Mental Training Reading Group - The Intro (+Vipassana): Made Public

(watch the 30 minute intro video above)

Edit Update September, 2021: This was a 2018 Study Group I formed with some of my patrons , reading together the Inner Game of Tennis (beyond its title, it applicable to all sports and arts). These posts include our reading group Zoom video discussion, and my notes. Now they are open to the public. Previously it was only tiered content. Thank you to everyone who supported this project, now more people can get a lot out of it. The Inner Game of Tennis is one of the most impactful mental training books I've read, to this day it still shapes me. 

You can find the Inner Game of Tennis here, so you can read along with us, chapter by chapter.

If you are not interested in the Vipassana connection you can skip straight to the first chapter discussion:

You can find the chapter discussions, as they unfolded  here:

Mental Training With Me - Chapters 1 & 2 (1 hour, 17 min) 

Mental Training With Me - Chapters 3 and 4 (1 hr) 

Mental Training With Me - Chapters 5 & 6 (1 hr 24 min) 

Mental Training With Me - Chapters 7 & 8 (video 69 min) 

In this post also introduce how Vipassana meditation very powerfully can supplement the points and exercises being made in the Inner Game of Tennis. Vipassana is not necessary to understand The Inner Game of Tennis, and it is not mentioned by the author, but in my experience it provides deeper context for the things the Inner Game is prescribing.

The Introduction

We just had our introductory meeting for the upcoming mental training reading group (see the video above), for which we'll be reading the classic, The Inner Game of Tennis, and meeting weekly to discuss 2 chapters at a time. These are very short chapters, so the we are going at a pretty slow pace, enough to really sink into how to apply these concepts, and work that out together. Aside from reading the book I also have suggested people familiarize themselves a little with Vipassana meditation, because I've found amazing parallels between that method of meditation and the Inner Game method. The Inner Game is very approachable and immediately practical - as a Muay Thai practitioner you'll be able to translate tennis examples to Muay Thai examples pretty easily - but I suspect even the name Vipassana is a little intimidating to some, so I'm going to try to give an introduction to that here. Keep in mind, meditation is not necessary to our reading of the book, but it is part of my own realizations and how I've come to work on the principles of "The Inner Game," so it would help you follow where I'm coming from. 

You can read this recent blog post by Jacob Blair to get a good summation on The Inner Game of Tennis.

What is Natural

One of the most common questions I get is from folks who say they are struggling in sparring because they're not "naturally aggressive." Me neither. But the thing is, I believe you can't just easily turn on a switch and be one thing in the ring and be something else outside the ropes. You can, and some people do, but it's a steep hill to try to be Jekyll and Hyde; that dude wasn't happy and ultimately sucked at both personas. So, what I tell these people who contact me is a very different approach: that "how you do anything is how you do everything." If you're having a hard time being aggressive in sparring, that means you're not aggressive in life. How you are in the ring is how how you are out of the ring. So, rather than trying to turn on some kind of magical switch the moment the timer starts in sparring and then never working on that any other time, try to be more like a "method actor" and stay in character. Figure out where you're also non-aggressive in your life. Letting people cut you in line and not saying anything; not telling the Barista your order is wrong; sitting on the very edge of your seat on the bus because the dude next to you is "manspreading." You don't have to be a dick, that's not the point, but you need the practice in your daily life to bring it into the ring. And as you get better in the ring with it, you'll be better in your daily life with it, too. 

As a concrete example, I often stand too far away in sparring. I'm at perfect range to get kicked and teeped by my opponent, but too far to do anything impactful myself. So I practiced standing slightly too close for my own comfort in everyday situations. If I'm uncomfortable being close in the ring, it's because I'm uncomfortable being close in my life. In line at the supermarket, I like to give lots of space and I prefer for people to give me space. So, I started standing closer to the person in front of me. They didn't mind at all, but it required effort for me. Sometimes I'll put my arm out like a jab and touch the person who I'm talking to, just to get used to using my jab as a distance marker. They never look at me weird, but it requires a conscious effort on my part. But you know what? I'm taking up more space in sparring now, too. It works.

This is what Vipassana does as a supplement to the "Inner Game" reading. The Inner Game is immediately applicable in training, the principles he introduces are almost identical in concept (Self I and Self II) to Vipassana's objects of awareness (body and mind). So, the reason I encourage people to practice Vipassana in conjunction with the practices in the book we'll be reading is that it's just giving you more practice time, out of the ring, which makes it easier and more accessible in the ring. You can do this kind of meditation anywhere; you can only try to kick someone, responsibly, in the gym. Even if you don't do any Vipassana meditation, by following the practices outlined in the Inner Game book, you're basically doing Vipassana practice anyway. However, in my experience, learning to identify the differences between the Inner Game's "Self I and Self II" is made much clearer by the differentiation between body (physical) and mind (experience/sensory) in Vipassana practice, at least that was the case for me. It's like being able to hear whether a note is sharp, flat, or in tune. You don't have to have perfect pitch, but the more you've heard the notes, the more easily you'll identify the differences in pitch.

