How to Get Better at Anything

Performance = Potential – Interference

In her book Naked at Work: A Leader’s Guide to Fearless Authenticity, Danessa Knaupp tells the story of Tim Gallwey, who authored The Inner Game of Tennis in the 1970s. Gallwey claimed he could teach anyone to play competitive tennis in less than an hour, and managed to prove his point on live television. Within 17 minutes, he had his subject, a nervous, middle-aged, overweight housewife who had never picked up a racket in her life, playing tennis and playing it well.

He did this by implementing his Inner Game method – the formula at the top of this post.

Performance = Potential – Interference

Danessa Knaupp writes that Gallwey, who is a sought-after speaker and trainer today – “suggests that it is our inner process—our self-talk, fears, doubts, lapses in focus, or limiting beliefs—that gets in the way of achieving our goals. His method, outlined in his first and later books, moves attention away from the negative swirl inside our heads and to the task at hand.”

His method is about getting out of your head and into the game, a concept we hear all the time and take for granted now, 50 years later. But Gallwey was the first to theorize it and prove it. “Your performance at any given task—playing tennis, developing strategy, or mobilizing a team—is simply a matter of your potential to perform that task (what you know) minus what’s in your way (your interference).”

Gallwey says of his teaching breakthrough:  “When I replaced the traditional control mechanism of should and shouldn’t with invitations to try heightened awareness and relaxed concentration, the student learned naturally by using what felt good and what worked. This is how we all learned as children to crawl, walk, and run. In the use of simple awareness, three things reliably increased: rate of learning, enjoyment of play, and the student’s confidence that they could learn from experience.”

Potential (what you know and what you can do) is seldom the problem in performance, mostly because what you don’t know or haven’t mastered yet is more visible. It’s how managers rate their workforce in performance reviews. You can learn skills and get advice from other professionals to increase your potential.

But your interference is seldom visible because it takes place inside your head.  Your negative self-talk is part of it. “I can’t believe I said that.” “I’m not ready for this.” “What if they don’t like what I’m proposing?”

But even the best of teachers/mentors/managers can contribute to this inner interference. Knauss writes about Dr. Martin Levy, who is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. He specifically designed his surgeon training program to eliminate interference. Dr. Levy realized that during surgical training sessions, “both praise and criticism drew students’ attention away from the procedure to what their teacher thought of them.”

Dr. Levy eventually adopted a handheld clicker like the ones used to train dogs for feedback. If the surgical trainee performed something correctly, the trainer would click. No click meant the trainee would try a different method next time. Over time, the surgeons that experienced clicker reinforcement repeated correct behaviors faster and more often than surgeons receiving verbal praise.

It’s a revolutionary idea – that trainers and well-meaning managers might be adding to the distracting self-talk inside workers’ heads.

The key to upping your inner game is identifying your interference. Once you determine what messages are getting in the way of your game, you’re much more likely to be able to improve your performance.

And if part of the interference is a well-meaning coach, mentor, manager, or partner, try one of these scripts.

  • “Your coaching has been so helpful. I’d like to try it on my own now, to see if I can get an intuitive feel for what’s right and what’s not working.”
  • “I’m thinking that your feedback has me more focused on you in a meeting than on the client. Can I try it solo for a couple of meetings to see if staying focused on the client’s feedback helps me perform better?”
  • “Let’s stop counting steps and just try dancing with each other during the next song.”

Skeptical? Here’s a video clip from 1970  with Gallwey’s tennis demonstration.

3 thoughts on “How to Get Better at Anything

  1. Thanks for the video link. Wonder where she found her fine backhand?

    Gallwey’s Relaxed Method of Learning has merit.

    Since no actual match involving the lady took place, I call her a Beginning Tennis player, not a Competitive Tennis player. This is fair to her skills.

    Liked this post. 🙂


  2. Getting better at things requires work. It doesn’t happen too often that you can immediately get better at something with a trick or gimmick. However, I think a lot of people don’t improve simply because they don’t know how. Most things you’ll want to improve will have a mix of habits and skills. Maybe you want to read more books. On the one hand, reading is a habit—you need to read more. But it’s also a skill—vocabulary, fluency and subject familiarity all influence how quickly and deeply you can read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] written about perfectionism and performance anxiety before. Millions of people suffer from fear of failure, which can make them reluctant to try new […]


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