Finding the Inner Game

by Scott Capehart

Here is a story:

"Three men are in a car driving down a city street early one morning . . . The car pulls up at a stoplight, and crossing the street in front of the car is a beautiful young lady who catches the attention of all three men. Her beauty is particularly apparent because she is wearing no clothes.

"The man on the right becomes engrossed in thoughts of how nice it would be to be with this lady under other circumstances. His mind races through past memories and future fantasies of sensual pleasures . . .

"The man sitting in the middle is seeing an example of modern decadence. He's not sure that he should be looking closely at the girl. First miniskirts, he thinks, then topless dancers, and now they're out on the streets in broad daylight! Something must be done to stop all this! He thinks that he should begin by straightening out the playboy on his right.

"The driver is seeing the same girl that the others are observing, but is simply watching what is before his eyes. Since his ego is uninvolved, he sees neither good nor bad, and as a result, a detail comes to his attention which was not noticed by either of his companions: the girl's eyes are shut. He realizes that the lady is sleepwalking, and his response is immediate and uncalculating. He stops the car, steps out and puts his coat over the woman's shoulders. He gently wakes he and explains to her that she must have been sleepwalking and offers to take her home"
Gallwey, pp. 41-42

W. Timothy Gallwey, in The Inner Game of Tennis, offers this story, told by his friend Bill, as an analogy for three kinds of tennis players:

  1. The positive thinker, filled with self-esteem because of his superior game
  2. The negative thinker, constantly analyzing what is wrong with him and his game
  3. The player of the Inner Game, simply enjoying and
  4. doing that which seems sensible

Without assuming too much about the reader of this essay, I imagine most of us would choose to behave as the driver did; he acted with benevolence and with full awareness of and respect for the facts of the situation. Yet Gallwey attributes the driver's action to the absence of value-judgment or ego involvement. If we wish to live by a code of ethics that enshrines egoism and rests profoundly upon the necessity of value judgments, must we eschew the driver and align ourselves instead with the ogler or the moralist? Or perhaps Gallwey's analysis is simply flawed, and — given that he formulates such atrocities as "it is the constant 'thinking' activity of . . . the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural doing processes" (Gallwey, 21)  — we should toss The Inner Game of Tennis into the yawning pit of the irrational.

Before we sentence this work to the irretrievable realm of the Mystical, we should recognize that Gallwey's description of the man who plays the Inner Game could be a description of a certain orange-haired architect: "The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills . . . He aims at the kind of spontaneous performance which occurs only when the mind is calm and seems at one with the body, which finds its own surprising ways to surpass its own limits again and again . . . The player of the inner game uncovers a will to win which unlocks all his energy and which is never discouraged by losing" (Gallwey, Introduction). Was Howard Roark actually a tennis player in disguise? Or is Gallwey a sinister concept-stealer, attempting to support a noble ideal with tennis shoes of clay? I hypothesize that an objectivist ethos and the Inner Game are mutually inclusive and that, despite some misformulations on Gallwey's part, engaging in the Inner Game is an essential and often ignored or misunderstood component in the attempt "to imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it" (Rand, 1959, 107).

Most of us, I imagine, know the phenomenon of undertaking a task so important to us that we undermine the attempt by trying too hard; or, conversely, the phenomenon the situation in which, the stakes being so low that we have thrown caution to the wind, we easily achieve what previously seemed unattainable. Gallwey explains these happenings by asserting that we are composed of two selves: Self 1 (the teller) and Self 2 (the doer). Our difficulties, he claims, often stem from Self 1 distrusting, and consequently insulting and controlling, Self 2. We function most effectively when Self 1 sets the goal and then allows Self 2 to accomplish the task. After all, the process of serving a tennis ball requires an intricate series of actions involving many interwoven somatic and mental systems, the minute steps of which we could never consciously recreate. Without knowing the numerical velocity or angle of incidence, our senses, mind, and muscles create the appropriate response to land the ball as we desire. When we try consciously to control the individual parts of the structure, ripping them out of their context, we tense our muscles and stultify our minds, injecting molasses into a high-caliber engine. The antidote, then, is to distract Self 1, or to focus the conscious mind on a concrete, perceptual aspect of the task itself as opposed to Self 2's efficacy. In the case of tennis, Gallwey suggests concentrating on the seams of the ball, which then leaves Self 2 free to do his work.

There is, of course, nothing novel in the proposition that the self consists of parts; over two millennia ago, Plato suggested the tripartite soul. Ayn Rand's delineation of the conscious and subconscious minds corresponds closely to Gallwey's two selves. The contention centers around the proper relationship of these two selves, regarding both their structure and their use.

