I once owned a tennis racket. I bought it when I was 14. My plan was to learn the basics so I would have something in common with a girl I was interested in. But, I never actually used the racket.
Almost 30 years later I picked up W. Timothy Gallwey’s cult classic, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classical Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance.
The book has changed the way I approach both the creative act of writing and the business of making money from my words.
Why Did I Get a Book About Tennis?
Tennis doesn’t interest me much. I’ve never played, and I have a hard time watching the game on TV. So, why would I buy a book about tennis?
I blame Steve Kerr.
I may not care for tennis, but I’m a rabid basketball fan. Ever since my family moved to the Bay Area when I was 11, I’ve been a huge Golden State Warriors fan. While the first few years we had Run TMC to cheer for, most of my Warriors fandom was a study in plucky effort, misery, and failure.
I could identify with them.
But, for the past five years, the Warriors have been one of the greatest teams in the history of the NBA. Through luck and shrewd basketball business decisions, the Warriors have a roster with at least three future Hall of Fame players, and possibly a fourth.
What does my basketball obsession have to do with a book about tennis and how is any of this related to writing?
Steve Kerr, a former NBA player for the Bulls and the Spurs, is the head coach of the Warriors. I read several months ago that he has all of his players read The Inner Game of Tennis.
The interview largely skipped over the reasons for Coach Kerr’s request. But, I was intrigued. I bought the ebook and started reading.
It was a revelation.
The Book Isn’t About Tennis
The Inner Game of Tennis isn’t really about tennis at all. Tennis is just the way in. This is a book about learning, consciousness, mindfulness, and achievement. Originally published in 1974, the book was decades ahead of its time.
Gallwey was working as a tennis instructor when he discovered that his students performed better when he stopped giving them instructions.
That’s right the tennis teacher figured out students learned more when he wasn’t teaching.
His great insight is that there are two parts to our brains. He calls them Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is bossy and controlling. It’s the voice that we use to scold ourselves.
Self 2 is our natural human self. Gallwey realized that giving technical instructions empowered Self 1, but that Self 1 wasn’t really the one playing tennis.
He showed students how to quiet Self 1, so that they could allow Self 2 to learn and perform.
He’s describing mindfulness before mindfulness was a thing.
After the first chapter, it was clear why Steve Kerr wanted his players to read this book. It was also clear that I needed to change the way I worked as a writer.
I became a writer out of necessity. It was the only marketable skill I had when my previous career cratered. But, I soon discovered that I loved writing. It was the first time I could regularly get myself into what I call the flow-state.
But, often my anxiety and other mental issues got in the way of me landing clients, completing projects, and living up to my potential. I was never quite good enough. I was addicted to the flow states, but I sucked at everything else when I wasn’t in the flow.
The Inner Game of Tennis helped me see that I was getting in my own way. In business and in writing I needed to learn how to focus Self 1 on something useful so that it would stop interfering with my creative and intuitive Self 2.
Self 2 is the writer. It’s the part of me that has the creative vision for my business. Self 1 is my bossy editor and second-guesser-in-chief. Self 1 has a role in the process, but it likes to try and take over at the most inopportune times — paralyzing me.
I’ve been fortunate to have a decent career as a writer. Each year I’ve become a better writer. I’ve made a little more than the year before. But, there has always been something that stopped me from being as successful as I felt I could be.
I’ve often failed to finish big projects, and I never put my big business growth plans into action.
After reading Gallwey’s book, I began trying to let my Self 2 work on my business instead of Self 1.
This is the second week of the experiment, and already the results are stunning. My work is better, I feel better, and my business is growing in surprising ways.
My biggest weakness has been that I’ve been overthinking while underperforming. I get into vicious cycles where I get demotivated by my lack of progress, so I slack off, which makes me anxious and depressed. This makes it even harder to work.
I’m by no means cured of my mental health issues. But, for the first time since I was a child, I feel excited and fulfilled, even when I fail at something. The Inner Game of Tennis has taught me how to let go.
It has made writing fun again, and it has opened my eyes to a new way to conduct my business — less brainstorming and planning and more doing.
For the past six and a half years, I’ve been proud to be a working writer. I’ve never believed in the starving artist mythos. But, during the past two weeks, I’ve enjoyed my work on a deeper level than ever before.
Thanks to Gallwey, I’ve begun to discover the Inner Game of Writing. I can’t wait to see what else there is to learn.