These two graphics illustrate the basic Vipassana focus of meditation, and then below that, The Inner Game of Tennis focus:


Inner Game of Tennis

What you will find in The Inner Game of Tennis is the prescription that many of our performance problems, are an interference of Self 1 (our thoughts and directives, our judgement) with Self 2 (our natural, instinctual and automatic motorskills and capabilities). What Vipassana does is take this interference all the way down to the root of how we experience ourselves in the world. Both work to separate these two realms from each other, and disassociate them from the "me" that fills us with assessment and expectation. That's good because the real difficulty of learning a skill and honing an art is our constant judgement of it. Not awareness of it, that's good, but the judgement can be quite counterproductive. Vipassana just asks you to pay attention to each state (our physical state, and our mental state), as distinct, and not let them mix together. The meditation is just the repeated practice of returning to this awareness or perspective again and again. As you get good at it, you get good at untangling yourself, and this is exactly what the Inner Game of Tennis is teaching. To find a more natural path of learning. 

For Those Interested Here are Some Vipassana Basics

The focus of our reading group is The Inner Game of Tennis, and that's the text we are working from. But I include here an overview of Vipassana practice, as I've come to understand it - it is taught in many different ways all over the world - in case you want to work through the Inner Game realizations outside of the gym, as well. In a way, Vipassana is just a very slow, quiet version of the Inner Game's processes.

There are differing resources on how to practice Vipassana. For my part, did a 3 day meditation retreat here in Pattaya, twice now. You can read my blog post which is full of videos I did documenting my process in the first retreat. I lean toward the materials I was given then and the practice I was doing over the alternatives that I've found online, which tend to feel a little bit less approachable, a little more "I'm doing a thing." This is about, at least for us, just coming to experience. As with any practice like this, you can probably go quite far down the rabbit hole: schools of thought, kinds of practice, levels of awareness. For me, I'm just talking about the benefit of Vipassana focus for mental training in Muay Thai, and using The Inner Game of Tennis insights. 

So, here's the introduction to the practice as I encountered it at the center I visited (which is kind of all they give you other than a glossary of basic Pali terms). You take your pamphlet, you go into your hut, you practice. Below I've omitted all the definition of terms, but if you're interested you can absolutely delve into it by reading more at the website. But the most important thing about Vipassana practice is that you use first-hand-experience as your primary teacher. You can have the best teacher in the world explaining to you what "sweet" tastes like, to someone who has never tasted it. But the moment you put a grain of sugar on your tongue and experience it, that teacher is no longer needed. That's Vipassana - it's the grain of sugar touching the tongue, not the teacher.

How Do I Do Vipassana?: Very stand, you sit, your walk or lay down - yep, that's all, below is the description I received:

"In the beginning we practice meditation in all 4 main postures: sitting, walking, standing & lying. Please use all 4 postures without a preference for any particular one over the other as we are trying to develop the wisdom to be present without liking or not liking." 

[my note: So, when you are sitting, standing, walking or lying down just observe the body in those postures. Don't think whether or not you like the position; if you get tired of standing, just sit down and then observe sitting. When your butt hurts, lie down or get up and observe that position.]

"The mind is aware of the different postures by the different sensations for example the pressure under the feet when standing or the pressure under the buttocks when sitting  HOWEVER we only need to know that this is sitting posture or standing posture, NOT the actual sensations of pressure, heat, etc." 

my note: This is less complicated than the sentence makes it seem. Suppose you are sitting. How do you know you're sitting? Because you feel pressure on your butt and back, blood pooling in your feet, etc. You don't have to focus on any of those things, just use those sensations as the evidence that the body is sitting. You can literally just think, "body is sitting." Not I am sitting, but even just "sitting" is good.

"Whenever any thoughts arise we simply know them as ‘thinking mind’ not paying attention to the content and return the awareness to the posture of the body." 

my note: We're observing the body, Rupa, all the time. Occasionally a thought will arise or a sound will be heard and you can acknowledge that with the same kind of detachment of "Rupa sitting" to be "Nama (mind) thinking," or "hearing." Not "I am thinking," just thinking. The body has the capacity to experience - it has ears with which to hear - but the mind is what actually does the experiencing, Nama hearing.

By practicing in this way we are training the mind to stay in the present moment without the idea  “I am”, liking and not liking.  

my note: This skill of not immediately labeling an experience as "liking" or "disliking," is huge in both Vipassana and the Inner Game. This is a main point and takes a lot of practice, because we are all very conditioned and well-practiced in immediately liking or disliking something... everything, and judging ourselves for it.

