"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"- Timothy Gallwey, Introduction to The Inner Game of Tennis.
I was recently given the opportunity in France to read an interesting book called The Inner Game of Tennis. Despite having never played tennis for any more than 2-3 minutes in my entire life, I learnt a considerable amount about some mental aspects of sport, pressure and the concept of two selves that I had never previously considered. This book, combined with some other lessons that I learnt in Tours has resulted in a dramatic change in how I approach a new jump that I would typically find scary. I want to share that approach in this article to help other people deal with the doubts and fears they face before a new obstacle.
Whilst trying to subdue our fears and doubts in front of a new jump, we all have our own methods of dealing with an increased heart rate, pupil dilation, increased tension in our muscles and erratic breathing. Some people try to hold their breath, others count down from five, some people close their eyes and others shout reassuring words to themselves.
But regardless of how unique your preparation is for a new movement, there is something that we all have in common when it comes to dealing with this fear. An internal battle between two invisible selves begins and this is the reason we often feel such inner conflict and turmoil before a new obstacle.
Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis suggests there are three types of tennis player and I think there are similarly three types of practitioner to be found in Parkour:
1) The overly positive thinker, filled with self-esteem because of his superior game.
2) The overly negative thinker, constantly analyzing what is wrong with him and his game.
3) The player of the Inner Game, simply enjoying and doing that which seems sensible.
1) Now the overly positive practitioner of Parkour, who believes his or her abilities are superior to the people around them, place themselves under incredible pressure. Before a new jump their mind is filled with thoughts concerning the cost of failure and how they may appear to the less experienced people around them should they fail and miss the jump. They fear that people will judge them, begin to doubt their ability, laugh at them or talk behind their back. Just when they need to focus and concentrate, they find it difficult due to these potential dents to their ego distracting them. The other potentially dangerous practice this practitioner may regularly follow is underestimating a jump, thinking their superiority means they don't have to give a jump their full attention.
2) The negative thinker in Parkour faces a new jump with immediate doubts and a destructive lack in confidence. Before they even step up to face the jump they are remembering the last time they fell whilst trying a similar jump. They are worrying about how much sleep they had last night and wondering whether this could be the chance they deserve to turn their training around and fix it. When they finally look at the jump, they doubt their ability to judge the distance from experience, measuring it using their feet, feeling weak in the legs, heavy in the arms and becoming increasingly anxious. Contrary to the overly positive thinker, the negative thinker is often guilty of over-analysing jumps and underestimating their ability to complete them.
3) The ‘player of the inner game’ approaches every new jump with a fresh pair of eyes. They rely on training and previous experience to carry them through the new jump and have absolutely no consideration for their reputation, ego, the long-term costs of failure or success, telling their friend that they did the jump, filming it for their new video or getting injured and being out for a month. There is no negative or positive, past or future - just here and now and this challenge that they wish to complete. They are realistic about their ability and can give the jump their full attention whilst not over-analysing it.
If you fall in to either of the first two categories then there is a good chance you are regularly frustrated or even angry when you practice, fearing more than just obstacles. In this article I would like to help anybody stuck in those categories to change their mindsets, if they want to.
The solution is simple when you realise all of the potential problems mentioned exist because there is a conflict present. There are two selves at work and only one can eventually help you to complete the jump.
Self 1, ‘the teller’, is responsible for telling your mind and body what they should think and do. It is the voice inside you that is used to help set goals and targets, warn you of danger and make decisions. This is what reminds you of the cost of failure, success, injury, missing the jump and making the jump. But Self 1 also has trust issues and the other factor it tries to control is how we move. It floods your mind with thoughts such as “Make sure you bend your knees”, “Keep your left hand open until the last moment”, “Use plenty of power to make the jump” and “If I miss I will need to somehow save myself”. It can tell you “You’re useless, you’ll never be a great traceur” or tell you “I am great! I can do anything today”.
Self 2, ‘the doer’, is responsible for doing what it has been trained to do. It has no interest in external matters or opinions, no concept of the issues Self 1 tries to distract us with. It is simply the accumulation of past experience and training. Unfortunately it is rarely allowed to surface in front of a new jump as it is often bullied in to submission by Self 1.
As young children we exclusively relied on Self 2.
When we were learning to walk, we were never told by Self 1 to “Stay balanced, put one foot in front of the other, swing the arms, keep breathing… and keep the back straight” and we had no ego in place to warn us “If I fall, people could laugh at me. The other children might think less of me because I cannot walk”.
