Mastering your Inner Game: the art of relaxed concentration

Back in the 70’s Timothy Gallwey made a breakthrough discovery while coaching his tennis players. During practice, he noticed some of his students giving themselves verbal instructions for improvements. They would tell themselves things like “get up for the ball”, “bend your knees”, “swing harder” etc. There was nothing unusual about this self talk, except it seemed to hurt rather than help progress. 

Out of curiosity he asked a simple question, when people are talking to themselves, “Who’s talking to whom?” For most, the response was “I am talking to myself”. He theorized that perhaps “I” and “myself” are two different people within the same person. Gallwey called them Self 1 and Self 2. In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, he shows how managing these two selves turns out to be the key to unlocking our true potential.

Self 1 and Self 2 are nothing like each other. One tells us what to do, and the other does what needs to be done. Self 1 is the teller and Self 2 is the doer. Self 1 is the one that initiates effort, but it is Self 2 that does the work when it is called upon.

Self 2 is the embodiment of who we are. It includes the muscles, the nervous system, the unconscious mind. It is the wisdom of the body. As Gallwey put it, Self 2 “hears everything, never forgets anything, and is anything but stupid.” Despite this, Self 1 doesn’t trust Self 2. This distrust becomes an obstacle towards learning, growth and performance. Self 1 is the ego mind that always looks for approval and wants to avoid disapproval from mistakes. It is the source of fear, doubts and delusions.

When Self 2 is allowed to flourish and Self 1 is kept out of the way, we find ourselves “in the zone” and in a state of relaxed flow. Our performance feels effortless. The mind is at ease. Time slows down. People who reach this state talk about not thinking but simply doing. They don’t control what happens, but rather “let it happen”. This mastery of the “inner game”, as Gallwey calls it, is necessary to achieve our external goals in the “outer game”. 

So how can you unleash your Self 2? By practicing, what Gallwey calls, “the art of relaxed concentration”. There are three skills that enable this.

First, develop a clear picture of the desired outcome. Self 2 is a visual learner. Observe others performing the actions you are trying to perfect. Learn from your role model, not by breaking down the specific details of their technique, but by simply watching them in their element. Let the mind simply absorb the images and you will find that your Self 2 is able to exhibit a sense of confidence during your own performance.

Second, trust Self 2 to perform its best by “letting it happen”. Letting it happen means not trying too hard. If you feel that you are trying hard at something, that is your Self 1 swooping in to interfere with the efforts of Self 2. The energy of Self 1 is to try hard whereas the energy of Self 2 is effort. Effort is not same as trying hard. Effort is about trusting Self 2 to just do.

Finally, quiet the judgmental mind to see things as they are. Judgement is the act of assigning positive or negative value to an event. Judgement requires thinking, and therefore involves Self 1. Negative judgments are especially unhelpful. Constant self-judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over time it starts to influence our self-identity and we start to become what we think. By removing judgment completely, we are able to see and feel things as they are. 

These skills aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather they rely on each other to achieve a state of relaxed concentration and the complete involvement of Self 2. For example, by silencing the judgmental mind, we allow Self 1 to truly appreciate Self 2. This creates a sense of inner harmony and allows Self 2 to let things happen.

Your inner game is yours alone. Mastering it will give you a sense of satisfaction during your everyday life and also during those key moments when you need to deliver big.


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