How New Evidence Supports the Classic Advice From a 1972 Book About Tennis

By
Image
Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

This year’s Super Bowl–winning hero Tom Brady is merely the latest in a long line of sporting legends — including Steve Kerr, Pete Carroll, and Billie Jean King — who credit a little book about tennis with helping them to stay cool, calm, and collected under pressure. The book, called The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, was written by Timothy Gallwey, a Harvard English major turned Zen tennis instructor. Initially published in 1972, the book has sold over one million copies and has never been out of print. Perhaps that’s because its main premise — that you need to get out of your own way — is not only a timeless key to peak performance on the playing field, but also off of it. But what’s especially fascinating is that more than 40 years after the book first came out, now-emerging science supports nearly all of its insights, many of which, like how to thrive in unsettling times, are as relevant as ever.

The expression You need to get out of your own way contains both what Gallwey calls “Self-1” (the you) and “Self-2” (the your). Self-1 is the voice inside your head that is constantly judging and telling Self-2, your physical body and nervous system — “a tremendously sophisticated and competent collection of potentialities,” according to Gallwey — what to do. Gallwey writes that all too often we allow Self-1 to interfere with the wisdom of Self-2. In particular, he explains, “It is Self-1’s mistrust of Self-2 which causes the interference known as ‘trying too hard’ and that of too much self-instruction.” Both result in tightening up, overthinking, and losing concentration. We are better off “letting it happen,” trusting instead of fighting our Self-2, Gallwey writes, than we are “trying to make it happen.” It turns out that this holds true in many circumstances.

You can’t force yourself to relax.

Imagine that you are facing performance anxiety prior to a big presentation or athletic event. Perhaps your heart is racing or your body temperature is rising. Prevailing wisdom says you should tell yourself to “relax” or “calm down.” But new research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shows that instead of trying to calm yourself down, “reappraising preperformance anxiety as excitement” may be a better option.

When you tell yourself “I need to relax,” your Self-1 is sending a signal that something is wrong — that you are stressed — and begins trying to fight the physical sensations of Self-2. Yet, as Gallwey writes, this often just leads to further tightness and angst. When you stop trying to fight the sensations and instead embrace them — telling yourself that what you are feeling is excitement, that the body is engaging all the systems it needs to be fully alert — an enhanced experience and outcome often follows. As the authors of the Experimental Psychology study conclude, “Compared to those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement perform better.”

Or, in the words of Gallwey: “The instant [you] try to make [yourself] relax, true relaxation vanishes.”

Sheer willpower often backfires.

Although the exact mechanism by which willpower diminishes is under debate (is it like a muscle that depletes as we use it, or is it more like a fickle emotion that comes and goes?) anyone who has tried to resist engaging in a negative habit understands that doing so is hard. Gallwey argues that what makes this such a challenge is the act of resistance itself. “There is no need to fight old habits,” he writes. “Start new ones instead. It is the resistance of an old habit that puts you in the trench. Starting a new pattern is easy when done with childlike disregard for imagined difficulties.” He elaborates that while the thinking and judging mind (Self-1) is in the business of futile resistance, the doing body (Self-2) quickly picks up new “grooves,” replacing bad habits with good ones.

Over 40 years later, the en vogue science of habits says much the same thing: that the best way to eliminate a bad habit is to put a good one in its place. Meanwhile, recent theories on willpower suggest that the less emphasis we place on exerting it — and instead focus on building new patterns of physical behavior that demonstrate self-trust — the more of it we’ll have. Put differently, we’d be wise to concentrate less on Self-1, the voice that’s always telling us what and what not to do, and more on Self-2, the body that actually does.

Don’t obsess.

Toward the end of The Inner Game of Tennis, Gallwey reflects on a time when he was very nervous prior to a club-championship match. It struck him that his nerves were founded in a fear of losing. But when he explored deeper, he realized this fear was a folly. “What’s the worst thing that could happen, if I lose 6-0, 6-0?” he asks himself. “Word would quickly get around that I got trounced, but soon I’d start playing well again and before long life would be back to normal.” Then, he asked, “What’s the best thing that could happen, if I win 6-0, 6-0?” His answer: “Well, I would return to my [home] club report how I did, receive a few pats on the back, and soon all would again return to normal.”

“What I really wanted,” Gallwey writes, “was to overcome the nervousness that was preventing me from playing my best and enjoying myself.” In order to do so, he realized that he had to release himself from striving for external validation (a Self-1 desire) and instead tune in to the wonderful feeling of playing the game itself (a Self-2 experience).

Gallwey is describing a distinction that we recently covered at the Science of Us, and that psychologists refer to as the difference between harmonious passion and obsessive passion. In the former, a person becomes wrapped in an activity primarily for the joy of doing the activity itself and the internal satisfaction that accompanies it. In the latter, people are motivated by external achievement, results, and recognition. Whereas harmonious passion is linked to health, happiness, and long-term performance, obsessive passion is linked to anxiety and burnout. Keeping obsessive passion at bay requires quieting the voice in your head that is worried about results and the opinion of others (Self-1) and instead focusing on the inner feelings that are brought about by doing your activity itself (Self-2).

Choose action over rumination.

“Perhaps the most indispensable tool for human beings in modern times is the ability to remain calm in the midst of rapid and unsettling changes.” Although Gallwey wrote this in 1972, it feels particularly prescient today. “Inner stability is achieved not by burying one’s head in the sand at the sight of danger,” he goes on, “but by acquiring the ability to see the true nature of what is happening and to respond appropriately.”

In other words, in turbulent times (read: now), though it’s unproductive to completely checkout, it’s equally unproductive to give the Self-1, the voice inside your head, the freedom to ruminate as you endlessly scroll social-media feeds or watch cable news. A more useful course, at least according to Gallwey, is to let your doing Self-2 take action. This could mean calling your congresspeople, marching in protest, or attending city and town hall meetings. While Self-1 loves to indulge in elaborate doomsday scenarios, it is the simple and direct actions of Self-2 that prevent them from happening. “Stability grows,” writes Gallwey, “as you learn to accept what you cannot control and take control of what you can.”

The overarching lesson of The Inner Game of Tennis — that we need to get out of our own way — is simple yet profound. There are immense benefits to muting the judging Self-1 so that we can get more in touch with the doing Self-2. If we tune into and lead with our bodies, they have lots to tell us. After all, “they” are us.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive With the New Science of Success. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.

The Enduring Wisdom of a 1972 Book About Tennis