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Revisiting the "Inner Game of Tennis"

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

The Internal Battle

US Open Press Conference 2021

Since Naomi Osaka went public with her struggles navigating the pressures of competitive tennis, I have heard several other players, men and women alike, chime in with their own confessions about these challenges. I am happy that space has been created to air out what has previously been tabu. In a culture where media perches like vultures for the next vulnerability to exploit, Osaka’s pushback was no small matter. It challenged a media culture where athletes are expected to put out and shut up. The justification often being they should be grateful for their privilege and fortune. When the athlete does speak, the most visible opportunity is in the press conference immediately following competition when the athlete is at their most raw. Never mind that it is rare when the media is not held to the same performance standard as the athlete. More than not the tritest “How do you feel?” or “How did you manage to do it? (Given the amount of pressure we heaped with our hype) passes muster as a standard of interviewing commensurate with the eminent event it is covering. Forget that that the athlete is often coming off an achievement that has been the result of a lifetime of dedicated preparation. Maybe what Osaka was asking for was a little space to reflect so that she might herself integrate all the emotions and feeling that come with both victory and defeat. there is an expectation that their responses stay within lanes that do not question the prevailing power structures. I understand the public’s insatiable appetite for instant gratification, but does this mean we should always be feeding our most base instincts?

A lot gets lost in poor translation. We have set up a situation in which we expect good translation before we ever provide the space for reflection. A healthy individual just as a healthy society needs room to breathe. Our attempt to maintain the same breakneck pace of our technologies offer puts us in a compromising situation that compromises our personal and collective health. When things move closer to a human pace we had better and more humane instincts. Our languages reflected this moderating and considerate pace. Listen to dialogue in almost any language pre-twitter time/space. You will find nuance and respect that offers space between the speaker and the spoken to. The space to decide how or even whether to respond. Today we expect instant answers as if we are all in a snappy sitcom. Stumble in this instant environment and you are buried in the negative sting of hatters siting in their underwear hiding behind their computers. Never mind that a sport like tennis already is set up with a high degree of vulnerability. With no teammates to use for cover, every eye is on you. Pity you should you have a moment of weakness in this fishbowl.

I am intimately familiar with the stresses of competitive tennis. Tennis was our family sport. My first loves however were team sports like football and basketball. I enjoyed the brotherhood and comradery they fostered. I also enjoyed tennis and the individual accolades that a good performance could earn. I also felt the unique pressures of playing such a nuanced individual sport. My early days of tournament play my anxiety would become so acute, the game I so fluidly and creatively enjoyed recreationally would all but disappear. My legs and arms would cease to move naturally, and my throat would dry to the point of literally choking me. I knew I would have no chance to of enjoying the kind of game I was capable of in practice if I did not come up with some radical solution. I am not sure if I invented this solution, but my guess is that it was a product of the information I received from reading Tim Galloway’s “Inner Game of Tennis” and other publications. My solution was on the premise that the ball itself was neutral and static with no agenda or inherent ability other than to respond based upon its physical characteristics to the impacts that changed its trajectory. I, capable of imagining, strategizing and activating was the dynamic element. I think it was Galloway who suggested to turn the ball into something you were comfortable receiving. I chose to turn the rally into a conversation through the ball with my opponent. But rather than viewing the person on the other side of the net as opposition I saw them as a client. I played the role of 911 emergency operator. My job was to respond calmly, efficiently and compassionately to the distress call whether it was someone on their last breath barely able to get the call through or someone highly agitated and aggressive. My job was to always remain professional. That meant to not make it about me or my agenda, but about connecting in a non-aggressive but firm manner with my client. It forced me to expand my focus and vision by connecting to something greater than my own needs. Under no circumstances would I permit the desire to end the conversation with an attempt to hit a winner. Instead to keep connected I would begin by just responding in kind, hitting at a rate just higher than the rate that came to me (firm control). I would hit the first few balls to establish the trust, exaggerating my extension toward my client but at a non-threatening rate. I found by honoring my duty to maintain contact and stay in control as the responsible party I could hit at an accelerative rate that matched or was slightly faster than the ball that I was receiving. Then, by way of suggestion I would establish trust by working work the ball a few feet left or right of my client so they could get comfortable moving. Only after a prolonged exchange would I offer myself the opportunity to end the call. Creating an imaginative cooperative story with which to engage the ball helped to melt away my competitive anxieties. It also strengthened patience and my understanding of employing strategy.

Being the creative dynamic element means we can assign whatever characteristic to the ball that brings meaning to us. I advise my students to try different approaches allowing the various emotions breathing space. If on a particular day you are feeling unsettled or a high degree of nervous energy, swinging freely and aggressively for a time can help burn off some of this unwelcome energy. Anger can hit some terrific shots, but it burns hot and is extremely energy consumptive. Healthy and natural emotions speak to our highest most cherished values and can produce our most elegant, free flowing, artistic performances. Things like gratitude, and grace. Empathy can be a very connective emotion that can produce varied and rhythmic rallies. Love, particularly the love that accepts ones own inherently flawed humanity naturally reaches out as understanding. Tennis, a traditionally hyper competitive enterprise may not be the place you would expect to contact the divinity within but being a field of play it is, is as good a place as any to explore the possibility. In the end, the truth is that the biggest challenge you will face in you quest for the level of comfort and clarity you seek to naturally and gracefully address the ball before you is discovered within. I hope Naomi rediscovers the joy inside of her that made her the player she is so she can become the payer she wants to be.

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