The Inner Game Of Everything: Why Is A Four-Decade-Old Tennis Book Still A Self-Help Sensation?

A Harvard English major wrote The Inner Game of Tennis in 1972. A million copies later, its ideas are still some of the most influential in sports — and beyond, taken seriously by actors, politicians, and even sex researchers. What’s its secret? Maybe that there is no secret.

The fall of 2006 was not a good one for Lawrence Jackson. Earlier that year, he had ended his sophomore season as a defensive end at the University of Southern California with 16 career sacks and his name high on a number of NFL draft boards. “People were asking me if I was gonna leave after that year,” Jackson recalled recently. “I decided to go back, and part of that was to improve my numbers.”

But eight games into his junior year, Jackson’s sack total remained stuck at 16. Against Oregon State, in October, the Trojans gave up 33 points, and USC was knocked from the national title race. Jackson hadn’t managed a solo tackle, much less a sack. Fans changed his nickname from “LoJack” to “NoSack.” The following week, immediately after another sack-less game against Stanford, he learned that a close relative had been killed in a car accident. “It was just a lot of pressure, and a lot anger and frustration,” he said. “Nothing was going right.”

Stumped, Jackson requested a meeting with head coach Pete Carroll, who now coaches the Seattle Seahawks. “You’re pressing,” Carroll said in his office, before handing Jackson a book with a tennis ball on the cover. Carroll had discovered The Inner Game of Tennis, a guide to the sport’s mental side, as a graduate assistant at the University of the Pacific, his first coaching job, in the 1970s. In the book, a Harvard-English-major-turned-tennis pro named Timothy Gallwey writes that he is trying to address the most frequent complaint he received from his students: that they kept making the same mistakes over and over even though they knew, and had practiced, better ways to play. The brain can be our worst enemy, Gallwey says, and, in the course of ten chapters, he gives little in the way of literal tennis advice on technique or strategy. Rather, Gallwey presents various approaches — concentrate on the ball to distract your brain from screwing up your swing; think about where your racket is, not what it’s doing right or wrong — to help tennis players keep their mental state from getting in the way of peak physical performance.

Carroll had found the book so useful in his job as a football coach that he had since given it to USC stars Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and Carson Palmer, among many others. He was not alone in his admiration, nor was football The Inner Game’s most surprising application. It’s still the best-selling instructional tennis book around, but to only consider its effect on that particular sport would likely be to miss most of its influence. Al Gore gave the book to campaign staffers to improve their concentration, Itzhak Perlman recommended it to aspiring violinists, and a group of Canadian researchers identified it as a guide to better sex. Carroll liked The Inner Game so much that the latest edition has these four words on the cover: “Foreword by Pete Carroll.”

Jackson brought The Inner Game back to his dorm room. “I thought it was kind of weird,” he said, of being told to read a book about a sport he had never played, except on a Wii. It sat unopened all week until, feeling no better, he brought it with him to the team hotel before a game against Oregon.

“What the hell are you reading?” his roommate, Alex Morrow, asked that night.

“I can’t put it down,” Jackson said.

The next day, Jackson sacked Oregon’s quarterback three times, and led the Trojans with ten tackles, four of them for a loss. By graduation, he had eleven more sacks, giving him 30.5 for his career. The Seahawks selected Jackson in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Now entering his sixth season in the league, Jackson keeps a copy of The Inner Game with him as reinforcement. “I don’t want to compare it to the great works of the Bible,” Jackson said, pausing to avoid sacrilege. “But it’s been extremely important.”

Lawrence Jackson in 2006. Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty Images

Timothy Gallwey was working as a tennis instructor near Monterey, California, in the early 1970s, wearing white cable-knit sweaters on the court, when he decided to write The Inner Game. Gallwey had been captain of the tennis team at Harvard, where he majored in English literature, and was taking a break from a planned career in academia. After a few months of teaching, he grew frustrated that while his pupils were listening to, and trying to follow, his advice, they weren’t seeming to make significant improvement. “I was beginning to learn what all good pros and students of tennis must learn,” Gallwey wrote in his manuscript. “Conscious trying often produces negative results. One question perplexed me: What’s wrong with trying? What does it mean to try too hard?”

When Gallwey finished writing his book in 1972, his publisher predicted it would sell 20,000 copies, mostly to tennis hackers looking to improve their forehand. One million copies later, it has become the most influential tennis book ever published, praised by professionals — Billie Jean King told Gallwey the book was her tennis bible — and amateurs alike. Jimmy Carter admitted to reading it to help in White House matches with Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, while Rainn Wilson — Dwight from The Office — told the Los Angeles Times that training under a coach who had given him the book was “basically like playing tennis with Yoda.” Gallwey himself is still an in-demand teacher and guru — trying to schedule an interview with him for this piece was like trying to get a few minutes of face time with an entertainer on a press tour.

