You may be wondering why I’d recommend a book about tennis to parents and teachers of piano students. The fact is, this book isn’t just about tennis. The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey, offers a breakthrough in thinking about human performance that can apply to learning and executing any complex skill, from playing tennis to playing music to taking an algebra test.
I first came across this book as an undergraduate music major at BYU, assigned reading from one of my music professors. It was one of those rare books that has always stuck with me and forever altered how I think about thinking and learning. It’s a great book for anyone wanting to learn how to learn, or to help others learn. It offers insights into how we often derail our own learning process, and how to stop getting in the way of ourselves. For a parent of a piano student, it is particularly valuable in that it emphasizes learning by mindful observation rather than by falling into the typical cycle of praise and criticism. It shows us a whole new way to let performance develop, free from self-doubt and discouragement.
Gallwey’s main premise is that we can consider ourselves as having two parts, which he calls Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the part that exerts conscious control over our actions. It talks to us constantly, patting us on the back when we do well and slamming us with criticism when we fail. Self 2, on the other hand, is in charge of everything our amazing mind and body can do on its own, from breathing and walking to executing a perfect move in a well-practiced gymnastics routine. The trouble is that we let Self 1 try to run the show, when it really isn’t Self 1 that’s doing any of the work. Like a backseat driver, Self 1 isn’t really helping, and can even get in our way.
Imagine a baby learning to walk. Even before birth, the baby’s mind learns through trial and error what happens when it sends signals to the arms and legs. That process continues for the first year of life, the child eagerly trying out new movements, taking it stage by stage, until somehow, miraculously, the incredible balancing act of standing upright and walking on two feet happens! No one needed to tell the baby how to walk. There’s no internal dialog in the baby’s head saying, “Put that foot forward, now that one.” More than that, no one was criticizing the baby for not being able to walk while it was learning. Every toddle was encouraged, every fall was made better with cuddles and kisses. Why can’t we treat ourselves and our children the same way while we’re learning anything?
Another surprising revelation in Gallwey’s book is that both criticism and compliment can create setbacks. We’re all familiar with losing our nerve when someone criticizes us, but have you ever had a time when you were skiing or skating or playing a song on the piano and thought, “Wow, I’m doing great!” and the next thing you know you’ve fallen on your face? The key is to learn to observe what we’re doing clearly, without criticism or praise, and then let desired changes happen naturally.
For example, suppose your child is learning to play a song on the piano but is constantly making the same mistake. Instead of scolding them, or even gently pointing out the mistake, encourage your child to listen carefully to a recording of the song, or even better, watch and listen carefully to the song being played on the video lesson. Chances are, your child will discover and correct their mistake without even having to think about it! That’s the amazing power of trusting Self 2.
I’ve found The Inner Game of Tennis to be truly inspiring, a great help in unlocking the potential that we all have to learn and to love learning. It teaches us to accept challenges as a way to explore our amazing human potential, to focus on the present moment, and to do our best not because we want to show off or be better than others, but because doing our best helps everyone around us to do their best.
Start your new year off with a game-changing read.