"In order to develop wisdom we simply know all thoughts as just a wandering mind or thinking mind and the body as just sitting posture or whatever posture we are in at that moment." 

my note: So, we use the observing of the body and physical sensation and the mind, thoughts and experiences, as a way to stay in the present moment. Sometimes the mind wanders and that's fine. That's what the mind does, it's a natural state of the mind. It's like getting upset that your stomach is growling or that you have to pee. The mind will wander, just don't follow the story. Just gently bring it back to observing the posture. This will help immensely in using the Inner Game's techniques for Self I and Self II in training. As a concrete example, sometimes I'm trying to watch the body sitting and my mind starts going on about things I need to do or whatever; so, I acknowledge that the mind is wandering and just bring attention back to watching the sitting position. Present moment. I have become practiced in this, so that when I'm not landing a kick or beating myself up about this or that in training, I just acknowledge that my mind is wandering and bring it back to seeing that the body is standing in the ring. Just standing there. And all the judgement and assessment of "good or bad" or any of that just dissolves. It's very helpful, because I'm very attached to thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same frustrations in training because I've programmed them according to how I think I should be performing. But there's absolutely no "should" for just standing there. Just watch that happening.

"With this method we are actually practicing all day long developing wisdom whether we are observing the posture or doing our duties to take care of our body. We remain in one posture until the discomfort becomes enough that you need to change posture and then change posture with the wisdom that knows it is only the posture that suffers, not me. It is very important not to try to endure excessive pain by remaining for excessively long periods in one posture.  We are training to develop wisdom to see things as they are in reality.


Vipassana and Me

Vipassana is for me not really a transcendental practice. It's much more like a grounding skill I'm trying to develop both in and out of the ring. It's a touchstone that I work on, keeping things real. I watch Rupa (The Body) as much as I can. I watch Walking Rupa when I walk my dog twice per day. I watch Sitting Rupa if I need to take a second in training to calm down or come back to present. I watch Lying Rupa when I'm going to sleep or resting in the middle of the day. Standing Rupa stands in line, too close to other customers, at the store. You can do it anywhere, anytime, and nobody has to know you're doing it. I get good at it outside of the ring so that it's easy when I have far more at stake, so to speak, in the ring. And by getting accustomed to all these really mundane examples of what is the body and what is the mind, literally just lying there and maybe occasionally hearing a car go by (the first is the body, the second is the mind) is a much safer, simpler setting than trying to get good at untangling that difference while someone is trying to punch my face.

I use Vipassana to become adroit at recognizing that neither the body nor the mind is "me." This doesn't mean I'm grasping for some esoteric wisdom of non-Self. It means I refrain from tying my physical experience and mental experience together, in a single thing, a "me". If I can't block at kick, the body isn't blocking and the mind is thinking about it. In the practices of Self I and Self II of The Inner Game of Tennis, the mind is experiencing frustration and trying to control and correct Self II, whereas just acknowledging that a slight bend of the knee might feel better, allows Self II (the intuitive body) to make that adjustment and carry on. If I'm too far away in sparring, I acknowledge that it's uncomfortable to be close and, rather than screaming at myself in my head for being a failure, just allow my body to make that adjustment. Noted, thank you. Carry on.

In our first meeting today, the participants all identified (to some degree) accountability as one of the main things they wanted to get out of the reading group. This is a major factor for me in mental training as well. If you go to the gym, some places have group activities where you're told to do 20 pushups and you do them. Some places you are expected to do your pushups but nobody makes you. That second place will see far fewer pushups. However, it's not having a task-master, it's having a group. If you have a partner doing pushups, you'll do them, too. Same with mental training, it's generally an incredibly personal and even private endeavor. But if you share with a group, you're more likely to do the work - and for both mental and physical progress, you have to do the work. Say we're trying to get to Boston. Some folks have a paper map, some have GPS, some have driven that way before, some have verbal directions, and some are kind of just trying to follow road signs. We all have some information on how to get to Boston. But who will actually get there? Only those who follow the roads all the way to Boston. It doesn't matter how much information you have, how sure you are about those directions or not; the important part is actually following through, all the way to Boston. Otherwise you're just always "on your way."

Here's a lovely little parable from the Vipassana book I'm hoping to supplement our Inner Game of Tennis reading group with. 

