“No pain, no gain!”


We constantly hear that learning must be uncomfortable in order to succeed. I agree, but it is only true up to a certain limit. The difficulties cannot consume excessively our energy. Therefore  we must keep our learning process organized and be conscious about what is happening. 

First internal focus, then external focus

A former tennis coach Tim Gallway, creator of “Inner Game” technique, has said: “In sports, I had to learn how to teach less, so that more could be learned”. According to the traditional concept of teaching, teacher provides the necessary instructions and student follows them as precisely as possible in order to achieve goals. 

The main idea of the Inner Game is that before we try to accomplish something ambitious (beating the competitor on the other side of the net in tennis) we must overcome the internal obstacles in our mind (obligation to get good results, fear for making mistakes). The primary role of the the teacher (or coach) is to facilitate and motivate, rather than train and educate. Instructions are still important, but they should help, not lead. 

No matter what we learn, we should always follow this principle, because Inner Game is already proven to be effective in different fields, for example golf, music and business. Other areas, such as learning a language, cannot be exceptional. 

Competitors are not dangerous, but useful

Gallway also insisted that tennis players should change their attitude towards their competitors. When they are focused on the most fundamental parts during a game (the position and movement of a ball), there is no time for disturbing thoughts like “What if the other player is better than me?”

The competitors are actually not opponents. They are very important because they stimulate players to stretch their current limits: without them, no player could achieve their highest potential.

Isn`t the same true for learning any other skills, such as new language? We are afraid of making mistakes and therefore cannot focus on the basic elements of the skill (communication). We see people around us as potential opponents and think they will judge us for our mistakes. The truth is, they are a valuable asset: we can truly develop only when we practice through interaction. 

Be aware of the four learning stages and your current state.

Most of us want to be excellent on what we do. The process of development towards excellency is dynamic and can become chaotic if we do not manage it correctly. As we saw, Inner Game helps to be focused on the most important details while playing.

On the other hand, it is essential to understand the big picture in the learning process. One of my favorite models to explain it is “Four Levels of Teaching” – a  concept introduced by a management trainer Martin M. Broadwell (also known as “Gordon Matrix”). 

The four levels are unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence

In the context of tennis, in the beginning we are both unconscious and incompetent: totally confused. When we have learned the basic techniques, we start to understand what the game is about. At the same time we know that there is so much more to learn.  We are consciously incompetent. Over time we acquire the most critical skills. Conscious competence is a stage where we manage the game, but we are still making efforts to maintain the focus. When we have performed the same actions for a long time, they become incorporated in our mind, so we do not have to think about how we act. Unconscious competence means that we implement important actions spontaneously.   

Learning is difficult and must be difficult – our energy has been given to us to use it. However, we have to do it wisely, otherwise we might just waste our forces and still not learn much. Useful learning starts from building our inner strength, so that we are able to focus on the most important – acquiring the knowledge and improving the skill. The focus must become strong enough, so that we are able to feel how we make progress without a need of external approval. Last but not least, it is essential to have the right teacher who “teaches less, so that more could be learned.”