us—we just need to avoid impeding it. As Gallwey explains:
Now we are ready for the first major postulate of the Inner Game: within each player the kind of relationship that exists between Self 1 and Self 2 is the prime factor in determining one’s ability to translate his knowledge of technique into effective action. In other words, the key to better tennis—or better anything—lies in improving the relationship between the conscious teller, Self 1, and the natural capabilities of Self 2.
Self 1 tries to instruct Self 2 using words. But Self 2 responds best to images and internalizing the physical experience of carrying out the desired action.
In short, if we let ourselves lose touch with our ability to feel our actions, by relying too heavily on instructions, we can seriously compromise our access to our natural learning processes and our potential to perform.
Stop trying so hard
Gallwey writes that “great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious, and true expressions of love are said to come from a source which lies beneath words and thoughts. So it is with the greatest efforts in sports; they come when the mind is as still as a glass lake.”
What’s the most common piece of advice you’re likely to receive for getting better at something? Try harder. Work harder. Put more effort in. Pay more attention to what you’re doing. Do more.
Yet what do we experience when we are performing at our best? The exact opposite. Everything becomes effortless. We act without thinking or even giving ourselves time to think. We stop judging our actions as good or bad and observe them as they are. Colloquially, we call this being in the zone. In psychology, it’s known as “flow” or a “peak experience.”
Compare this to the typical tennis lesson. As Gallwey describes it, the teacher wants the student to feel that the cost of the lesson was worthwhile. So they give detailed, continuous feedback. Every time they spot the slightest flaw, they highlight it. The result is that the student does indeed feel the lesson fee is justifiable. They’re now aware of dozens of errors they need to fix—so they book more classes.
In his early days as a tennis coach, Gallwey took this approach. Over time, he saw that when he stepped back and gave his students less feedback, not more, they improved faster. Players would correct obvious mistakes without any guidance. On some deeper level, they knew the correct way to play tennis. They just needed to overcome the habits of the mind getting in the way. Whatever impeded them was not a lack of information. Gallwey writes:
I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn: that images are better than words, showing better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying too hard often produces negative results.
There are numerous instances outside of sports when we can see how trying too hard can backfire. Consider a manager who feels the need to constantly micromanage their employees and direct every detail of their work, not allowing any autonomy or flexibility. As a result, the employees lose interest in ever taking initiative or directing their own work. Instead of getting the perfect work they want, the manager receives lackluster efforts.
Or consider a parent who wants their child to do well at school, so they control their studying schedule, limit their non-academic activities, and offer enticing rewards for good grades. It may work in the short term, but in the long run, the child doesn’t learn to motivate themselves or develop an intrinsic desire to study. Once their parent is no longer breathing down their neck, they don’t know how to learn.
Why positive thinking backfires
Not only are we often advised to try harder to improve our skills, we’re also encouraged to think positively. According to Gallwey, when it comes to winning the Inner Game, this is the wrong approach altogether.
To quiet Self 1, we need to stop attaching judgments to our performance, either positive or negative. Thinking of, say, a tennis serve as “good” or “bad” shuts down Self 2’s intuitive sense of what to do. Gallwey noticed that “judgment results in tightness and tightness interferes with the fluidity required for accurate and quick movement. Relaxation produces smooth strokes and results from accepting your strokes as they are, even if erratic.”
In order to let Self 2’s sense of the correct action take over, we need to learn to see our actions as they are. We must focus on what is happening, not what is right or wrong. Once we can see clearly, we can tap into our inbuilt learning process, as Gallwey explains:
But to see things as they are, we must take off our judgmental glasses, whether they’re dark or rose-tinted. This action unlocks a process of natural development, which is as surprising as it is beautiful. . . . The first step is to see your strokes as they are. They must be perceived clearly. This can be done only when personal judgment is absent. As soon as a stroke is seen clearly and accepted as it is, a natural and speedy process of change begins.
It’s hard to let go of judgments when we can’t or won’t trust ourselves. Gallwey noticed early on that negative assessments—telling his students what they had done wrong—didn’t seem to help them. He tried only making positive assessments—telling them what they were doing well. Eventually, Gallwey recognized that attaching any sort of judgment to how his students played tennis was detrimental.
Positive and negative evaluations are two sides of the same coin. To say something is good is to implicitly imply its inverse is bad. When Self 1 hears praise, Self 2 picks up on the underlying criticism.
Clearly, positive and negative evaluations are relative to each other. It is impossible to judge one event as positive without seeing other events as not positive or negative. There is no way to stop just the negative side of the judgmental process.
The trick may be to get out of the binary of good or bad completely by doing more showing and asking questions like “Why did the ball go that way?” or “What are you doing differently now than you did last time?” Sometimes, getting people to articulate how they are doing by observing their own performance removes the judgments and focuses on the developmental possibilities. When we have the right image in mind, we move toward it naturally. Value judgments get in the way of that process.
The Inner Game way of learning
We’re all constantly learning and picking up new skills. But few of us pay much attention to how we learn and whether we’re doing it in the best possible way. Often, what we think of as “learning” primarily involves berating ourselves for our failures and mistakes, arguing with ourselves, and not using the most effective techniques. In short, we try to brute-force ourselves into adopting a capability. Gallwey describes the standard way of learning as such:
Step 1: Criticize or judge past behavior.
Step 2: Tell yourself to change, instructing with word commands repeatedly.
Step 3: Try hard; make yourself do it right.
Step 4: Critical judgment about results leading to Self 1 vicious cycle.
The standard way of learning is far from being the fastest or most enjoyable. It’s slow, it makes us feel awful about ourselves, and it interferes with our natural learning process. Instead, Gallwey advocates following the Inner Game way of learning.
First, we must observe our existing behavior without attaching any judgment to it. We must see what is, not what we think it should be. Once we are aware of what we are doing, we can move onto the next step: picturing the desired outcome. Gallwey advocates images over outright commands because he believes visualizing actions is the best way to engage Self 2’s natural learning capabilities. The next step is to trust Self 2 and “let it happen!” Once we have the right image in mind, Self 2 can take over—provided we do not interfere by trying too hard to force our actions. The final step is to continue “nonjudgmental, calm observation of the results” in order to repeat the cycle and keep learning. It takes nonjudgmental observation to unlearn bad habits.
Towards the end of the book, Gallwey writes:
Clearly, almost every human activity involves both the outer and inner games. There are always external obstacles between us and our external goals, whether we are seeking wealth, education, reputation, friendship, peace on earth or simply something to eat for dinner. And the inner obstacles are always there; the very mind we use in obtaining our external goals is easily distracted by its tendency to worry, regret, or generally muddle the situation, thereby causing needless difficulties within.
Whatever we’re trying to achieve, it would serve us well to pay more attention to the internal, not just the external. If we can overcome the instinct to get in our own way and be more comfortable trusting in our innate abilities, the results may well be surprising.