How I'm Learning to Trust my Inner Athlete

In his book “The Inner Game of Tennis,” W. Timothy Gallwey talks about how our bodies are amazing, learning machines. When it comes to movement and coordination, if we give our bodies the space, it will actually just figure it out.

The most basic example of this is learning to walk. When a baby is starting out, it's not like they're consciously thinking about it. They try. They fall. Then they learn. The body just figures it out.

Meanwhile, as adults, whenever we want to learn something, we’re always overthinking it. Tim Gallwey uses tennis examples, since that his coaching experience. He says players always tell themselves things like “I should shift my weight earlier,” or "I should keep my racket face higher."

Timothy's book has great insights

I do this too. When I'm practicing handstands, I always drill it in my head, "I should shrug my shoulders more," or "I need to keep my core steady."

Think again of the baby learning to walk. No two-year old falls down and says, “Oh, I should keep my feet aligned to my shoulders.” Kids just don’t do that. But they’re able to walk, run, and tumble around the floor. They do complex movements without a second thought. All the movements they’ve learned are subconscious, and when that happens the learning goes deep. In the Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy calls this subconscious learner “Self 2.”

Who is Self 2?

“Self 2” knows how to learn fast, and it does that by observing, copying, making mistakes, and recalibrating. It is our natural human learning ability. And we can do this very well.

Language learning works the same way. If you are a native speaker of English, it’s hard to explain English grammar, or the different rules about spelling and sentence structure. You just “know” that the plural of “goose” is “geese,” but you can’t explain why. “It just is.” That’s an example of “self 2” learning something. It goes beyond words and explanation.

In short, Self 2 is your inner learner. Or in this case, I like to say that Self 2 is your “Inner Athlete.”

Self 1 gets in the way

But there's a problem here. And that is “Self 1” (If there’s a self 2, then there’s got to be a self 1). Self 1 is the logical mind. This is the part of us that is critical, labelling and judgemental. It tends to overthink and analyze everything. “Self 1” wants so badly to “get it right and make it be perfect.”

I definitely have this in me! I want to learn how to do things properly, and I want so badly to be the best. When I started practicing the handstands, I was obsessed with being good and learning it as quickly as I could.

But Timothy Gallwey writes,

“If you observe Self 1, in its critical posture, it looks down at Self 2 and diminishes it (in its own eyes) with its disparaging thoughts. The other possibility is to learn to look up to Self 2. This is the attitude of respect based on true recognition of its natural intelligence and capabilities.

In other words, Self 2 is able to learn, but Self 1 (my inner critic) is constantly judging and looking down, and making it hard for Self 2 to learn. Self 1 becomes like a bad coach or a judgemental parent, stressing out the player and kid, and holding back their learning.

It would be nice, less stressful and more helpful, if we could find a way to quiet Self 1, and let Self 2 do the learning, while Self 1 gets out of its way.

Translating it to my own Practice

I definitely see this in my own experience. Whenever I’m trying to learn a new move, I have a tendency to overanalyze. When I practice the handstand I repeat to myself “Point your toes more” or “push your arms above your head.” And when it gets really bad I think "See? You'll never learn this. You're just not good enough."

The Inner Game of Tennis speaks to me, and makes me want to apply some new ideas to my training.

1. Observe yourself don’t advise yourself

Even if I forget everything else from the book, this is the one thing I definitely want to hang on to. I want to observe more, and instruct myself less. Instead of telling myself, “Keep your arms straight!” I’d like to ask myself, “How do my arms actually feel?” I don’t even need to put it into words, I just need to get that sense of what it feels like, and Self 2 can take care of figuring it out.

2. Find and watch good examples.

If a kid learns to walk by watching other people do it, then if there’s a skill I want to learn, I have to watch other people do that also. So if I’m learning how to do a pretty and clean push up, I’ll go find videos of people doing nice pushups, and I’ll observe their bodies.

I’ll try focusing on one thing at a time too. For example, "Today, I’ll watch where they position their hands, and see how their hands are behaving during the movement. Do the hands move? Do they change position? What’s going on?"

I’m still just observing and letting my Self 2 take that all in.

3. Try my best to copy and just letting it happen.

Then I’ll try and repeat the movement. I’ll try to do what I saw in the sample without thinking too much about it. I’ll just do what I see, without trying to hard to make it happen.

When Timothy talks about tennis, his advice is that we just have to “let” it happen. He says “If your body knows how to hit a forehand, then just let it happen; if it doesn’t then let it learn.”

I want to give myself the space to make mistakes and to learn as I'm making those mistakes

4. Observe and Watch yourself (without judging!)

This last bit I think is the one where I’ll struggle the most.

I have a system where I can watch my own movements. I record myself on camera, and play it back. If I’m focusing on the hands in the push up, I’ll look at my own hands and just observe and note what I see.

An important thing to remind myself here is not to judge! I know I’m susceptible to criticizing myself. I’ll say to myself “Ah man you suck, your hands are pointing the wrong way.” or “Argh, I still can’t get that elbow straight.”

That’s Self 1 creeping back in, and it’s going to be make things hard for Self 2 to learn. This is challenging for me because I want to fix things right away. It’s easier to be told what to do than to let go and let Self 2 experience what it needs to experience to learn.

5. Give myself time

Finally, the last step is to give myself time to learn. And understand that it’s a process. I want to let go of the fantasy that I can pick up a skill instantly. I just want to take time, observe and trust that Self 2 will figure things out eventually.