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“Hold your wrist straight!” “Follow through!” “Now get your s**t together, will ya!” Do you know these instructions, probably from the inside of your head? I recently read the book “The Inner Game of Golf” by Tim Gallwey. Gallwey first came to public attention in the 1970s, when he explained his concept of the inner game in his bestseller “The Inner Game of Tennis”. He was a tennis coach at that time and quickly noticed that tennis lessons with a lot of verbal instructions and technical corrections just didn’t work and stressed out his students. Especially he noticed that his students criticized themselves very harshly.

Who’s talking to whom here?

Gallwey asked himself: Who’s talking to whom here? His answer was: We have two personalities inside of us. Gallwey called them “Self 1” and “Self 2”. Self 1 is Mr. Know-it-all. He read all the books, knows all the technical and tactical details and just always knows what to do. He’s the inner critic. The problem: He can’t do it himself. Self 2 performs the actual act of playing. Self 2 knows pretty well how to play, but gets distracted by Self 1’s instructions all the time.

What do critics and eunuchs have in common? They know how, but they can’t do it. (Siegfried Lowitz)

I don’t want to go too far into the details of Gallwey’s concept here. The book is really good. I highly recommend reading “The Inner Game of Golf“, since golf is closer to pool than tennis in my opinion. Many of the concepts are so general though that they can be applied to all kinds of fields.

Very often a “run” is over when we become aware of it

Close to the end of his book Gallwey describes a phenomenon which all of us know: If things are going well, if we’re ahead in a match or playing really well and get aware of it, the good play is over. Gallwey says that Self 1 starts giving advice the very moment it notices that Self 2 is playing great: “Now keep playing like that!” “Don’t lose momentum now!” or “You’re playing better than you actually are!”

The bad guy: Expectations

For Gallwey expectations are the reason for playing worse. We’ve got expectations all the time about how we’re going to play. Did we play really well or really bad last time? Should be the same today. Did we play terrible the first ten minutes? Well, the rest of the night is gonna suck, too.

Gallwey doubts that expectations make any sense while playing. What does it help me to expect that I’m going to play well or badly today? Does that change my game? More likely for the worse, since it creates inner pressure which leads to Self 2 tightening up and not being able to play in a relaxed manner. In real life expectations make sense, e.g. the expectation that a red traffic light will turn green again. The expectation helps us not crossing the traffic light when it’s still red. At the pool table (in the book it’s golf) expectations don’t help at all.

The stupid logic of Self 1

Moreover, Gallwey shows us a discrepancy in Self 1’s logic: When we’re playing very well, Self 1 tries to “help” us by warning us: Don’t lose focus now, keep going etc. It does so because is believes that a dedicated effort is needed to keep the status quo. Then again when we’re playing badly, Self 1 always assumes that it’s going to stay that way unless we change something. And it starts asking us to put some extra effort into our game, to focus really hard to play better. In both cases it assumes our worst, that we’re actually playing worse and that playing well needs some extra effort all the time. What a great friend.

We should doubt this automatism instead: If we’re playing well, because Self 2 could play in a relaxed manner, let’s just assume it’s going to stay that way. If we’re thinking that we’re playing better right now than we actually are, that’s just nonsense. Because we are playing like that right now – so that’s who we are. And vice versa, if we take a couple of bad shots as a sign that our next shots will also be bad, this is nonsense, too. Self 2 knows how to correct itself or how to repeat the right things. We just have to let it do that and shouldn’t get distracted by the wrong expectations of Self 1.

Playing without expectations

Gallwey finally recommends leaving expectations out of our game completely. Instead we should accept (or even embrace) not knowing how it’s gonna go tonight. Just play and watch what’s happening. I recently noticed that when I was open for surprise, expecially when I didn’t expect to win, good things happened. If I’m behind in a match it doesn’t automatically mean that I’m going to lose. Just keep playing and be open for surprises. That’s actually the fun part of the game, not knowing what’s going to happen. We should enjoy that.

As a nice side effect Self 2 can play more freely  and we will play better pool. But caution: Don’t let that become a new expectation!


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