The subconscious for Rand acts as a computer, integrating and storing the information fed by the conscious mind and then, with this data as a base, responding to subsequent perceptual experience in the form of emotions. Gallwey also speaks of "programming" Self 2 as though it were a computer. Where, however, Rand emphasizes the importance of the conscious mind in analyzing and synthesizing the data offered by the senses and the subconscious, Gallwey claims that "the benefits to your game come not from analyzing the strokes of top players, but from concentrating without thinking and simply letting yourself absorb the images before you" (Gallwey, 54). He assumes, in this statement, that the subconscious can process information without the continuous aid of the conscious mind. While this may seem anathema to a philosophy with rationality at its core, even Leonard Peikoff, albeit with severe qualifications, admits that "the subconscious does perform automatically certain important integrations" (Binswanger, 484). If it is true that the subconscious mind possesses knowledge of which the conscious mind may be unaware, an important part of taking action will involve setting a goal and then allowing room for Self 2 to exercise this knowledge. Interference from the conscious mind thwarts this process. As Gallwey says, "letting it happen is not making it happen" (Gallwey, 48).

I must emphasize that Gallwey's vision of "letting" differs from a passive "go with the flow" determinism. It is an active, almost childlike, trust of the self, akin to what Nathaniel Branden describes as primitive egoism: "a prevolitional, premoral act of self-affirmation" (Branden, 92). Although Branden describes a phenomenon that does not require volition (and is in fact the prerequisite for any act of volition), I compare his notion with Gallwey's because Gallwey asks us to trust the self more deeply than we could based on any empirical conclusion. While immediate data may support my belief that I am a poor tennis player, the only possibility of repudiating this conclusion lies in trusting that my mind and body know how to do those things that playing the game requires. This, in essence, is a volitional reaffirmation of that primitive egoism which is our birthright — a metaphorical Original Virtue. In contrast to this trust, says Gallwey, Self 1 normally engages in active slander of the self: 'I have a terrible backhand', 'I always miss the easy ones', 'I'm a lousy tennis player', 'I'm no good'. With this distrust as a foundation, Self 1 attempts to accomplish the task himself with disastrous results, thus empirically affirming the negative conclusions.

In holding Self 1 solely responsible for this distrust, however, Gallwey misinterprets the structural relationship between the conscious and the subconscious and, consequently, diminishes the importance of the conscious mind. Most certainly, the subconscious houses potential waiting to be released; yet Gallwey fails to recognize that it also stores beliefs and evaluations about the self that may be contradictory or unrealistically negative. These can give rise to the slander described above. Self 1 is merely the observer and monitor of these thoughts, not their originator. Self 2 sends forth a myriad of signals — muscle commands, memories, emotions, hunches, awareness of percepts, and the like. Self 1 arbitrates: decides where to focus attention. So beyond merely setting the goal of hitting the tennis ball, Self 1 must also be actively and consistently involved in the process of focusing on the seams of the tennis ball, thus preventing the messages of distrust from being accepted, and hence clearing the way for the 'better' parts of Self 2 to prevail. By choosing to direct attention to the perceptual realities relevant to the task at hand, one increases one's native curiosity and diminish one's inhibitive evaluations. It is as though the intensity of the outward focus obstructs the channel through which the negative evaluations flow, and opens the channel for undiluted tacit knowledge to contribute to the effort.

Rand identifies this pool of beliefs which reside in the subconscious as the base of one's "sense of life." Altering this aspect of the self, she says, can occur "only after a long process of psychological retraining, when and if a man changes his conscious philosophical premises" (Rand, 1971, 31). While this is unquestionably a valid method of reshaping the subconscious, I believe Gallwey offers us a shortcut to the arduous process Rand describes. When we close off the channel of self-evaluations as we pursue a task, we create the possibility of success by allowing Self 2 to do his work. Every success feeds back into that pool and incrementally shifts the tenor of the water. If we make this a practice, eventually the subconscious has no empirical reason to send messages of distrust. It is as though we have recreated that primitive egoism with which we are born.

The reason this method is more effective than the retraining Rand describes is that when we hold slanderous comments at bay we clear the way for knowledge that already exists in the depths of the mind; we, are, in effect, peeling away layers of distrust and allowing the true power of the whole self to emerge. Rand's reprogramming of premises, however, attempts to alter the self through pure thought, a Herculean feat if not accompanied by empirical evidence. Imagine playing a game of tennis and hitting a poor serve; the subconscious feeds us 'I'm an uncoordinated buffoon.' It is true that we have the power at that moment to be aware of this message, realize the chain of fallacies that have led us to this conclusion, and send back to the subconscious a more realistic message. But why should the subconscious accept this new evaluation when we keep hitting poor serves? We allow trust to emerge when we reveal to the self-evaluative part the body's native ability. (Philosophical evaluation is a necessary complement to this process, but the causal relationship between the conscious and subconscious works in both directions: While our implicit premises undoubtedly shape our behavior, conscious attention to our behavior can reorient our premises.)

