So Tennis Zen Is the Secret to Being the Best Coach in the NBA or NFL

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Pete Carroll, Steve Kerr. Photo: Otto Greule Jr/Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors won 73 games last regular season, an NBA record, and then signed one of the most talented players alive, Kevin Durant, in the off-season. As of this writing, the Seattle Seahawks are 4-1, rated as one of the strongest teams in the NFL, and a favorite for the Super Bowl. What do they have in common? The head coaches of both of these teams — two of the most respected franchises in American professional sports — love a strange little New Age–y book. Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Seahawks skipper Pete Carroll each swear by The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, originally published in 1972. It’s as wacky as it is effective.

Authored by tennis coach turned performance guru W. Timothy Gallwey, Inner Game takes a Zen Buddhist perspective on athletics. According to Gallwey, people walked around with two selves: Self One, your mind, and Self Two, your body. In sports, Self One is often super hard on Self Two. Kerr, who was given the book by a coach during his playing days, put it this way to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard: “If you ever watch a tennis player, a lot of them will talk to themselves. ‘Oh, what are you doing!?’” Kerr said. “[Gallwey] was a tennis teacher and he was watching his student one day and thought to himself, ‘Who is he talking to?’ It’s kind of weird if you actually stop and think about it. You’re talking to yourself, right? So does that mean there are two yous?”

The problem, Gallwey contends and Kerr enthuses, is that the mental chatter gets in the way of actually focusing on the task at hand. Instead of berating yourself for missing the last shot, Inner Game argues, you should invest that energy in your senses, attending to the angle of the ball, the feel of your sneakers on the ground, where your teammates are. It’s not linguistic or conceptual, but it’s certainly a sort of intelligence. In the act of coaching, you don’t name everything a player should or shouldn’t do, but model how to do it, or otherwise communicate points non-linguistically. Instead of telling yourself to keep your head down and you shoulders upright to get a golf swing right, you could just watch a pro golfer’s swing and mimic it. Rather than trying to put words to the action, just attend to it.

In Warriors practice, Kerr will have a players scrimmage without using any language, just hand signals — and a normally chatty, shout-filled session turns monastery silent. If Steph Curry, the MVP point guard, is calling out a play called “strong elbow,” he’ll point to his elbow and everyone has to notice. “It’s incredible the level of focus you achieve,” Kerr recalls to Ballard. “By the end, it’s like this Zen moment. It’s the most we’ve gotten out of practice in the last month, really.”

According to Ballard’s feature, the Inner Game principles underlie everything that Pete Carroll does as a coach. The proof is in the pudding: Carroll dominated college football at the University of Southern California before moving up the NFL and finally landing in Seattle, where he’s turned the Seahawks into perennial contenders. “Mindfulness has always been there in sports. It’s just people understanding how to communicate the principles,” Carroll said, though noting that he doesn’t explicitly bring up the terminology with players. “We don’t tell them about it, we just do it,” he says. “We incorporate it into everything we do.”

Inner Game and its ongoing salience points to a ton of fascinating things in the questions of embodiment and intelligence. It relates to how, before photography, no one knew how to draw someone running: In the actual act of running, you swing your left hand and left foot at the same time, but if someone asks you to strike a running pose, you’ll raise opposite limbs, since the act of running is a matter of maintaining balance while you propel yourself forward, while the pose is an act of static balance, two very different requests. The way you conceptualize an act — whether in drawing or in verbal commentary — is quite different from the physical action itself. Additionally, research suggests that one of the ways worry is harmful is that you only have so much mental energy to go around, so thinking about the last play is as distracting as a fly landing in your eye. After all, as the Warriors themselves are showing, the forefront of athletics isn’t just about mastering your body, but your perception.

Zen Is the Secret to Being the NFL or NBA’s Best Coach