The Inner Game was published in an era when “sports psychology” was a phrase few had ever heard. Its release was a relative sensation, and 40 years later, now one book among many in the ever-expanding self-help section, it continues to sell thousands of copies each year. It tops Amazon’s sports psychology category, and falls behind only recent best-sellers by Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi in the tennis category. (On the list of tennis instructional books, Brad Gilbert’s Winning Ugly is a distant second.) The trade paperback alone has sold more than 150,000 copies since its release in 1997, according to Nielsen BookScan. Though pro tennis players are ironically loathe to talk about the mental side of their game, chances are good that many of the competitors at Wimbledon have read Gallwey’s book.

And yet, despite such ubiquity, few people are able or willing to explain why they find the book so useful. Its proponents are hesitant to boil the Inner Game down to a formula in part because, the theory goes, thinking about the Inner Game defeats the very purpose of the Inner Game. When pressed, though, they offer something like this:

Performance = Potential – Interference

The upshot is that every professional athlete, and most amateur ones, already know how to perform — to properly swing a racket, shoot a basketball, or go up-and-under around an offensive tackle. The potential of an athlete with the physical gifts and technical training of a Roger Federer, a LeBron James, or even a Lawrence Jackson is practically limitless. The difference between that potential and their actual in-game performance is everything that can go wrong in the chain of communication between the brain and the body. “Performance rarely equals potential,” Gallwey says. “A little self-doubt, an erroneous assumption, the fear of failure — that’s all it takes to greatly diminish performance.”

Gallwey’s book is a rough guide for how a properly functioning mind should operate. He dedicated the book in part to his spiritual adviser, Guru Maharaj Ji, leader of the Divine Light Mission, an Indian religious movement, who, Gallwey wrote, “showed me what Winning is.”

With chapter titles like “The Discovery of the Two Selves,” “Quieting Self,” and “Trusting Self,” it should come as little surprise that the book is about the self. Specifically how one self can get in the way of another self, all within the same self. These are Self 1 and Self 2. To summarize, Self 1 is the brain, while Self 2 is the body. Self 1 instructs, Self 2 acts. We get into trouble when Self 1 tries to tell Self 2 how to do something the latter already knows how to do — when we try too hard.

The issue is given an allegory in Chapter 3, with a section describing “the balanced movement of a cat stalking a bird”:

Effortlessly alert, he crouches, gathering his relaxed muscles for the spring. No thinking about when to jump, nor how he will push off with his hind legs to attain the proper distance, his mind is still and perfectly concentrated on his prey. No thought flashes into his consciousness of the possibility or consequences of missing his mark. He sees only bird. Suddenly the bird takes off; at the same instant, the cat leaps. With perfect anticipation he intercepts his dinner two feet off the ground. Perfectly, thoughtlessly executed action, and afterward, no self-congratulations, just the reward inherent in his action: the bird in his mouth.

Lawrence Jackson says that he finished the entire book on his first read, but now, when he goes back to it, reads only this chapter. “When you see a cat going for its food, it’s not thinking, ‘OK, I have to jump now,’ or ‘I have to do this,’” Jackson said. “As soon as the prey moves, he moves. That’s what it’s about, knowing what you have to do and just reacting.”

Like Jackson, many of the million copies Gallwey has sold have gone to people with little interest in improved groundstrokes. “I knew when I wrote it that it was not just about tennis,” Gallwey says, estimating that about half of the 1 million copies have been sold to people outside tennis: NFL quarterbacks, Major League Baseball players, or high school rodeo champions, like Shelby Adney of California, who won the state breakaway roping title in 2008, and said The Inner Game was her favorite book. In 2006, Phillies second baseman Jimmy Rollins saw Gallwey being interviewed on television, bought the book during the offseason, then won the National League MVP. “It gets me out of my way,” Rollins has said. “It is like therapy, almost. It simplified me.” After going 0-for-10 in the first two games of the 2008 World Series, he reread the book. In the next two games he went 5-for-9, scoring four runs, and the Phillies took the MLB title.

Beyond just sports, Susan Batson, an acting coach who has worked with Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche, calls the book “an essential guide” for actors. “I suggest the book to actors who are in a struggle with what I call ‘civilian issues,’” Batson said. “I can’t do it. I don’t think I can. I’m not good enough. All those civilian issues that block the actor.” Al Gore gave the book to aides on his 1984 Senate campaign, hoping it would help them eliminate the distractions of a frenetic campaign and focus on the tasks that actually mattered. In both cases, the Inner Game becomes a means of eliminating extraneous concerns in the hope that people trained to perform a specific task — perform Shakespeare, get out the vote — will be able to complete those jobs at their peak ability. (The internet didn’t exist when Gallwey wrote his book, but one imagines The Inner Game of a Desk Job recommending limiting one’s open browser tabs.) In a 2009 paper titled “The Components of Optimal Sexuality: A Portrait of ‘Great Sex,’” published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, researchers mentioned The Inner Game as a guide to improved bedroom performance. As one participant noted, “There’s an intense focus on what’s happening right here, right now, that just excludes everything else.”

