Physical Training Feb 2010
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From the Teacher's Corner 5:

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

My wife and I are avid tennis players. It’s a great game. One thing that bothered us, and I imagine it does all players, was the fact that you can be very skilled in a technical sense and still lose a game to a lesser skilled opponent. This irritated us to no end. We should be able to win handily, our superior technical skill overwhelming our adversaries. However, some players have a knack for defeating us and it is not due to their having superior skill.

What separated us? Why did we lose against some of these lesser opponents?

I was looking through a used book store one day, not really looking for anything in particular, when I saw an old book on the shelf that intrigued me. The title was The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. I looked through it and it looked worth reading so I paid the $1.00 for the book and took it home. I gave it to my wife and she shrugged, saying, “OK, I’ll give it a read.”

Well, I didn’t see the book for almost 2 weeks. I asked her about it and she said it was really interesting. Indeed?!

When I finally got the book back, I decided to read it to find out why it was so interesting. To give a brief synopsis, the book is about the mind. How to play without fear, without self-doubt. To be fully focused. In short, to be in a Zen mind.

Fascinating! Like Takuan applied to tennis.

Anyway, I am not writing this article to talk about Zen and tennis. I am here to talk about motivation. Motivation to play tennis? No. Motivation to do Zen? No.

In this unique book, the author in one chapter talked about the different motivations of tennis players. I read it and I thought, hey this applies to sword arts training.

The author talked about the games people play within the game and outlined three basic categories of games (which essentially are what motivates people to play tennis but really it can be applied to any sport or art). Each category has 2 or 3 sub-types. Let’s look at them and see if you recognize any of them in your dojo.

Motivation #1: To Become “Good”
General Aim: To achieve excellence
General Motive: To prove oneself “good” (can read as “skilled”)

Sub-type 1A: For Perfection
Thesis: How good can I get? In this circumstance, “good” is measured against a standard of performance. In golf, it is measured against par; in any art, against self-conceived expectations or those of teacher or friends.
Aim: Perfection; to reach the highest standard possible.
Motive: The desire to prove oneself competent and worthy of the respect of self and others.
External: The never-closing gap between one’s idea of perfection and one’s apparent ability.
Internal: Self-criticism for not being as close to perfection as one would like, leading to discouragement, compulsively trying too hard, and a sense of inferiority; fear of not measuring up.

Sub-type 1B: For Competition
Thesis: I’m better than you. Here, “good” is measured against the performance of other players rather than against a set standard. Maxim: It’s not how well I play, but whether I win or lose that counts.
Aim: To be the best; to win; to defeat all comers.
Motive: The desire to be at the top of the heap. Stems from need for admiration and control.
External: There is always someone around who can beat you; the rising ability of the young.
Internal: The mind’s pre-occupation with comparing oneself with others; thoughts of inferiority alternating with superiority, depending on the competition; fear of defeat.

Sub-type 1C: For Image
Thesis: Look at me! “Good” is measured by appearance. Neither winning nor true competence is as important as style.
Aim: To look good, flashy, strong, brilliant, smooth, graceful.
Motive: The desire for attention and praise.
External: One can never look good enough. What looks good to one person does not look so good to another.
Internal: Confusion about who one really is. Fear of not pleasing everyone and of imagined loneliness.

Motivation #2: For Friends

General Aim: To make or keep friends
General Motive: Desire for friendship

Sub-type 2A: For Status
Thesis: We play at THE country club. It’s not so important how good you are as where you play and who plays with you.
Aim: To maintain or improve social status.
Motive: The desire for the friendship of the prominent.
External: The cost of keeping up with the Joneses.
Internal: Fear of losing one’s social position.

Sub-type 2B: For Togetherness
Thesis: All my good friends play tennis. You play to be with your friends. To play too well would be a mistake.
Aim: To meet or keep friends.
Motive: The desire for acceptance and friendship.
External: Finding the time, the place and the friends.
Internal: Fear of ostracism.

Motivation #3: For Health and/or Fun
General Aim: Mental or physical health or pleasure
General Motive: Health and/or fun

Sub-type 3A: For Health
Thesis: Played on doctor’s advice or as part of self-initiated physical improvement or beautification program.
Aim: Exercise, work up a sweat, relax the mind.
Motive: Health, vitality, desire for prolongation of youth.
External: Finding someone of like motive to play with.
Internal: Doubts that tennis is really helping. The temptation to be drawn into the Perfect or Good motivation.

