I am an admirer of Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, and I am also a skeptic. He broke important new ground — his discovery of the inner game is to tennis what Columbus’s discovery of the New World was to Europeans.
Wow! Who knew?
I find his approach a bit on the simplistic side, though. His basic proposition is that there is a think-y self inside us — an overthink-y self, really — that he calls Self One, and a Mister Natural kind of dude (or dudette) who knows intuitively how to do tennis right. This character he calls Self Two.
My skepticism lies in this: If you don’t bring any technical knowhow to the game, Self Two is doomed to flail even with all its natural genius. You can’t dance like Mister Natural if you’ve got two left feet, and we all have two left feet when we’re just getting started at the game.
Simplicity follows complexity, it doesn’t precede it.
And yet … and yet … consider the rest of this meditation a boxing match between my skepticism and a big ‘Oops, I stand corrected.’
The other day, I got treated to a solid ass-whuppin’ by a regular practice partner. I wasn’t thrilled by how I was playing, but I wasn’t a disaster. He was just better. After the first set, I asked if we could hit a few balls so I could try to get grounded and centered again.
For both of us, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about getting better, so he said yes. A few exchanges later, he hit a short ball that came in high to my forehand. It’s the sort of shot I should put away, but too often execute poorly during match play. I get too excited, I overhit, I don’t give myself enough space — I’ll stop here.
This time, though, for whatever reason — an intervention by Saint Timothy of Gallwey? — my mind went perfectly blank. There was total stillness up there — which, as readers of these meditations surely know, is quite the anomaly for me.
All there was, was the ball sitting up there for me. I saw it, I swung at it, and I hit it exactly where and how I wanted to. Had it been a match and not just practice, it would have been a clean and easy winner.
Everything was so damn simple! It was effortless.
Mister Natural — Self Two — had sailed in and taken over.
Not only was it a visitation from Self Two — it was also a visitation from the Zone.
I’d gotten out of my way completely.
It was like an illumination, a revelation: “Ah, so this is life deep in the Zone!”
Round One to Tim Gallwey. My first thought, from down there on the canvas, was: “I owe him a recantation.” My second thought, as the fumes cleared and I prepared to clamber up off the mat, was: “No! That’s not right! This only happened because I’ve been working on my game for years. I couldn’t have hit that shot that purely if I didn’t have advanced technique.”
So now I’m back to being a skeptic. Still, I learned something really important from my transient little miracle — Tim Gallwey was really onto something.
Beyond all the complexity, tennis is so simple.
But it takes practice, lots and lots of practice, to get there.
Have you had wondrous moments when your brain goes still? To what extent do you get in your own way?