I’ve recently become interested in mental models, or different types of lenses you can bring to view a particular situation or reality. We all have an immense flexibility in how we can view the world; sometimes changing our approach in this way can change how we experience our reality.
I found the process of realising and accepting this reality — that how we choose to respond to things changes how we experience them — incredibly empowering and liberating. It gives you options and choices in situations that may have seemed oppressive or challenging in the past. It opens you up to new approaches, new possibilities. I’ve written about my struggles with various parts of climbing, but one of the places I often return to is this idea that I can choose how I respond to that difficult. Similarly, I can reframe how I decide to view that reality: I can see it through the lens of fear, or I can view it through the lens of opportunity and growth. I can see it through my default hesitant-cum-reluctant perspective or I can try to imagine how someone else sees it (a friend, perhaps, who doesn’t struggle with the same mental blocks, or even someone much further along in the sport).
I recently read a fantastic book that introduces some of these ideas as they relate to the sport of tennis. The book, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, was written by W. Timothy Gallwey and was originally published in 1972. Back then, it made quite a splash (selling over a million copies to date) and the book is rightly well-read as a classic of sports psychology literature. Gallwey has since published a number of spin-off books applying his principles to other domains (work, stress, music, golf, skiing) but you needn’t be a tennis player at all to get a lot from the original version.
The core idea that Gallwey introduces is that the mind has “two selves”, Self 1 and Self 2. I’m not entirely sure about the full extent to which these overlap with Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2, but there is some common ground.
Self 1 (also known as the ‘teller’) is the voice in your head which tries to actively manage how you do certain things. It is responsible for efforts to ‘try hard’, and is often quite critical. Self 2, in contrast, is the ‘doer’, the part of you that (in the end) ends up doing things but that is sensitive to the attitude and comments made by Self 1. The book is about the relationship between these two voices, since Self 1 doesn’t trust Self 2 to be able to deliver. Gallwey argues that in order to be effective and do our best work (or play our best match of tennis), we need a better way of translating our knowledge into effective action, and thus a better way for the two selves to communicate and interact.
Some of the details of the book are specific to movement-based skills. I think that anyone doing any kind of sport would benefit from reading this book. Gallwey outlines four key skills that go into effective movement: - letting go of judgement — once you stop allowing self 1 to dictate the terms of the conversation, you can rely much more on the instinctual learning capacity of self 2. This also hooks into the idea of ’seeing clearly’, which pretty much immediately improves your ability to respond and react to the reality of the present moment. - creating images — visualising movement, really noticing what’s going on (when viewing others do it) and working from imitation and from feeling your way into the movements. - ‘letting it happen’ — getting out of the way. This has a lot to do with the first skill. You have to trust Self 2’s ability to deliver, and you just need to let it happen, or let whatever happens happen. The important thing here is the nonjudgemental observation of change and the results. - concentration — this is the final stage, since just ‘letting go’ is not quite enough. The relaxed, nonjudgemental mind needs focusing. For movement, this means focusing your observation and sensitivity to sensations in the body (for example) or an increased consciousness of the senses. (“Focus intensifies the light of consciousness”).
He ends the book by addressing the idea of games — games that people play, the meaning of competition, and the broader implications of the way we approach this ‘inner game’ (balancing self 1 and self 2) in our life. (I was really impressed how so many of the ideas presented presage current trends and predilections: the importance of mindfulness, the value of play, and so on).
If the first part of the book was less applicable to things outside the domain of movement skills and practical learning, the second half is much more relevant to the problems I think most of us face. There’s a certain amount of pop psychology that probably hasn’t lasted the test of time, but mostly it is really solid perspectives on: - finding games where the score doesn’t matter - the debate in Western society as to the value of competition as compared with cooperation. - issues that result when ‘success’ is equated to value and self-worth (which can in turn lead to various compulsions to succeed, or, paradoxically, to rebel)
Gallwey ends the book with the paradox that is at the core of the ‘inner game’, that in order to allow Self 2 the freedom to learn and act naturally, this requires a level of abandonment. So it is a matter of “caring, yet not caring […] effort, but effortless.” He ties it in to all sorts of other areas outside tennis that really convinced me as to the applicability beyond purely motor / movement skills.
There was a lot to unpack about this book, and I may return to some of the specific points in the future. For anyone working on their movement skills or finding ways to enjoy that part of their life, I’d put this on the list of essential books. For anyone else, maybe give the first few chapters a read; I think you’ll be surprised what Gallwey brings to the table.