Book Review: The Inner Game of Tennis

inner gameBusiness Insider just published a piece about how this book guided the Golden State Warriors through their historic 2016-17 season. The piece shows a photograph of one of the best paragraphs of the book, which Tom Brady tweeted, showing where he wrote in the margin next to it. The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance has helped a lot of successful people get where they are today by focusing on a critical, but unemotional mindset.

I first read The Inner Game in the spring of 2004, at the end of a mostly unsuccessful freshman year in music school. The demand for hours of daily practice is one of the major reasons that people drop out of music school. Spending anywhere from 2 to 8 hours per day alone in a small room with your instrument, fighting to meet the standards of yourself and your professors, can quickly drive you insane.

A practice session often follows this 10-step process:

  1. Warm-up for 20 minutes.
  2. Practice sight-reading 20 minutes.
  3. Start working on music for a 1-2 hour session.
  4. Make a mistake that you are not happy about.
  5. Try again. Make the mistake again. Get mad.
  6. Try again. Make the mistake again, plus a new mistake on a part you had been playing right.
  7. Repeat, increasing frustration and number of mistakes as long as you can.
  8. Lash out and destroy something in the room–hopefully not your expensive instrument.
  9. Give up and come back later, hoping it will be better.
  10. It won’t.

The Inner Game broke me out of this funk by teaching my how to quiet the part of my mind that reacts emotionally to my performance and awaken the part of my mind that thinks critically, but unemotionally about it. The author, Timothy Gallwey, explains how this process works with his tennis students, but it applies brilliantly to other sports and really any activity that involves training your body and/or mind.

My practicing became much more rewarding and productive when I started following Gallwey’s advice. It was amazing what I started accomplishing. This book and some other things that came into my life at that time completely changed my life for the better. About 75% of the students in my program changed to another major, dropped out of music school, transferred to another college, or dropped out of school altogether. I became one of the 25% of survivors, and this book had a lot to do with it.

My story with The Inner Game doesn’t end there. About 9 years after the book changed my life it came into my life again.

I had a private lesson student who was going through some of the same struggles I had in high school and college with practicing. I assigned him to read a chapter of the book each week, along with his weekly practice goals. I reread the book to keep up with him and have discussions about it, and this amazing thing happened. The book saved me again.

A year earlier, I had accepted an extremely challenging teaching job, running a large program with a strong competitive history, and I felt like I was failing at it. I felt like I hadn’t fully met any of my goals. I was evaluating everything and trying to figure out where I had gone wrong. It seemed like my entire approach was fundamentally flawed. It was one of the most frustrating, uncertain, and terrifying times in my teaching career. My career was probably in jeopardy if I didn’t turn it around.

While rereading The Inner Game, I realized that the problems in my planning, rehearsing, teaching, administrating–in every aspect of my job and career–were mostly caused by ego compromising my judgment, just like it had in the practice room back in college. When a teacher or leader behaves that way, it spreads into everyone else too, and it ruins the culture of a program very quickly. I shifted my attitude and my strategy by following the advice of the book again, and every aspect of my teaching has improved significantly every year since then.

No matter what you do, whether its your hobby, your job, or just trying to get better about following a fitness routine, The Inner Game is a quick read that will get your brain evaluating itself and reprogramming itself to serve you better. I highly recommend reading it… perhaps reading it at least two times!

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