The Inner Game – A Different Approach to Skill Development

uclaLast fall, I attended a UCLA football game with some friends. One couple brought their young toddler. As we tailgated, the boy ran all over the place. He tried to play with other young kids or he played with his dad, running after his ball and hiking it to his mom.

One time, he ran toward our group and picked up speed. All of a sudden, he face planted. He got to his knees, giggled and said, “I fell.” Then he got up and started again. He did not slow down. He was not embarrassed. He did not think twice about running again. He laughed and continued moving.

Author Timothy Gallwey argues that this is the natural learning process. Falling is a part of the process, and it is not good or bad. The natural learning process removes the evaluative aspect. In The Inner Game of Tennis, he argues that the natural way of learning is best for mastering sports skills.


If our tailgate party had been a practice, a coach would have stopped the child and described the proper running technique. After hearing these instructions, the child would concentrate on the instructions rather than the action. Rather than allowing his body to work without interference from his mind, he would try to control his actions to prevent another fall, ultimately inhibiting his performance.

These instructions tell the child that he made a mistake. At our tailgate party, he had no idea that he made a mistake. One minute he was running; then he wasn’t. Then he was running again. He did not judge himself or worry about falling. The fall did not cause embarrassment. In his mind, there was no evaluation, no mistake. As Gallwey explains:

“The first skill to learn is the art of letting go the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad.”

As the child illustrated, we possess this skill.

In The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander writes about an orchestra rehearsal. Someone made a mistake, and he stopped and said, “How fascinating!” There was no judgment or negative reaction.

In competitive athletics, coaches concentrate on mistakes and view their role as fixing or eliminating mistakes. In the process, we learn that mistakes are bad, and we judge ourselves harshly when we make one.

Rather than giggling and returning to the action or saying, “How fascinating!” our shoulders slump, our eyes fall and our minds concentrate on the mistake. Rather than stay in the moment, we focus on the mistake, which hinders our next opportunity.

Adults need to un-learn their judgment-based behavior to unlock their best performances and enjoy their activities. We must nurture this skill in children rather than forcing adult judgments on them.

swingingWhen a boy strikes out and looks to the stands, he sees his father’s head slump and senses his disappointment even if his father quickly perks up and cheers his effort. He learns that swinging and missing leads to disappointment. Maybe this teaches him not to swing, especially if he coaxes a walk in his next at-bat and sees his father cheering. Rather than concentrate on learning to swing, his focus changes to getting on base.

However, when is he supposed to learn to hit live pitching? If he never takes a chance, how is he supposed to learn? Because he judges a swing and a miss negatively, he avoids the result by not trying. Rather than giggling at a swinging strike and swinging again, he falls and does not get up.

During the learning process, players must embrace and learn from mistakes (“How fascinating!”) rather than worry or criticize mistakes.  As a coach or parent, celebrate a swinging strike for the effort rather than criticizing the child for missing the ball.

A child naturally views the swing and miss as part of the learning process. However, after being socialized into competitive athletics, he learns that a swinging strike is a mistake.

If youth sports are about learning and development, we must structure comments as instructions, not criticism because mistakes provide the best learning experiences. Unfortunately, our actions and our words do not align, as we say youth sports are about learning until we are in a tight contest and the parents’ and coach’s actions show that winning is more important.

To have the most impact, our actions and philosophy must align in tight games, as well as practices, so we teach and train players about the sport and competitiveness, while allowing young players to maintain the childlike attitude toward mistakes with a giggle, an acknowledgement (“I fell”) and a return to the activity with blissful ignorance.

Brian McCormick is the Director of Coaching for Playmakers Basketball Development League.

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Brian McCormick, CSCS, MSS, is the founder of the Youth Basketball Coaching Association which provides clinics, training and certifications for youth coaches.  He is the performance director for Train for Hoops and director of coaching for Playmakers Basketball Development League.  He is the author of  the highly acclaimed Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development and his newest book, 180 Shooter an innovative system for developing shooters from the free throw line, 2 point and 3 point areas.  A 180 shooter is someone whose cumulative percentages equal 180; generally, to reach 180, the goal is 90% ft, 50% from 2-pt and 40% from 3-pt line.  For more information you can contact him at: (916) 225-8524.

2 thoughts on “The Inner Game – A Different Approach to Skill Development

  • May 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Brian! So, so true and proven by research that when we focus on the individual steps of a skill, we lose the sub-conscious automaticity that motor skills require. We were just discussing this at a Little League game today. Our boys will hit anything and everything at a batting cage, but when told to only swing at strikes in a game and with the added pressure of public embarrassment, they begin to doubt their initial reactions.


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