Notes on Inner Game of Tennis + writing challenges

I’d known about The Inner Game of Tennis for over a decade without ever reading it. “It’ll help your game, but also, like, with your life,” various people gushed as they recommended it to me over the years. 

A recent shelter-in-place Saturday: We hit the courts and I played the way I had since college: noticing how rusty I was—of course I was; I didn’t play with any kind of regularity. How could I expect to be good? I’d miss an easy shot, get in my head, miss the next few, get even more in my head. 

That night, The Inner Game of Tennis came up again over dinner. I downloaded it from NYPL’s app. Read most of it the next morning after breakfast. 

The book’s premise is pretty simple: You have 2 parts of your brain, Self 1 (controlling) and Self 2 (instinctual). Self 1 is used to being in charge. “Pay attention! You can’t miss this shot or else you’ll be way behind.” But the devilment is, the more Self 1 is in charge, the worse you play. You overcorrect, tensing up all the wrong muscles. You get flustered. Meanwhile, Self 2 is way smarter than you give it credit for. Every hit you’ve done in your life, it’s been paying attention. Did that go in? It’s been paying attention to the mechanics, the precise combinations of which muscles were in use and how much force they exerted. Stuff you almost certainly could never articulate on your own. Self 2 should always be in charge. 

So I’d read most of the book, and then we hit the courts again. I started hitting so well, it made both of us laugh. “It seems like a cheesy advertorial for this book, but I’m way less in my own head.” 

How exactly does the book teach putting Self 2 in charge?

  •  Notice things. Instead of letting Self 1 diagnose things (“You have got to snap your wrist more, or else your serves will keep landing out”) and totally disturbing the delicate ecosystem, try asking questions like, “Hrm, where is my racquet head throughout my serve?” This nonjudgemental noticing shifts you over into Self 2.  
  • Ask for what you want! Self 1 says, “Don’t hit the ball too slowly. Or into the net. Or out.” Well, what do you actually want? Picture for Self 2 the shot going the exact speed, angle, and landing point you’d like. That enables it to remember all the times it’s seen similar balls, and get you in the right position and movement to make it so. 
  • One challenge is: as soon as you notice playing better, it’s easy to get back in your head. Self 1 will try to take back charge – “Look, I’m doing what the book said, and now I’m an expert”. Beware this. 
  • Tennis-specific ways to keep Self 2 activated: Try noticing other stuff. Narrate “bounce, hit, bounce, hit” as they each happen; watch the ball’s seams, listen to the sound of the ball off your strings. 

The book’s avid fans promised this would make my entire life better. On that front, two things I noticed:  

  • I stopped worrying about “making this a good, worthwhile session”. Instead, my mentality shifted to: “I am training my tennis model for 1 hour and enjoying the sunshine.” If some brilliant shots came out, great; if not, no stress. 
  • There’s a chapter on competition and how many constricting motivations there are — how Self 1 can focus on beating opponents, not embarrassing yourself, proving your worth, etc. This book suggests that there is simply glory in getting better, in pushing past your perceptions of what’s possible. 

This book came out in the ’70s, but everything I’ve read since on neuroscience and mindfulness and creativity echoes the 2-self model. 

For the last month, I’ve been working through the 100 Day Writing Challenge, a podcast that encourages trying on many different modes of writing and lowering the stakes to better allow creativity. 

Yesterday marked the start of 1000 Words of Summer, 2 weeks where you write 1000 words a day. I saw it and thought, well, might as well tack this on too. (Please no one make a 10,000-themed writing challenge, because I apparently will definitely join, and then I’ll truly be done for.) I was worried about not having any plan for what I’d write and spent quite a lot of time late last night trying to figure out the perfect thing to work on that people would be most interested in. 

But then I remembered: hey, it seems Self 1 is trying to make sure I have a plan and won’t embarrass myself or waste my own time or go down the wrong path. But what if I were to trust in Self 2 more? Just work on the things I thought I should, and trust that I can notice implicit feedback and adjust. And by making and sharing things and seeing what happens, train my writing model. 

So that’s my plan for the next 2 weeks!