Learning from Wimbledon

It’s the Tennis season, though those of you living in the UK or Ireland could be forgiven for mistaking it for the Asian monsoon season. Thank goodness for Wimbledon’s Centre Court roof or we could still be waiting for the final matches to be played.

I was delighted to see how well Andy Murray performed, becoming the first British men’s player to reach the singles final at Wimbledon in 74 years. Although he lost in a great final to an inspired Roger Federer, I sensed that Murray had buried a few ghosts that have been haunting him. In fact, what pleased me, even more than the level of tennis performance that he put in, was the Inner Game he played.


All sports, games and activities that people undertake can be thought about on two levels. The outer game is the one played out physically, and witnessed by others. In the case of tennis it includes the serves, ground strokes, smashes and lobs. But more often than not, especially in a contest between two players of comparable skill levels, it is the one that plays the better Inner Game who comes through and wins.

The Inner Game is played out completely inside the brain. To succeed in the Inner Game one must quieten the ‘voice’ in the head that judges, criticises and worries. It can act in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways, but basically it does one of two things. It either causes us to dwell on and regret past events (e.g. a poorly executed drop shot at the end of the last rally that cost you the game), or it worries about and raises anxiety levels about future events (e.g. if I don’t win my next service game, my opponent will be serving for the match). Neither of these thought processes are useful or conducive to delivering your peak performance. To perform at your best, you need to be operating neither in the past nor in the future, but with total concentration on the present.

This applies, of course, not just to Tennis, sports or games, but to our everyday lives. How much of your thinking time in work is preoccupied with concerns or regrets about past events or with anxiety about deadlines or future presentations?

As it is the Tennis season, I wanted to give my own game a boost, so I re-read Tim Gallwey’s seminal work, The Inner Game of Tennis. This is a hugely recommended book for tennis (and non-tennis) fans. It’s simple messages about quieting our inner voice, and questioning traditional ‘teaching’ and ‘coaching’ methods, are every bit as applicable to how we operate, function and interact in our personal and working lives, as they are to tennis.  I was lucky enough to hear Tim speak recently (via videolink from his home in California) at the Association for Coaching 10th Anniversary Conference in Edinburgh. He used a simple formula to describe excellence – Excellence = Potential minus Interference (i.e. where interference is all of the internal negative thoughts, doubts, limiting beliefs, self-criticism and judgement that we are capable of inflicting on ourselves on a regular basis).

Tim describes the typical ways of learning that people adopt :-

  • Criticize or judge past behaviour
  • Tell yourself to change – with self-talk usually
  • Try Hard – make yourself do it right
  • Critical judgement of results – leading to repetition of the process

This process takes us away from concentrating on the present unfortunately, focusing instead on the past and trying (too) hard to change the future……

Gallwey proposes the Inner Game method of learning as a more effective alternative:-

  • Observe, non-judgementally, existing behaviour
  • Ask yourself to change – using image and feel – do not try to correct for errors
  • Let it Happen
  • Non-judgemental, calm observation of results – leading to continuing observation of process until behaviour is automatic

Using this approach, the player (or worker) knows the goal, but is not emotionally involved in achieving it, and instead can watch the results emerge with calmness. This ‘just observe it’ approach allows one to concentrate on the present, rather than being emotionally distracted by past events or future possibilities.

I don’t know whether Andy Murray has been reading the Inner Game, but I do believe he is learning to handle his ‘inner voice’ and focus his concentration where it counts; on the next stroke. Of course, Federer has no doubt learned this secret too, and has many more years (and titles) behind him in mastering the technique. However, the London Olympics is just round the corner and offers another opportunity for Murray to continue to hone his Inner Game, and perhaps climb the podium to collect Gold. Hopefully this time with no need for the Centre Court roof and under sunny, blue skies.

I can help you to discover your Inner Game. Learn how to recognise the obstacles and derailers that damage our ability to perform at our best. Discover how to unlock your potential, free from interference.  Simply contact me through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to have an initial chat about your personal or business objectives.  

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10 thoughts on “Learning from Wimbledon

  1. Nicely done. Of course the issue has always been how to step out of the way. I’ve found that knowing and doing are often disconnected. This is where guidance can be helpful. Even those athletes like Murray can benefit from a better understanding of the inner game or as I guess I prefer, The Game within the Game. Not sure he’d have beaten Federer, but I would have loved to have seen the match continue, as started, without the wet stuff. Federer got a mental boost from the change, that seemed clear. It may have been that his game was just better suited to being played under cover. The mental game is as much about adjustments, as the more hidden aspects of the inner game. Good stuff!

    • Great comments Mike. Thanks for adding. I know this is very much your territory. Looking forward to this weekend’s Golf action at The Open as well as the climax of the Tour de France. Then its the Olympics. A great summer of sport.

      • Yes it is a great summer over there. I’m looking forward to see and hear how the Olympics go in London. I’m keeping an eye on the Open while I work. Not sure I’ll even check on the Tour (no it’s not an there’s no American favorite thing). It’s that it’s one of those sports where I continue to be disappointed in the use of illegal performance enhancing techniques (drugs mostly, add some blood doping in). i’m no purist. If something occurs in nature then I’m OK, even if you have to eat a whole cow to get a teaspoons worth. True they are putting a cow in a blender in a way to break down enough amino acid to get the right compounds, but I can live with that. Enjoy being so close to the action. I’ll likely do some posts on the Olympics on my blog site http://www.theathletewithinyou.com Maybe If you do something on the Olympics we could post it for my readers as well. Cheers-

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