Jimmy Rollins celebrates the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory. Pool / Getty Images

After being fired as head coach of the New England Patriots, in 1999, Pete Carroll spent two years in the coaching wilderness. Worried that his next chance might be his last, Carroll called Gallwey looking for guidance on how to clarify his coaching philosophy. Gallwey, in turn, referred Carroll to Sean Brawley, a former professional tennis player from New Orleans and the only Gallwey-approved instructor in the voodoo of the Inner Game. Brawley had once been ranked 148th in the world, in 1984, but his career quickly tanked: By the end of 1985, he was 783rd, and he quit tennis to go into banking and real estate. Brawley started playing small tournaments again in the early ’90s, but his results were lagging until he picked up a copy of The Inner Game. He won the next tournament he entered. “I hadn’t read any sports psychology books,” Brawley said recently, several decades of living in California having scraped away any bayou from his accent. “In the ’80s, it just wasn’t very big.”

Brawley sought out Gallwey as a mentor, and realizing his career as a pro had likely peaked, no matter what books he might read, turned to coaching, first as tennis director at a country club, then as a mental guru for hire. He landed work at USC, his alma mater, where he worked with the university’s golfers, its women’s basketball team, and members of the track team. With his consultation, Brawley says the school of engineering began giving The Inner Game to its students.

When Carroll was hired as the head coach at USC, in 2001, he asked Brawley for help applying the Inner Game to his new job. “He was afraid he might have only one more shot,” Brawley says. “It was mostly him telling me what he thought he did well, and me telling him why it worked.” What Carroll had always done well was run a defense, so at USC, he decided to act as both defensive coordinator and head coach. Carroll’s high school coach had handed out Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics, a self-help book that promotes goal-setting as the means to a successful life. Carroll, in turn, started giving out The Inner Game to some of his players at USC, and would occasionally quote from it in conversations with the team as a whole. He began referring to his goal of creating a “self-actualized” football program that depended on “divine nonchalance.” He later titled one chapter of his own book “The Inner Game of Football.”

Eventually, Brawley began working with specific Trojans — “Some athletes don’t have time to read a book,” he says — including Lawrence Jackson and Kyle Williams, an offensive lineman who considered leaving the team after he was called for three false starts in one game. (“I wish I had known about it sooner,” Williams said of The Inner Game.) One year, when Carson Palmer looked sloppy during spring drills, Brawley determined that Palmer was simply bored and unfocused — “They repeat the same drills and the same play over and over,” Palmer complained to him — and worked with offensive coordinator Norm Chow to adjust practices accordingly. Chow, now the head coach at Hawaii, gives The Inner Game to many of his quarterbacks.

As a sophomore, Reggie Bush was struggling as the team’s punt returner. “There were two games where he had two fumbles in both games, and suddenly developed a fear of dropping the ball,” Brawley said. “He was always thinking, Don’t fumble, don’t fumble.

Over lunch, Brawley quizzed Bush.

“When the punter kicks the ball, can you see it?”

“Yeah.”

“OK, once the punter kicks the ball, start counting to eight, and get to eight right when you catch it,” Brawley told Bush. It worked. “It doesn’t matter if he gets to six or eight. The counting already takes his mind off fumbling,” Brawley said. Bush went on to lead the Pac-10 in punt return yardage.

Before finding success at USC, Pete Carroll was fired as Patriots head coach in 1999. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/ / Getty Images

The practical lessons of The Inner Game — not getting bored, counting in your head — can sound so simplified as to become meaningless. When pressed to explain their techniques, or why people should buy into the philosophy, proponents are insistent that the very question is inappropriate. “I don’t want anybody to buy in,” Brawley told me. “There isn’t an Inner Game approach.” I told him it was unclear to me how The Inner Game had helped one Trojan, a kicker who had been missing field goals to the right, and began making them again only after Brawley instructed him to intentionally miss the ball to the right. Brawley replied, via email: “I’m not surprised you’re unclear!! Many IG coaching techniques or interventions seem ‘paradoxical’ at first glance.” There was no further explanation.

