The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey is a wonderful artifact of the seventies. It is completely lacking in irony and chock-full of zen insight; it is also refreshingly optimistic about the possibilities for all of us to play better tennis and enjoy a better life.
I liked this book a lot. Gallwey gives some good advice on tennis and he makes sound connections to life lived off the court as well. Much of what he says will sound familiar to anyone who has read any zen-based guides on concentration, meditation, and focus. Stay in the moment, relieve your mind from worrying about the past or the present, let yourself be fully in the present. How to do that? Focus on something in your present moment, the seams of the ball coming toward you, the smells of the freshly-mown grass, the sound of your child’s voice — and when all else fails, focus on your breathing. Nothing is more present than the in and the out of your constant, rhythmic breathing.
Gallwey talks a lot about visualizing and feeling the correct way to do something, even actually doing the swing or the serve and watching your arm as you do it, feeling where your racquet is, visualizing where you want the ball to go. Then he advocates letting your body play without thinking about where everything is supposed to be (arm, feet, swing) and just letting your body do what it feels is right. Let go of trying to control, trying to remember every little thing you are supposed to do. But do keep your eye on that ball, don’t let that go: focus. Thank you, Yoda, I think I’ve got it. But you know, he is right. Letting your body play and your mind enjoy gets you to better tennis. Or at least tennis that is more fun (more on that later).
Gallwey made excellent points about the issue of competition that really resonated. I always have trouble beating people (other than my husband, I love when I rarely beat him and I always try very hard to beat him — at tennis.). With others, especially friends, I hold back. As Gallwey points out, we think when we are playing that we will feel good (validated) if we win; the corollary is that our opponent will feel bad (devalued) if she loses. As Gallwey says “[t]here would be no problem with competition if one’s self-worth was not at stake“. Or the self-worth of a friend, which we don’t want to damage; we support our friends.
Gallwey advises us to throw out the idea that any intrinsic value of inner worth will flow towards the winner and away from the loser: it is just a game and the best games are ones where you play hard, you play your best. When the game is over, you will feel tired but satisfied, no matter what the outcome. “It is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try to create obstacles for him. Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise.” The victory is in rising, in playing hard and then reaching across the net for the handshake, no matter who won.
PARENTS out there: if your kid wins a baseball game or dance competition or spelling bee, you have not won the best parent award. At best, you have taught your child to compete with engagement and enjoyment (congratulations!); at worst, you are creating someone who equates winning with self-worth (then your should read Gallwey’s book).
Now to the best part of The Inner Game of Tennis, the chapter where Gallwey lays out the different types of tennis players, warning that “that this guide not be read as an exercise in self-analysis, but as a key to discovering how to have more fun while playing tennis.” It is also a surefire guide to having fun while living. Too many people do not have fun. Period. Ever. On court or off. Although times are rough right now, most people I know don’t have to worry about clean water, basic medical care, decent schools, or imminent homelessness, and so we really should be able to laugh and relax, without the aid of cocktails or internet liaising or whatever. We should be able to have some fun and not take ourselves so seriously. Why do we screw ourselves up?
According to Gallwey because we are always trying to measure up, to prove ourselves, to be of value, and to be better than someone else. Gallwey says, and I paraphrase, relax, chill out, set your own goals and reach them for your own satisfaction. Then he does something truly amazing: he makes reference to Jonathan Seagull! Do we all remember Richard Bach’s Jonathan Seagull? Are we back in the seventies? You bet we are and it is not such a bad thing. “Like Jonathan Seagull, are we not an immeasurable energy in the process of manifesting, by degrees, an unlimited potential?….We are what we are; we are not how well we happen to perform at a given moment…the score of a tennis match may be an indication of how well I performed or how hard I tried, but it does not define my identity, nor give me cause to consider myself as something more or less than I was before the match.” Or before you lost your job or before the value of your house fell through the floor, or after you won the big bonus or scored the big deal.
Visualize your game, Gallwey says, and then let yourself live it, enjoying it all the way. Great advice from the seventies. I say we all give it a try here in the 21st century.