Get Started

inner game of tennis ball.jpg

It’s been a great summer for sports. The Euro Soccer championship, Wimbledon, and the British Open. The matches seem to get closer every year, and the athletes always seem to find some new level of athleticism and grit. Serena Williams won her 22nd Grand Slam singles title with her 7th Wimbledon title. And at 34, this is her 9th Grand Slam win since she turned 30. At the British Open, Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson delivered what is being called “the greatest Open ever.” And the Olympics haven’t even started yet.

There is a lot of commentary about the physical nature of these athletes. We know they have the best coaches, trainers and facilities that money can buy. We talk about their form, technique, speed and stamina. But what about the mental and emotional challenges these athletes face?


What is behind the psychology of performance? That’s the question we’ll look at in today’s Wireboard article.


In our daily lives we also face challenges — opportunities requiring our best performance. Presumably, these opportunities are not happening on a tennis court or golf course, but are still intense and daunting in the moment. I see challenges that require top performance daily as I work with clients at Rewire.


In 1972, W. Timothy Gallwey wrote a book called The Inner Game of Tennis. Many tennis players who bought the book were surprised that it was only 135 pages long with no pictures or diagrams! Gallwey's answer was that there is a deeper game to play beyond footwork and shot mechanics. This deeper game is not about points or “winning” or critique. This deeper game is only about presence and focus on the actions that are required right now. Gallwey argued that an individual’s inner dialogue about success or failure or winning or losing is actually a distraction from performance in the moment.


Through his decades of playing, coaching and observing tennis matches, Gallwey found that if you play with this perspective in mind (attending to the present moment), you will actually perform better than if you were focused on wanting to win or avoiding failure.


I’ve found this perspective translates well into our own endeavors. We all want to be successful, but if we have an M.O. focused primarily on winning, losing, success or failure, it’s possible that our internal dialogue is actually sapping our focus and working against us. So let’s look a little closer at this inner dialogue each of us has, especially the “inner critic.”


In Eckhart Tolle’s seminal book The Power of Now, he talks about this inner critic as a “pain voice.” This voice dwells on bad things that happened in the past and bad things that could happen in the future. Learning to control — or stop letting the voice command you — allows you to live fully in the moment and Tolle argues this is key to happiness and action in the moment. One of Tolle's theories is that people have difficulty being present or content because they are constantly losing themselves in worry and anxiety about the past or future.


You can get a sense of the inner critic at work by answering questions like:

  • How much time do you spend thinking about the past?
  • What about the future?
  • How many times do you get lost in a negative thought?
  • How many times does that thought stay with you for a few minutes, an hour, or a whole day?

This is what it looks like to leave the present moment in such a way that it threatens the right action that the moment actually calls for.


Learning to hear this inner dialogue and examine it is a powerful skill to develop. I personally have learned to accept my inner critic as a part of me. That way, I’m not surprised when I have this inner dialogue. In fact, I even thank my inner critic from time to time. Why? Because the role of my inner critic is (as it is for all of us) to try to protect me. But we can’t let it dictate our actions and we can’t dwell on what it says.


I doubt that Serena dwelled on the fact that she did not even make the final rounds at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2014, or that Angelique Kerber is seven years younger than her and had never had any major injuries.


I close this article by inviting all of us to be a little kinder to ourselves in order to stay in the present moment. By being kind to ourselves and staying present, we give ourselves the best chance to do what the moment actually calls for, whether that’s in a meeting with clients, writing a difficult email, on a date with your spouse, or on a long car ride with your kids.


Anyone else see a connection between the mental approach to sports and work? Any tennis fans out there? I would love to hear about your experience with inner dialogues in the comments section.


P.S. If you’d like to read more on this, there is a great piece by Amy Morin in Forbes: “Taming Your Inner Critic: 7 Steps To Silencing The Negativity