These methods differ in that Rand advocates a direct approach, whereas I am suggesting that we more effectively persuade the subconscious to shift when we approach it indirectly. I find this similar to the task of trying to stop my two-year-old son from crying. If I say 'Don't cry. Everything's okay,' he knows that I am attempting to alter his behavior and launches into his bawling with renewed fervor. If, however, I can introduce into the scope of his awareness something more fascinating, such as a bug, his crying will cease with barely a moment for transition.

Now, since Gallwey's orientation essentially requires a suspension of judgment, and since Rand holds that "one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one's own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals" (Rand, 1961, 73), I must address this conflict. Gallwey rightly discredits the intrinsic view of value, explaining that neither 'good' nor 'bad' is an attribute of a tennis shot itself, but that both are personal, ego-based evaluations. Yet he seems to embrace the false alternative of subjectivism in his claim that these evaluations impede our success. Before we write him off as a full-fledged subjectivist, however, we need to look more closely at his conception of judgment. He states: "letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them" (Gallwey, 28). We might observe on a given day that our serve is erratic and strive to discover the causes, but this is an action different in kind from moral judgment. We may note that in the respect that our serve is not what we desire it is 'bad for us', but we should not add to this evaluation the moral judgment of the self as 'bad'. Because this is a delicate distinction, we easily conflate these two kinds of evaluations. Gallwey says: "When I'm concerned only about winning, I'm caring about something I can't wholly control. When one is emotionally attached to results that he can't control, he tends to become anxious and then try too hard. But one can control the effort he puts into winning" (Gallwey, 156). We can only indirectly control whether or not we win and even whether or not the ball lands where we desire. We directly control only the degree of our concentration and effort; moral judgment should center here.

On the practical level, attention should center here as well. We diffuse our concentration when we divide it between things over which we have direct control and those we can impact only indirectly; ultimately, we undermine the possibility of achieving the end itself. I am an actor by profession, and one of my foremost goals is to realize the full intensity and scope of the emotional life of a given character. I find that when my primary focus is creating those emotions, I am barren. But when I attend to my acting partners and what my character needs from them, the emotions often come effortlessly along for the ride. I must be willing to feel nothing in order to feel most potently. When I attempt to ensure the course and intensity of my feelings, I forfeit their presence.

Rand mentions a similar phenomenon with regard to business in a letter to Gerald Loeb: "The proper formula is: make a good product, then sell it cleverly. The product comes first, the financial rewards second. Even if the money is the manufacturer's first aim — precisely in order to make it, he cannot place money first" (Berliner, 143). Rand reveals an even more universal manifestation of this principle in discriminating between Purpose and Standard in the realm of ethics. While happiness may be the purpose of ethics, we cannot pursue it directly. We need a standard, man's life qua man, to know how best to achieve that happiness. When we attempt to use happiness as the standard, we actually sabotage our ability to achieve it, for we fall into the trap of hedonism.

Essentially this is the difference between the Why and the How. We cannot substitute the Why for the How; each is a distinct aspect of the phenomenon. The hedonist exemplifies the subjectivist's failure to maintain the proper relationship by collapsing the Why into the How — denying the objectivity of the Why (happiness) and elevating the How to the status of the Why (whatever feels good leads to happiness). The intrinsicist, on the other hand, holding values as ends in themselves divorced from personal context, crams the How into the Why — constantly worrying about and analyzing whether every moment of the process serves the desired end. In any activity, then, while we need to know the end of our action, we cannot use it as a standard for judgment while we are engaged in the activity itself. (Note) Although the How and the Why co-exist as aspects of a single phenomenon, each demands the respect due its individual nature.

So, regarding judgment, I have addressed two issues:

  1. Separating out those aspects of our behavior which should be judged
  2. morally from those which should be judged only in terms of their effectiveness
  3. Of that latter, judging them at their appropriate
  4. time in the process

Because Gallwey fails to make a strong delineation between moral vs. non-moral judgment, he does stray occasionally into subjectivist waters: "it is not helpful to condemn our present behavior patterns . . . as 'bad'; it is helpful to see what function these habits are serving, so that if we learn a better way to achieve the same end, we can do so" (Gallwey, 88). While I think Gallwey errs in dissuading us from moral judgment, let me also say that it is often easier to condemn or praise an action or character trait than to understand it. I agree with Gallwey in that we should never attempt to substitute judgment for seeing what is, for only through understanding will we achieve fundamental change.

