The guru and the SABR

Did Federer invent the SABR? Happy Slammer Peter Wiggins wonders whether writer Timothy Gallwey is really the one responsible.

It’s Cincinnati Open 2015. Roger Federer is on court, receiving serve. He is about to give birth to a new shot. You know the story. Just as the ball toss is going up, in rushes Federer, he nonchalantly strikes the return on the half volley, approaches the net and he wins the point. Everyone watching looks bemused. This maneuver goes on to be named the SABR, the Sneak Attack by Roger. Federer wins the match and the tournament, beating Novak Dkokovic in the final.

Re-wind forty-one years, and one Timothy Gallwey, academic and tennis coach, is writing a book The Inner Game (1974). He is a pretty decent tennis player himself, ex-captain of the Harvard University’s team. But Gallwey’s coaching is not going so well, and he is frustrated that he is not making more of an impact on his students. When the Inner Game comes out, it does make an impact. It sells in millions. It becomes the so-call “tennis bible” of Billy Jean King and others, including US president Jimmy Carter.

Gallwey goes on to write a series of “inner game” books: Inner tennis: Playing the game (1976), Inner Skiing (1977), The Inner Game of Golf (1981), The Inner Game of Music (1986), The Inner Game of Work (2000), The Inner Game of Winning (1985) and The Inner Game of Stress: Outsmart Life’s Challenges, Fulfill Your Potential, Enjoy Yourself (2009).

Gallwey is by now a sort of guru, a pioneer of the ‘self-help’ writing genre and one of the first sports psychologists.

What is this ‘inner game’?  It is to do with the human ‘self’. For Gallwey indeed, there are 2 human Selfs:

Self 1 is the conscious (the mind)

Self 2 is unconscious, automatic (the body)

Success is to do with getting Self 1 to talk to Self 2 in the right way:

“it seems as though Self 1 doesn’t think Self 2 hears well, or has a short memory or is stupid. The truth is, of course, that Self 2, which includes the unconscious mind and the nervous system, hears everything, never forgets anything, and is anything but stupid. After hitting the ball firmly once, he knows forever which muscles to contract to do it again. That’s his nature”.

The Inner Game of Tennis

Winning at tennis, Gallwey argues, “is the art of letting go of Self 1 control and letting Self 2 play the game spontaneously”.

Gallwey is telling his readers to stop trying, to let the body take over.

How, you might ask, can any of this really be applied to the game of tennis? This is about zaney dualist philosophy, this isn’t about sport. Well, at times it seems the two things go together: come to the end of chapter 7 of the Inner Game, we discover that Gallwey is an early advocate of the SABR.

“… I found that I could change my position on the return of serve from standing at the baseline to standing only a foot behind the service line. If I stayed focused and relaxed, I could even see fast serves well enough to “slow them slow down in time”, respond and pick up the ball just a split second after it bounced. There was no time for a backswing and no time to think about what I was doing or even where I would hit the ball. There would just be a calm focus and a spontaneous response to meet the ball and follow-through, giving depth and direction to the ball. At the next instant I would be at the net — well before the server.”

Federer, by rushing in to the return after his opponent has tossed the ball, executes this strategy slightly differently but the tactic is essentially the same.

While Federer is on record as saying that he acquired his SABR from coach Severin Luthi, one still wonders if some of Gallwey’s influence might be in there too.
What do you think? Share in the comment box below!

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