I’ve just spent three days on a tennis court, learning the intricacies of the Inner Game – and beyond – with a group of sports coaches led by former US tennis pro Sean Brawley. I went with two aims.
One was to improve my tennis and the other was to clarify the resonances between Inner Game (IG) and Solutions Focus (SF). Here’s how the best bits of Inner Game make sense to me, in an amalgam with SF
Focus means you know what you want to happen – and that you intend for it to happen. Knowing what you want (preferably in some detail) makes a huge difference to what then happens.
Practice means having a go. It means paying attention, noticing, seeing what stands out for you, growing awareness, focusing on what matters and being mindful. These are all more or less synonyms for the foundational skill that we need to practice.
On the tennis court we learned ‘Bounce…Hit’, which draws attention to the movement of the ball, and is probably the most famous of IG originator Tim Gallwey’s exercises.
Sean offered a variety of dimensions of where to put attention, including a breathing routine, a serving rhythm, awareness of the height of the ball as it crossed the net and whether a ball passed left or right of a centre post.
You could divide them into Inner (breathing), Outer (targets) and other (distance between you and your opponent). All are about getting high quality information about something (positively) important to performance.
These useful practices, each of which was manifestly improving the playing of the sports coaches, were accompanied with a peppering of technical tips where these saved a great deal of time and effort. For example, Sean asked me to mirror his movements from side to side, to improve my balance as I reached the ball.
Each activity creates a range of results within which is the sweet spot of what works for you (in that critical activity), set up so that you discover that sweet spot for yourself. You discover it through instant feedback quickly gleaned from many short experimental turns.
Thus you are learning to learn - building confidence in your skill of noticing what makes a difference; owning the results, and owning the decision of what to implement or not.
This is very different from most sports coaching, in which the expert spends much of the session telling you what to do – where you ‘should’ put your body or how you should swing the racket. It means technical tips must be offered with care and with permission, if at all.
So far, so SF. We articulate what’s wanted; we notice what’s already working; we experiment or create variety to see what improves.
In contrast to pure Inner Gamers, I’m not sure if we need any model of how the mind works for this to be both a practical guide and a reasonable description of this process. I am certain that we don’t need a problem-focused mental model or theory in which we suffer from ‘Interference’. The foundational equation of IG is “Peformance = Potential – Interference”, which strikes as either wrong or meaningless.
There’s no need for the psychological flim-flam of IG which sets up unwinnable battles between our different Selfs (‘Self 1 and Self 2’). Nor is there any need in the theory or the practice for those classic time-wasters of listing, exploring or analysing our problems.
Sean himself has moved on from the old ‘fix-it’ perspective of IG, whereby the client has a problem which is brought to the expert who tells you what to do to make it better. He prefers to position his work within a developmental model of learning, even if his theory has yet fully to escape from the alluring clutches of a problem focus.
What’s most valuable in this version of Inner Game (as a genuine addition to SF) is the creation of neat activities which draw clients’ attention to critical variables. Discovery of what stands out leads to examination of positive difference – find out what you are doing when you are doing well that you are not doing when not doing so well – then integrating them into consistent raised performance.
And improving my tennis? I’ll see you on court any time you like...