Monday, November 29, 2010

The Inner Game

I strongly recommend a book called "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey (1974). The author of this book is a well-known tennis coach whose ideas have been adopted by coaches in many other sports as well.

Gallwey makes the compelling case that there are two kinds of games going on when one plays tennis. One is the outer game, visible to all, in which the two players competing are opponents, each bent on defeating the other to move on to the next round and eventually to win the tournament. The second is the inner game, which is always invisible. This game is played with oneself, and is all about the process of putting in effort to overcome obstacles, and thereby improve oneself towards meeting and growing one's potential, not about the end goal. It is this inner game, he contends, that is the most valuable.

In one passage that I found very insightful, Gallwey writes:
"..Then is your opponent a friend or an enemy? He is a friend to the extent that he does his best to make things difficult for you. Only by playing the role of your enemy does he become your true friend. Only by competing with you does he in fact cooperate! ... In this use of competition it is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try and create obstacles for him. Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise... In true competition no person is defeated. Both players benefit by their efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other."

So he asserts that the great value of the game of tennis is not in the visible outcome of defeating the other player, it is in the invisible process of having been challenged to improve oneself.

This inner game, of course, has nothing to do tennis per se, but is a game we all play, each day, whether or not we are consciously aware of it.

Here is the most moving passage from the book:
"Many start tennis as a weekend sport in the hope of getting exercise and a needed relief from the pressures of daily life, but they end by setting impossible standards of excellence for themselves and often become more frustrated and tense on the court than off it.... How can the quality of one's tennis assume such importance that it causes anxiety, anger, depression and self-doubt? The answer seems to be deeply rooted in a basic pattern of our culture. We live in an achievement-oriented society where people tend to be measured by their competence in various endeavors. Even before we received praise or blame for or first report card, we were loved or ignored for how well we performed or very first actions. From this pattern, one basic message came across loud, clear and often: you are a good person and worthy of respect only if you do things successfully. Of course, the kind of things needed to be done well to deserve love varies from family to family, but the underlying equation between self-worth and performance has been nearly universal. ... Now that's a pretty heavy equation, for it means that to some extent every achievement-oriented action becomes a criterion for defining one's self-worth. ... it follows that the intelligent, beautiful and competent tend to regard themselves as better people. ... When love and respect depend on winning or doing well in a competitive society, it is inevitable (since every winner requires a loser and every top performance many inferior ones) that there will be many people who feel a lack of love and respect. Of course, these people will try equally hard not to lose
the respect they have won. In this light, it is not difficult to see why playing well has come to mean so much to us... But who said that I am to be measured by how well I do things? In fact, who said that I should be measured at all? Who indeed? What is required to disengage oneself from this trap is a clear knowledge that the value of a human being cannot be measured by performance --- or by any other arbitrary measurement. Do we really think the value of a human being is measurable? It doesn't really make sense to measure ourselves in comparison with other immeasurable beings. In fact, we are what we are; we are not how well we happen to perform at a given moment. The grade on a report card may measure an ability in arithmetic, but it doesn't measure the person's value. Similarly, the score of a tennis match may be an indication of how well I performed or how hard I tried, but it does not define me, nor give me cause to consider myself as something more or less than I was before the match."
Something I liked about this book, written by a western author in the context of a modern game, is how completely it resonates with the ancient eastern philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, to focus on work and duty unmotivated by external rewards, and to be equanimous in the face of praise or criticism.

This is a lesson that is particularly important in the competitive world of academia, where we have a tendency to measure success almost exclusively by external recognitions and marks of achievement in the form of grades, degrees, awards, best-papers, rankings, etc. While these do play a practical role in what is meant to be a meritocratic system, I am certain they also do a lot of invisible damage, because it is hard to maintain a balanced view about them; that they are at best only a partial indicator of personal growth, and not at all a measure of a person's worth/quality as an individual.

When I reflect upon the matter with honesty, I can recognize the significant extent to which such recognitions matter to me personally and professionally, more than they should. I hope it is a positive step to admit to myself at least that these recognitions can, at least if viewed incorrectly, be an obstacle in the way of improving my inner game, the only game that truly matters.

1 comment:

Sundeep said...


Also, with respect to your earlier posting on clarity, commitment/perseverance and courage, the need for a certain humility and willingness to keep doing, day after day after day, even the 'boring' and unspectacular things your commitment entails.