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Education Bookcast

Mar 7, 2016

Writing in the 1970s, Timothy Gallwey comes eerily close in The Inner Game of Tennis to what modern cognitive scientists have discovered about the nature of the mind. He reminds me of medieval Buddhists whose descriptions of certain mental processes, particularly those to do with meditation, have been confirmed to be highly accurate by modern neuroscience*. Forty years isn't a thousand years, but it's still a long time in cognitive and brain sciences.

Gallwey's basic point is that, when we reflect on our "selves", we are actually made up of (at least) two parts. "Self 1" is the voice in your head that actively decides to do things - call it "I". "Self 2" is that part of you that does things without you thinking about it - call it "myself". An example of the actions of Self 2 is when you are holding a pen and a sandwich, and try to eat the pen and write with the sandwich; or (if you're English) when you say sorry for something automatically even though it wasn't your fault; or when you drive all the way to work even though you were engrossed in thought about something completely different, and so, in a sense, weren't concentrating on the road.

The relevance of this observation to tennis is that Self 2 should be doing all the work, and Self 1 should shut up. In reality, your bossy, self-obsessed Self 1 tends to try to dominate Self 2 and tell it what to do, which only leads to stress, wasted energy, and worsening outcomes. In other words, people both tend to overthink tennis and to try to "tell themselves" how to correct their problems, which mostly just stresses them out and doesn't produce improved results. What they should really do is just shut up and trust their body (i.e. their Self 2) to do what it needs to do. It might be uncomfortable to not feel "in control" at first, but ultimately greater improvements and a better experience await those who can manage this. Easier said than done, mind you.

Of course, The Inner Game of Tennis has application far beyond tennis alone. The book has been popular and influential enough to spawn a veritable tribe of Inner Game books, including that of golf, music, work, and even stress. 

The book serves as an experiential, non-technical look at things that we will have to look at the types of issues that we will have to look at in a more evidence-based, nuanced way in future. As well as having more than its fair share of applicable wisdom, it also introduces us to the important idea of our minds being modular, which is very important in looking at learning in general, and is a theme that we will return to.

Enjoy the episode.


*Take a look at Daniel Goleman's Destructive Emotions for a more detailed discussion.