Instead, we trusted Self 2 - we simply experienced another person walking, tried to copy them, probably fell over… but deep inside us lessons were learnt. Maybe we fell to our left, so next time, without thinking about it, we will lean a little more to the right. By this simple process of testing, evaluating the result without ego, and deciding what should be done to improve, we learnt how to walk and if you are reading this, you are probably quite skilled at walking, thanks entirely to Self 2.
So when did we stop trusting this incredible learning tool?
As we grow older we learn lessons of shame, embarrassment and failure. Self 1 begins to surface and affects our every action, not just in sport but in all other aspects of our lives. Suddenly every action has a chain of consequences and based on the outcome, we label the result as either good or bad, positive or negative, right or wrong.
When we were learning to walk there was no good or bad, simply what worked and what did not. We did not consider falling as a bad thing, it was simply what was a natural part of learning how to stay upright more often in the future.
The solution then is to find a way to deal with the trust issues of Self 1 and give Self 2 a little more credit, it did afterall teach you how to walk. But remember Self 1 is still useful to us because it has an ability to set goals and new challenges for us, as well as warn us of danger. So ideally Self 1 should set a realistic goal and then allow Self 2 to achieve it with complete confidence in its other halves’ ability. When both selves work in harmony and do their job, the outcome is highly rewarding.
What I have been training to do recently and explaining to the people I train with is to place more trust in Self 2 when faced with a new jump. To do this you need to find a way to quieten your mind, distract Self 1, and let Self 2 take complete control, just like it did so successfully when you were a child. Self 2 does not need to think about distances or heights and provide you with words and numbers as feedback, it just adapts to the obstacle based on previous training and experience. No specific thoughts of the required power, speed or techniques are necessary - Self 2 basically receives a goal and does whatever is required to achieve it.
Most people feel a certain pressure before a new jump, a tension or a tightness. They are trying to force themselves to do the jump but this is not the approach I recommend. You need to think of this process as a release rather than a force. Let your body do what it already knows how to do. If you drop a ball from a roof and want it to hit the floor, you ‘let it go’ and trust it to hit the floor - you don’t push it towards the floor whilst your mind is full of calculations and theories.
So how does Self 2 work?
It works due to the complex methods of learning from experience. Every repetition, exercise and past movement has taught you something that no book, spoken word or video can. It has strengthened pathways between your brain and your muscles and given your body experience and knowledge with which to better perform similar actions in the future. It is far more reliable than trusting Self 1, because Self 2's nature does not change depending on your mood, preferences and opinions of yourself or whether you think you have something to gain or lose from the new jump. Simply put, it is unbiased and reliable.
Obviously it is important to have plenty of previous experience and training to rely on for a new jump so this is why training must be gradual and a steady progression is vital to stay safe and healthy.
The idea of two selves at work can apply to everything in life but the other main purpose it has in relation to Parkour is when it comes to teaching others what you know.
Self 2 learns by example and experience. We were never told how to walk, we watched an adult walk then tried to copy them when we realised it is a more efficient way to move. Leading primarily by example is the best way to teach Parkour. If you describe any way to pass an obstacle to a student using only words and instructions, the student will panic and try to memorise everything and ultimately fail to understand the necessary movements required.
If we simply ask the student to casually observe whilst you pass the obstacle, they will pick up and process thousands of lessons without thinking. They will see your posture before you jump, the order in which your limbs move, how you land and where you were looking during each stage. They may not remember everything but it has still been much more productive than simply describing the movements.
After a few demonstrations and observations, if the student wishes to try to replicate the technique they will exhibit a number of similar traits to the example they observed. Some traits may be incorrect and some might be absent, but this is natural since they can’t expect to learn everything immediately.
It is now the job of the teacher to be a Self 2 teacher and not a Self 1 teacher. We were not told to lean more to one side when we fell over whilst learning how to walk, this was obvious when we looked again at the adult examples around us.
The teacher should not be a ‘teller’, they should be a ‘doer’.
Instead of telling the student “don’t move your arm that way, move your arm this way…” The student should be encouraged to “watch my arm, and consider how I move it and how moving it in this way helps me to do this technique”.
This way the student is not given a distraction from the overall technique. If you point out that only their arms need to be corrected, they will place so much emphasis on correcting the arm positioning that they will not be considering the rest of the movement. Whereas if you simply add another visual layer to their experience they will find it much easier to integrate this in to their overall progress with the technique.
