I’ve been struggling with my forehand for as long as I’ve been playing tennis.
My forehand is my evil nemesis. It has a mind of its own, sending balls long, short or in the net. It won’t generate any real topspin, and it loves to fail when I’m competing.
Coach after coach has tried to correct it, but to little effect.
Oddly, my backhand is the exact opposite. Strong and getting stronger every day, it feels natural and achieves solid results.
The disparity between my strokes puzzled me until earlier this year, when I chanced upon the book The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. As you may guess from the title, it’s not a technical instruction manual, but instead a guide for how to think differently so you can play your best.
Self 1 vs Self 2
Have you ever berated yourself for missing a shot? What about telling yourself, “Next time, move your feet. Don’t be so lazy!”
If the answer is yes, who exactly are you talking to? Gallwey suggests that we are a bit at war with ourselves. For convenience, he labels the conscious “teller” as Self 1 and the unconscious “doer” as Self 2. In this model, Self 1 want to take control, issuing a stream of orders, reprimands and compliments. On the other hand, Self 2 embodies our natural physical ability to learn movements, to remember and replicate what we see, hear and feel.
As much as Self 1 wants control, only Self 2 can truly learn physical movements. As kids, we relied upon Self 2 to learn how to put on our shirts, throw a ball or scramble across the jungle gym. We didn’t read a manual or sit down for a lecture – we tried things out, watched the results, then tried again.
In essence, Gallwey argues that Self 1 interferes with our natural learning ability, not trusting Self 2 to experiment and figure it out. Paradoxically, the more Self 1 tries, the less success we have.
Finally, I had my answer.
For years, I had been giving myself non-stop orders to “hit low to high”, “brush the ball” and “follow through” on my forehand, none of which worked. I got frustrated and angry and redoubled my efforts to no avail.
In contrast, my backhand had always felt natural. I enjoyed the shot, relishing in how it felt, and trying to replicate the feel each time. I watched carefully and adjusted after seeing what worked and what didn’t, as well as the examples of the stronger players around me. Thanks to the early success, I never got caught in a cycle of orders, recrimination and frustration.
Until now, I had never really noticed how differently I approached those two groundstrokes.
If this observation wasn’t proof enough, I decided to try one of Gallwey’s challenges. He suggests a simple service practice: serve 10 times, being careful not to give yourself any specific instructions, but simply to aim for a specific area on the court. Calmly observe yourself serving and the results, but do not judge and do not try to fix anything.
The results were surprising: 8 out of 10 serves landed exactly where I was aiming. It was a weird feeling, almost like someone else was serving. Just like he said, once I removed the conscious effort (Self 1) from the equation, my natural ability to observe and react (Self 2) emerged.
Although this new way of thinking is powerful, it didn’t transform my forehand overnight. Nothing in tennis is that easy!
In my next post, I’ll share what happened when I tried to follow the book’s suggestions on how to improve my “Inner Game”.