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The Inner Game of Tennis

Brian Crain
Brian Crain
1 min read

Today, I played my first tennis match in 17 years. When we were warming up, it was very obvious to me that I'm a substantially better player than my opponent. Yet, I lost 1-6, 1-6. Why?

I had written in my previous post, how as a child I would consistently underperform in competition. And that same pattern was here today. I heaped pressure on myself and ending up playing a timid, stunted and error-prone game.

A few weeks ago, when I started playing tennis again, I was quite amazed how well I still play. My body remembers everything and it felt as if I had just stopped playing a month ago. But just as the physical memory, the psychological pattern of faltering in competition is still there as well.

I've also started reading The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. It is a very thoughtful book dedicated to "overcoming all habits of mind, which inhibit excellence in performance." He also writes:

The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.

Reading these early passages also reminded me of my journey as an entrepreneur. There too, my pattern has been putting a lot of pressure on myself, leading to anxiety and suboptimal performance. When I did my first startup in 2010, this was so severe that I was practically paralyzed and unable to be productive at all. But over the years, I have made huge improvements in my ability to handle stress and to create from a place of relaxation and ease.

Even so, it remains my largest obstacle to optimal performance. On a scale from 1-10, in the last decade, I may have gone from a 2 to a 6. But that's just half-way.

The beautiful thing about the game of tennis is that competition provides very powerful feedback. You can't hide or deny reality. You see the impact of changes very quickly. And, even when it doesn't feel like it standing on the court, the stakes are extremely low.

I'm grateful I'm able to revisit this sport. I'm grateful for the physical challenge and competition, and even more so to use it as playground to develop my ability to perform under pressure.