The Inner Game of Pickleball

“Have you read The Inner Game of Tennis?” my new tournament partner asked.

It felt less like a question than an assignment.

Plucking her name from the Players Seeking Partners list for the North Cascades tournament in Omak, Washington had been a no-brainer. I had known Jessica for over a year by then and both her progression in skills and personality had grown on me over time. My first feeling…mild indignation. Was this a requirement for a 25-years-younger person to partner with 58-year-old me? For a second, I considered asking her if she’d start running twenty miles a week (as I had been doing for years), but we were short on time and I am a reformed grudge holder so I’ve left taking offense about small stuff in my past. Plus, Jessica had worked extremely hard to becoming the best player she could be and if reading the book was part of that, she could count me in. Not only was the book available for free, immediately, through a library app, but the event was still several days away. Plus, I can get through books at a pretty good pace, so I downloaded the book that same day and began reading.

Tim Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, published in 1974, is a book that everyone who was anyone in the world of tennis has read. And every person I asked about it had a slightly different take away. For example, one gal recounted Self 1 and Self 2, “[T]he “I” and the “myself” are separate entities or there would be no conversation, so one could say that within each player there are two “selves.” One, the “I,” seems to give instructions; the other “myself,” seems to perform the action…let’s call the “teller” Self 1 and the “doer” Self 2…the key to better tennis; or better anything–lies in improving the relationship between the conscious teller, Self 1, and the natural capabilities of Self 2″ (p 10). A second player remembered Gallwey’s suggestion to help players maintain focus on the ball using an exercise he calls “Bounce-Hit,” which he explains as, “Say the word bounce out loud the instant you see the ball hit the court and hit the instant the ball makes contact with the racket–either racket” (p 85).

I was less interested in the selves and the bounce-hit exercise and more in learning to focus on the present and on the ball, “As one achieves focus, the mind quiets. As the mind is kept in the present, it becomes calm. Focus means keeping the mind now and here…in tennis the most convenient and practical object of focus is the ball itself” (p 84). I also liked his discussion of the importance of players practicing what most of us think of as mindfulness, “quieting the thinking mind by letting go of mental self-instructions, focusing attention and trusting the body to do what it’s capable of doing (p 50), and his explanation of winning as, “overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached” (p 120), “…for the player of the Inner Game, it is the moment-by-moment effort to let go and to stay centered in the here-and-now action which offers the real winning and losing” (p 123).” Totally new to me was Gallwey’s different (than listening to lots of feedback) and more natural-seeming way to figure out how to do specific things (to modify a stroke, for example) “a great deal of technique can be learned naturally by simply paying close attention to one’s body, racket and ball while playing” (p 54). I have absorbed these specific ideas and concepts and try to implement them as much as possible.

To prepare, Jessica and practiced as partners twice, during which we agreed primarily to be mindful and simply focus on the ball as much as possible. During the initial round robin part of the tournament, we won three of our five matches to finish third of six teams and earn a spot in the medal round. In our first match, we beat the “Double Trouble” (identical twins) team who’d beaten us earlier in the day, then faced off against two of our friends, who’d also beaten us earlier. Wendy and Tatiana won the first game, but we came back and won the next two. Winning was nice, but playing relaxed during the high pressure medal round was nicer. One of my favorite moments was the next day when one of the double trouble twins struck up a conversation with me (who she didn’t recognize) and mentioned that she and her lost to a team that they’d beaten earlier! Watching the ball intently and not thinking about what had already happened or might during the matches we played (the inner game) helped me relax, focus and play better than I would have otherwise.

Since reading The Inner Game of Tennis, I have recommended it to at least a dozen players, bought the book, read it a second time and listened to it (twice). And the very month I first read it, Pickleball Magazine published Joe Dinoffer’s article, Focus, Rhythm and Pickleball. After many hours of playing and drilling with slow but steady success, the few hours I spent reading and listening to Gallwey’s book has been an efficient way to improve my mental game. During rec play, I care even less about winning than I did before (which wasn’t much…unless, of course, my opponent cares a LOT, in which case I tend to too). When a rec partner tells me it’s time to “get points,” I blurt out my new mantra, “I don’t care about winning during rec play,” which, I’m pretty sure makes most of them want to punch me.

Reading and implementing several of Gallwey’s strategies has helped my mental, and thus my physical game tremendously. I’ll bet it will help yours too.


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