Unfortunately, Gallwey does admit something of a soul-body split in his assertion that "the Inner Game frees the player from concern about the fruits of victory; he becomes devoted only to the goal of self-knowledge, to the exploration of his true nature as it reveals itself on level after level" (Gallwey, 156). However, our survival (spiritual and existential) depends on some degree of success. Self-knowledge is not an end in itself and is, itself, something at which we can succeed or fail. Self-knowledge may be as valid a reason to play tennis as winning, but we can access this knowledge only in the context of the overarching attempt to win. Oddly, Gallwey makes the above statement in a section explaining the virtue and importance of competition. He essentially reiterates and heightens Rand's claim that there are no inherent conflicts of interest. A competitor, he says, is valuable because he presents obstacles which draw from the player his greatest effort. "He is a friend to the extent that he does his best to make things difficult for you" (Gallwey, 153). The focus of the ideal competitor is not showing off his prowess, but exploring his latent capacities. In this respect, "reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved" (Gallwey, 153). The challenge of most activities, from running a business to wooing a lover, can be deepened by healthy competition. If, however, the gained self-discovery does not enable us to win eventually, to reap some existential reward, the process loses its value.

Despite Gallwey's occasional misformulations, I believe that The Inner Game of Tennis is a more complete application of the soul-body unity than I imagine even Rand may have been willing to grant. Gallwey does not deny the importance of mind; he enlarges our conception of it. While the conscious mind remains in the driver's seat, it must acknowledge that the car has its own intimate familiarity with the road. This knowledge is not limited to tennis; Gallwey intends the Inner Game to be an engagement with life itself: "letting go of my grip on life released an energy which paradoxically made it possible for me to run with utter abandon toward life" (Gallwey, 172). It is this abandon that enables us to think and act with independence, to embrace and celebrate our existence here and now on this earth, to bring our values into the world. It is this abandon that courses through the veins of Howard Roark.

The passenger in the car, then, who sees the naked pedestrian as another possibility in his chain of conquests, fails to observe the facts because he is more interested in supporting his tenuous self-esteem by reminiscing about the many women who have found him desirable. He is a subjectivist in that he focuses primarily on creating the effects of self-esteem as opposed to the genuine phenomenon; he supposes that any How will achieve the Why. The other passenger, who judges the woman for her decadence, fails to observe the facts because he is more interested in judging her than seeing her. He is an intrinsicist in that he attempts to judge without context; her immorality was automatically revealed to him by her state of dress. He believes he is in control because he judges every moment in the process by the standards of the Why. The driver, however, sees things as they are; clearly defining his Why, he allows himself to pursue the How with full conviction and spontaneity. He possesses the "ability to separate the real from the unreal and thereby to take sensible action" (Gallwey, 166), namely, covering the nude somnambulist with his coat and offering to return her home. And, says Gallwey, "My friend Bill used to end the story with a twinkle in his eye, saying, 'There he received the rewards of his action,' leaving each listener to hear what he would" (Gallwey, 42).


I should note that in discussing these false alternatives, I am dealing more with implicit than with explicit epistemological belief ('psycho-epistemology' in Rand's terms). I want to suggest that any philosophy can be expressed through any of the three basic epistemological orientations: subjectively, intrinsically, or objectively. Though someone may have consciously adopted hedonism, he may still experience the pursuit of pleasure as duty. Though another may have decided her actions should conform to duties, she may still express her life through an innate spirit of adventure, independence, and integrity. Even one who has chosen to live as an objectivist can express the philosophy in intrinsic or subjective ways, treating the pursuit of happiness as an obligation, or justifying the pursuit of desire in the name of self-interest. This implicit epistemology contributes significantly to our sense of life, and its relationship to explicit philosophy resembles the dynamic between style and content: "The subject of an art work expresses a view of man's existence, while the style expresses a view of man's consciousness" (Rand, 1971, 40). Conscious convictions form the content of our lives, but our implicit epistemology dictates the manner in which we express those values. The attention we offer this aspect of the psyche penetrates as deeply as the notice we give our beliefs, for this is the mortar of our lives, the atmosphere or our soul that, on an immediate level, shapes the quality and intensity of our connection to reality. While the fabrics of explicit and implicit epistemology clearly intertwine, insofar as they can be separated they should be given comparable weight. (Back)


Berliner, Michael S., editor. 1995. The Letters of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.

Binswanger, Harry, editor. 1986. The Ayn Rand Lexicon. New York: Meridian.

Branden, Nathaniel. 1971. The Disowned Self. Los Angeles: Bantam.

Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Bantam.

Rand, Ayn. 1959. We the Living. New York: Signet.
—. 1961. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet.
—. 1971. The Romantic Manifesto. New York: Signet.

Author's Note: While I bear full responsibility for the content and presentation of this essay, I would like to thank Peter Saint-André, Ryan Onstott, and Brian Todd Schwartz for their thoughts and suggestions.

For Further Exploration

If this article has made you curious about "finding the inner game" for yourself, you may want to read Timothy Gallwey's book The Inner Game of Tennis, which is available from