The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game of Tennis is a book about the mental side of peak performance. It was written in the 70s by a tennis coach. The ideas in the book have larger appeal than just tennis players. It’s fascinating how much thought a tennis coach put into how people learn, and was able to distill methods that can be applied to other fields. There are familiar concepts from meditation like quieting the chatter of your mind by focusing it on your breath or the ball. He says:  “What I really wanted, I realized, was to overcome the nervousness that was preventing me from playing my best and enjoying myself. I wanted to overcome the inner obstacle that plagued me for so much of my life.” This resonates with me, there are many situations where after enough practice, the bottleneck for your best performance becomes controlling your emotional state and calming your nervousness: job interviews, public speaking, playing chess etc.

Here are some concepts from the book:

The Two Selves: The book separates the mind into “Self 1” and “Self 2”, the “teller”, “internal critic” is Self 1 and “doer” is Self 2.

Non-Judgemental Awareness: It talks about non-judgemental awareness, to see what is happening rather than merely noticing how well or how badly it is happening. Neither the goodness nor the badness ascribed to the event by the player is an attribute of the shot itself. Rather, they are evaluations added to the event in the minds of the player. Nonjudgemental awareness might observe that during a certain match you hit 50 percent of your first serves into the net. Judgement results in tightness, and tightness interferes with the fluidity required for accurate and quick movement. You should free yourself from any emotional reaction to success or failure, simply know your goal and take objective interest in the results.

Trusting Self 2: Trusting and loving parent lets the child perform his own actions, even to the extent of making mistakes, because he trusts the child to learn from them. If a mother identifies with every fall of her child and takes personal pride in its every success, her self-image will be as unstable as her child’s balance. The same kind of detached interest is what is necessary to let your tennis game develop naturally. Remember that you are not your tennis game.

Picture Desired Outcome: Give Self 2 a clear visual image of the results you desire. Getting clearest possible image of your desired outcome is the most useful method for communication with Self 2.

Natural Learning: Too many verbal instructions interfere with one’s shotmaking ability. The more awareness one can bring to any action, the more feedback one gets from experience, and the more naturally one learns the technique that works best. No teacher is greater than one’s own experience. During play, observe different parameters like weight on your shoulder muscle, whether your racket moves from high to low or low to high, the weight shift in your feet etc. Simply observe without interfering.

Learning to Focus: To still the mind, one must learn to put it somewhere. It cannot just be let go; it must be focused. As one achieves focus, the mind quiets. As the mind is kept in the present, it becomes calm. Focus means keeping the mind now and here. In tennis, the most convenient object of focus is the ball itself. Focus is not achieved by staring hard at something. Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested. Every time your mind starts to leak away, simply bring it gently back.

July 4, 2022

Think Like a Rocket Scientist

Think Like a Rocket Scientist is a book about different tactics that can be used in our thought process. This book is a great example of well researched non-fiction with 50+ references in the bibliography for each section. It has lots of examples from famous scientists or business life to demonstrate each point. The author studied planetary sciences, worked on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers mission and has an interest in astronomy. It was refreshing to see familiar concepts like first principles thinking, Occam’s razor or unknown unknowns illustrated by examples from fields other than technology companies. Here are some parts that I liked from different chapters:

A mind at play

  • Key to supercharging your creativity is to do nothing at all, large chunks of unstructured time free of distractions. A walk in the park. A shower. Sitting in the sauna or a chair to day dream. Boredom allows your mind to freely associate and draw connections between drastically different subjects.
  • To create is to recombine. Pick up a magazine or book about a subject you know nothing about.
  • Optimal creativity doesn’t happen in complete isolation. It happens in groups that alternate between isolation and interaction.
  • Thought experiments ignite a process of open-minded inquiry that can result in unexpected major insights.
  • My first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always what I’ve already hard about the subject, the conventional wisdom.
  • When it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.

Moonshot thinking

  • Moonshots force you to reason from first principles. If your goal is 1 percent improvement, you can work within the status quo. But if your goal is to improve tenfold, the status quo has to go. If your goal is to improve car safety, you can make gradual improvements to the design of the car. If your goal is to eliminate all accidents, you must start with a blank slate and question all assumptions – including the human operator behind the wheel.
  • Convergent thinking vs divergent thinking: During divergent thinking, we don’t think about constraints, possibilities or budgets. We just throw ideas, open to whatever might present itself. The goal is to create a flurry of options – both good and bad – not prematurely judging them, limiting them or choosing among them. To activate divergent thinking, you must shut down the rational thinker in you.
  • Many authors separate drafting from their editing. Drafting is better suited for divergent thinking, and editing for convergent.
  • For divergent thinking, ask yourself: “What would a science fiction solution look like?”

The Power of Flip Flopping

  • To make sure you don’t fall in love with a single hypothesis, generate several. When you’ve got multiple hypotheses, you reduce your attachment to any one of them.
  • If you can’t find opposing voices, manufacture them. Build a mental model of your favorite adversary, and have imaginary conversations with them.

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

  • Focus on variables you can control – the inputs instead of the outputs.
  • What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?
  • Every time you make a mistake, every time you fail at something, you should say “How fascinating!”. It provides emotional distance, perspective, and an opportunity to view things through a different lens. What can I learn from this?

Nothing Fails Like Success

  • You can do some things wrong and still succeed. A spacecraft with a design flaw can safely land on Mars where the conditions don’t trigger the flaw.
  • Premortems can be a powerful way of organically uncovering dissent. Because they assume a bad outcome – that the project failed – and ask people to generate reasons for the failure, they can provide psychological safety for expressing genuine criticism. In a premortem, we travel forward in time and set up a thought experiment where we assume the project failed.

Overall, it was an informative and fun read. Highly recommended!

July 4, 2022

sarp centel

Sarp is a software developer. He writes about technology, books and software.
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