Yet coaches have found the book useful in many disciplines, especially working with athletes whose role is solitary. Scott Owens, head coach of the men’s hockey team at Colorado College, gives it to his goalies. Al Golden, head football coach at the University of Miami, gives it to his quarterbacks. Paul Westhead, the former NBA head coach, now with the University of Oregon’s women’s team, distributes a handout with key points from The Inner Game and uses it to work with free-throw shooters. “I just talked to one of my players who’d been a little erratic on her free throws,” Westhead told me. “In the book, the concept was, Just hit the ball over the net, and don’t care where it goes. You’re just trying to strike the ball properly. So I stood in front of her and said, ‘I want you to shoot the ball as if I’m a photographer for Sports Illustrated and all I care about is your form. The camera won’t see where the ball goes.’”

News that coaches are using the book’s techniques is especially heartening for Gallwey and Brawley, both of whom believe that breakdowns in athletic performance first occur not in the brains of athletes but in their relationship with coaches. “Coaching tends to focus fairly exclusively on technique as most important,” Brawley said. “And it is important! But you can improve technique without giving technical instruction. Skateboarders and snowboarders are great examples. The top guys don’t have a coach. If there’s no coach, how did they get so good?” Scotty Lago, an American snowboarder who won a bronze medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, kept a copy of The Inner Game in his room at the Olympic Village.

In recent years, Brawley has worked with hitting coaches in the Yankees minor league system to improve hitters’ ability to track pitches — during batting practice, players were told to yell “pitch” when the ball was thrown and “hit” when they made contact — and both he and Gallwey were asked by the Pittsburgh Pirates to explain The Inner Game to the team’s coaching staff. (The Pirates’ director of mental conditioning explained in an email that they also planned to host several other “master teachers,” including a Navy SEAL, an expert in “instinctive shooting,” an instructor in the official Israeli Defense Force martial arts program, and an improv coach.) “As soon as you say sports psychology, everyone thinks of mental toughness and visualization, but there’s an underlying natural way that people learn,” Brawley said. “It’s hard to realize that, as coaches, we might actually be interfering with the learning process.”

Last year, Brawley and Gallwey opened the “Inner Game of School of Coaching,” to coach the coaches. Brawley helped teach the first courses in Brazil, but the pair had a falling out — Brawley declined to elaborate, but said it wasn’t the first time — and he is now preparing to offer a Master Class Coaching Certification course of his own, through a new school he has decided to call the The Brawley Institute, the details of which are pretty much all pending.

Sean Brawley.

I first read The Inner Game of Tennis last year. I had hit a rut in my tennis game and considered the usual solutions: New racket? New shoes? New, less skilled opponents? Then a friend loaned me the book. My competitive days and commitment to the game were too far-gone to expect any huge improvements, but I did notice myself changing my approach. Lessons I knew from childhood — watch the ball all the way into the racket — suddenly became more instinctive. Before, I had to think consciously about them. By not thinking about them at all, they occurred naturally.

Eventually, I got in touch with Gallwey. He was hard to reach. He lives in Malibu, but I finally caught him in Paraguay, where he was in the middle of a 20-day corporate speaking tour across South America. He had been in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and was soon off to Sao Paolo and Bogota. He is now in his seventies, with his hair in the same part as when he was a tennis instructor, though now much thinner. He still plays tennis when he can, but most of his work is now of the team-building, executive-training, conference room-inspiring variety. He charges in the tens of thousands of dollars for speeches, and his Inner Game empire has expanded to include books on skiing, music, stress, work, and golf. He has worked as a consultant for AT&T, Coca-Cola, Apple, IBM, and Rolls-Royce, among many other companies. “Now it’s become almost a fad,” he said, of his career as a conditioner of mental strength. “Every CEO has their coach.”

No question there: Not only does every CEO have a coach, but you can find life coaches who specialize in helping doctors, lawyers, and practically anyone else. Tim Ferriss has made a career dividing people’s lives into four-hour increments, while Tony Robbins promises inner peace and outward success on the other side of a rug of hot coals. San Francisco 49ers COO Paraag Marathe declared at the latest MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that the next frontier in the race to objectively quantify athletic performance will be sorting out how and why some athletes’ brains function more calmly and coolly than others.

In other words, 40 years after his book’s release, Gallwey’s movement has finally caught up with him, and he believes his book’s influence might actually be understated. “Top athletes are sometimes a little shy to say they’re working on the mental side,” he said. Lawrence Jackson told me that he had yet to admit to any of his NFL teammates that he had read the book.

When I asked Gallwey if he had any actionable advice for my tennis game, he offered only koans, some straight from his book: “The opponent within your own head is more daunting than the one on the other side of the net.” His voice is now more grandfatherly than inspirational, but given that Gallwey’s career has arced so far from the plan he intended, his success seemed a fitting recommendation of his book’s central concept: unconscious submission. He boasted that, given 20 minutes and a willing pupil, he could teach an untrained adult to hit a tennis ball, consistently, without missing. Any lingering uncertainty was all in their head. “It’s a worthwhile endeavor to take the time to realize that we actually have more potential than we think,” he said. “That’s a thought worth engaging consciously.”

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