This also helps to eliminate ego since you are not telling the student they are doing something ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simply advising them to focus on a certain part of the movement and synchronising their movement with yours piece by piece.
If you have ever asked another traceur how they managed to do something and they answered "I'm not sure, I just did it", don't think of this answer as useless to you or think they're bring rude, it's probably the truth. They just let themselves do it and so can you.
Joe, a good friend of mine, recently had some trouble with a new jump that was within his ability. He was becoming frustrated with himself and wanted to leave it for another day. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to walk away and he came back for another look and decided he wanted to do it today after all. He spent some time sizing the jump up but was listening to Self 1 too much. His head was full of thoughts about where his arms should be, where his legs should be, how much power he should apply, how much he had to turn in the air etc. I decided now would be a good time to introduce the lessons I had learnt to him.
There were some similar jumps nearby that were simpler and Joe had done in the past many times so my aim was to point out the differences in mindsets when faced with the different obstacles.
Standing before the old jumps he had done many times, Self 2 was clearly in control. There were no distracting thoughts and his mind was not busy, he simply looked where he wanted to be and allowed Self 2 to get him there. He relied on his training and considerable amount of past repetitions.
Immediately after he would go back and stand before the new jump but the mindset would change, it was like a big switch was flicked between the two selves. Suddenly he was thinking again about how much power he would need, where his limbs should be and many other distractions entered in to his head.
I asked him to watch me do the new jump a few times but not to pay particular attention to one part of the movement, just casually observe the jump. I didn't tell him how to do the jump, just showed him how it could be done.
Joe felt much more confident about the jump now and could clearly see the differences in mindset depending on which obstacle he was looking at, it was obvious to him this is where the problem was. He just needed to silence Self 1 and he managed to do this using a simple piece of card.
I held a piece of card on the landing areas of the old jumps and time and time again told him not to think, just do whatever it takes to reach the card. I moved the card just before Joe landed and every time he landed where the card had been just before. After a while of doing this and managing to completely switch off Self 1, distracting it with a simple piece of card, we moved over to the new jump and I placed the piece of card on the landing area. Without thinking Joe did the new jump with ease. His arms, his legs, his power, his position in the air were all flawless. The card was not important, it was simply a distraction to temporarily silence Self 1. Many other methods could be used to switch off or distract Self 1 but this particular one worked for Joe on this jump. Afterwards he said the difference was that he didn't over-analyse it and think about the specifics, simply decided where he wanted to be and let his body take him there.
It is important to note he was not wreckless and just jumping wildly, he had already made all the calculations and decided he could do it safely, this was just a different way of actually doing it.
You can experiment with different methods of distracting Self 1 and gradually you will learn how powerful Self 2 is and how reliable it really is. Instinct and ‘feeling’ a new jump is based on experience and you should know as soon as you look at a new jump whether you can do it or not… if you decide that it is time and you can do it then it is time to switch mindsets and let your body do it.
Another useful tool in combating a busy mind is to convince yourself that this is in fact not a new jump, you have done it before. If you remember the last scary jump you did, you will recall how it was much easier the second time you did it. This confidence is simply a switch in mindset and if you can convince yourself this is not the first time for you and just another repetition, the new jump will be much easier. You are not being over-confident, simply using this method to distract Self 1 and trick it in to letting go.
It is worth mentioning that a degree of sensibility is necessary before you begin experimenting with these mindsets - do not try to eliminate Self 1 altogether because it does a good job of keeping you safe and reminding you of any dangers in a new jump. It is the voice of experience, but not experience itself.
Listen to Self 1 as you decide whether it is time to try this jump and if you are ready for it, give yourself a clear goal and visualise where you want to be in as much detail as possible - then allow Self 2 to take control and achieve the goal without interference.
Mastering this ability to switch mindsets on demand will greatly benefit your progression and although I am not entirely able to switch between the mindsets just yet, this is what I've been working hard with recently and already I have noticed big differences. In the moments where I have successfully trusted Self 2 in its entirety to complete a new goal, I have been much more aware of each split second throughout a technique and been able to adjust accordingly to any variation as though time itself had slowed down a little... Of course it had not but it was all thanks to having a clear and focused, tranquil mind.
So who wants to play the Inner Game?
Huge thanks to Tim Gallwey and his book, The Inner Game of Tennis and to Thomas Des Bois for opening my mind to these concepts and ideas. Credit also has to be given to Plato who explored the idea of the tripartite soul over two millennia ago.