As soon as he tries to exercise control he loses it.” –Tim Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis

I picked up The Inner Game of Tennis recently after reading Chris Ballard’s SI article about the influence the book has had on Steve Kerr.  The article unpacks the significant influence Gallwey’s book has had on Kerr as a basketball player, and now as a coach.

the inner game of steve kerr

The Player

I remember watching Steve Kerr with the Bulls during their championship runs in the 90s. He drained 3-pointers reliably during crucial segments of the game. Coming off the bench. He was clutch. The job required incredible poise and steely nerves.

Ballard writes,

He credits the The Inner Game of Tennis with helping him to develop the tools to handle such a role. “The question for the athlete, as Kerr puts it: “How do you get out of your own way? How do you stop the chatter in your mind?”

He borrowed savvy ideas and creative techniques from the book.

For instance, the article details how he would pretend for a day of training to be a different player.

“To get out of his own head, Kerr tried Gallwey tricks such as pretending to be a different player for a day, thus allowing him to play with more freedom. Kerr chose Jeff Hornacek, the crafty Utah shooting guard (and now head coach of the Knicks). “I loved his game because he had all those flip shots. I didn’t have a lot of that,” says Kerr. “I realized, watching Jeff, I could be more loose and more aggressive and shoot some different shots, not just be a spot up shooter. And one of the ways I got to that was to show up to practice and go, ‘F–k Steve Kerr, I’m going to be Jeff Hornacek!’”

Kerr laughs, remembering it. “And it was way more fun.”

A few years ago, before I read this book, we tried something similar with our team. We assigned each player a teammate to be for that day of training.

It really was a fun, liberating day for our players. One of exploration and freedom.

The Coach

As a coach Kerr judges players less and observes more. He recognizes the value of modeling and demonstrating. Show more, say less.

He also speaks less to them realizing that his comments add to a player’s confusion and self consciousness.

 “Think of any sport,” he says. “Let’s say golf. ‘I gotta keep my head down, I don’t want to sway, I want to keep my shoulders upright, I want to keep my swing inside and on impact I want my hands slightly forward.’ At what point are you going to be like, ‘Holy s—, I just told myself 17 things, how am I going to do all those things?’ Whereas if you just watch a golfer and don’t say anything and just try to mimic his swing, it condenses everything into a more meaningful moment.”

His insights also resonate with the work of researcher Gabriele Wulf who studies attention and the power of an external focus.  Wulf’s work explores the idea that focusing outside the self enables one to execute complex skills.

Kerr reinforces that idea.

Again from the article,

“Forget what happened on the last two plays, what will happen if you miss this shot, and your weekend plans. Instead, concentrate on the seams of the ball, or the whack-thump of hit and bounce (in tennis), or the pattern of your breathing. Occupy your brain and it can’t fret or chide (Keep your wrist firm, move your front foot, grip tight!).”

The Learner

Kerr fits the mold of the life-long learner.  Gallwey’s book may be the most influential, but Kerr is constantly reading and exchanging books with everyone around him.  He likes fiction as much as non-fiction and is clearly an expansive thinker.

It’s fascinating how often this turns out to be true of the best coaches.

Check out the article.

The Inner Game of Tennis is essential reading for athletes and coaches.

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Marcia McDermott

Marcia McDermott

Former college and national team athlete who made a career coaching college, pro and international level. Now I coach the coach and am committed to coaches and leaders building high performance teams.

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