Sub-type 3B: For Fun
Thesis: Played neither for winning nor to become “good”, but for fun alone. The game is rarely played in its pure form.
Aim: To have as much fun as possible.
Motive: The desire for enjoyment.
External: Finding someone of like motivation to play with.
Internal: Learning to appreciate fully the subtleties of the game. The temptation to be drawn into the Good or the Friends motivation.

Sub-type 3C: For the “High”
Thesis: Played to raise one’s awareness. The game is very rarely played in its pure form.
Aim: Higher consciousness.
Motive: The desire to transcend ordinary consciousness.
External: None.
Internal: The attachments and fluctuations of the ego-mind.

Source: Gallwey, W. Timothy (1974). The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House. ISBN: 0394491548

After I read this, I was astounded. Yes. I see many of these types of motivations exhibited in my students and in students in general in any dojo in any martial art.

I see the high achievers, whether they are striving for excellence because they are perfectionists, because they want to compete and be the best of the best, or because they want to look good.

I also see the social seekers: the country club status seekers and the socializers who are there to be with other people.

And I see the health, fitness and fun types too. Although in sword circles, I tend to notice more of the “high” types than the hard-core fitness types. The “high” types want the Zen mind that Takuan talks about.

And for traditional martial arts like koryu, I would hasten to add a 4th sub-type to the 3rd category: that of “For the Fantasy”. There are some students who come to classical kenjutsu or iaido classes to live out their samurai fantasies, to dress in the traditional garb, learn some fancy moves, and wear a sword. It’s the one day a week that they are transported back to the time of “The Last Samurai” or “Shogun”. It’s a fun break from the mundane and satisfies their need to be someone different, someone mysterious (an alter-ego like Batman or the Highlander), to know something secretive that no one else knows.

Gallwey is right. There are these types all around. Go to any kendo dojo, judo dojo, karate dojo, tae kwon do dojang, any martial arts hall in fact and you will see the same thing.

I wanted to bring this to the attention of our new teachers in sword arts or any martial art since you will find many of these motives in your students. You need to accurately assess what type of student you are facing to know how to motivate him (or her) and to know what you can expect of him.

If you are facing a country club status seeker, you cannot realistically expect them to strive for perfection in technique like the perfectionists. The old expression “you can’t get blood from a stone” applies here. That’s not their motivation. They don’t value that. By having false expectations, you will only get frustrated yourself and your high expectations for this student will likewise frustrate them when they realize that they cannot achieve what you want them to achieve. If you’re expecting the image guys to be your top competitors, it won’t happen either. They could care less. They’re only interested in “looking good”. The author says it best:

Not only can the full spectrum of emotional response be viewed on the court, but also a wide range of motivations in its players. Some care only about winning. Some are amazingly tenacious about warding off defeat, but can’t win a match point if it’s offered to them. Many don’t care how they play, as long as they look good, and some simply don’t care at all. Some cheat their opponents; others cheat themselves. Some are always bragging about how good they are; others constantly tell you how poorly they are playing. There are even a small handful who are out on the court simply for fun and exercise.”

W. Timothy Gallwey
The Inner Game of Tennis (1974).

Apply it to yourself. What is motivating you? Apply it to your students. Who are the country club types? Who are the perfectionists? Knowing who your students are will help you to manage and teach them in a more informed and “understanding” manner.

Why is being “understanding” important? Because you cannot change them. They are who they are. As a teacher, you need to see who they really are. Then you can realistically know what they can achieve. And you know what they are after. That’s what motivates them to come to class and to keep coming to class week after week. Once that motivation ceases to be met (e.g., the competitors are not allowed to compete or you force the fantasy types to work really hard like the perfectionists), they will leave. Of course, there are standards of performance that need to be upheld but we have to be realistic about what they can achieve, given the ability of the student.

Everyone has skeletons in the closet that they need to exorcise or fantasies they need to live out. We just need to be understanding and compassionate in knowing that this is what drives them to train.

This book has been such a success that it has been revised and updated. See here:

And the author has branched out to write books on the inner game in golf, skiing, and work, managing stress, and others. For more information about W. Timothy Gallwey, see:

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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