This is my problem. I trust the doctor, I'm way into the medicine and I totally believe it will make me better. But I just don't swallow the damn pill every day, the way I'm supposed to. Because it's hard. Because I don't like having to remember or it kinda sucks swallowing pills until you just make it a habit and then you forget that you take it every day, rather than forgetting to take it every day. I know how important mental training is, and yet, because it's so hard and because my illness makes me feel shitty a lot of the time, I just focus on feeling shitty instead of taking the actual medicine. Mental is much harder than physical because we interpret and add meaning to everything, which is mental. Your body doesn't really care if it has a rough day, your mind just wants to keep telling you what that experience means about you. Your body equally doesn't care if you have a great day, your mind just wants to take credit for all that success, like it did something that implies a permanent state of being good, or skilled, or advanced. That's why detachment is important. Because nothing is permanent. You want to get better? That requires change and change has a requirement that whatever it is you experience as "you" cannot stay the same. You cannot lie in the same position forever; eventually it becomes uncomfortable and you have to change position. So you just change, naturally, even in your sleep sometimes. You don't need your mind screaming at you to do so, you just shift position. That simple thing, that very natural thing that happens countless times throughout the day, is what both The Inner Game of Tennis and Vipassana meditation seek to help us understand.

On my first visit to the meditation center, I met with a monk twice. He just wanted to be like a mirror into which I could express my experiences and he could nudge me, if needed. I told him that there were many times throughout the hours of practice that I knew I was practicing wrong, and that was okay. Just know it's wrong and keep practicing. The monk clapped his hands and grinned, saying this was exactly right. It's not about getting it "right" all the time; it's about knowing and carrying on anyway. The second time I visited, a different monk told me that no matter what was happening in my practice, if I was frustrated or angry or totally calm, all of it is perfect. He actually used that word, perfect. Mind blown. A lot of people, myself included, give up on meditation because it seems too hard. Because the mind wanders and it's like, "Jesus, I can't even do this." But that's only because you're trying to control it. Your mind wanders all the time and you don't care, it's just when you're trying to do something else with it. So be gentle. Practice being hard is perfect. Acknowledging that it's hard and being frustrated is perfect. So long as you keep moving. So long as you keep adjusting. And then not being frustrated anymore is perfect. Perfection is not a static state, it's a continuous, fluid, fluxing and chaotic thing. If you do it wrong, it cannot stay the same; if you do it right, it cannot stay the same. So witness them both. Know them both and acknowledge the difference, but don't like one over the other. They're both perfect.

Getting to the Core of the Inner Game

If I were to break down the message of The Inner Game of Tennis to one lesson, it would be this: don't try. I know, how pessimistic does that sound? It's not though. I spent all this time talking about Vipassana because it helps you learn to identify the difference between what the body is and has capacity for, and what the mind is and has capacity for. We conflate the two, and mash them together to make "me" or "I". We actually think we're being profound and evolved to connect the body and the mind, and that's cool because the concept there is being "all one." But the mistake is identifying with that "one." Neither is you, and the beauty of this is that it isn't just some airy-fairy idea or spirituality, it's something that actually frees up performance, and untangles many of the knots we tie ourselves in as we try to be "good" or "correct" at a sport. And, for a sport that involves physical harm, aggression, and intimidation, these tangles can be profoundly knotted. In the Inner Game you'll learn to distinguish between the muscle memory of natural, kind of "innate" movements that function all on their own, and the self that wants to take credit for it and control it all the time. We spend hours and hours kicking a bag to wear a groove into that movement pattern, but then we somehow assume that it comes from a thought pattern rather than a physical move. How often do you think about how to walk?  I cringe every time I hear someone use the wrong preposition and say, "on accident," (it's "by accident"), but not because I have studied the best possible grammar and the exact way to move my lips to make those sounds; it's because it sounds wrong. If your kick is weak on Thursday and you don't know why, don't overthink it. You didn't think it into being strong on Tuesday, it just was. We hate that it seems out of our control. So we overthink fixing it. But we very seldom think, "what does it feel like when my kick is strong?" That's what the Inner Game will teach us. How do you know you're sitting? By the pressure on your butt. You don't judge the pressure. You don't judge the kick. You just take in the information, just see it and know it. 

So come with us as we work through The Inner Game of Tennis. Each week we'll hang out and discuss the two chapters we've read, and I'll share how I've experienced them in my training, and the difficulties I've had. Together we'll draw analogies to Muay Thai, and bring out the freedom that is possible as we separate out (and give proper respect to both) Self 1 and Self 2, as best we can. 

The next conference call will be Friday Oct 12th, 10:30 am Thai time, (which is Thursday Oct 11th, 11:30 pm EST time in the US). 

This it the link for the call: 


Kindle Edition The Inner Game of Tennis  

Free PDF of The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation 

Kindle Edition The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation 

My Vipassana Retreat Experience - with vlogs 

Here is a free course locator for people around the world, if you want to take a multiple day retreat in Vipassana Meditation.

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