The Inner Game of Karate

In 1974, Timothy Gallwey published his groundbreaking book The Inner Game of Tennis. Instead of serving up technique, it concentrated on the fact that “Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.” The former is played against opponents, and is filled with lots of contradictory advice; the latter is played not against, but within the mind of the player, and its principal obstacles are self-doubt and anxiety.1

In the nearly 50 years since its first printing, the concepts of the Inner Game have been applied to tennis, golf, work, skiing, stress, and music. My first introduction to the Inner Game was The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green, which I read during my graduate studies in music at the University of Louisville. I have since recommended this book to many of my student musicians, as well as those outside of the music field, because the principles apply in virtually all aspects of life.

In this post, I intend to apply the general principles of the Inner Game to the practice of martial arts. First, a few definitions.

Outer Game vs. Inner Game

The Outer Game refers to the physical aspects of the activity: the players, a playing field, rules, obstacles, and desired outcome. The outer physical aspects are easy to see, if not necessarily easy to execute. They are the moves and techniques that make up what we know and recognize as karate. For instance, the players include a sensei and fellow karateka. The playing field is typically a dojo or competition venue.There is a specific set of rules that govern kihon, kata, and kumite; and the desired outcome may be personal improvement, belt rank, or competition victory.

The Inner Game, on the other hand, refers to the mental focus and intangible aspects such as determination and grit that serve to make us successful or leave us vulnerable. Even the most diligent student can experience poor performance as a result of a weak Inner Game, but there are skills that we can develop to improve our Inner Game.

The Performance Equation:  P = p – i

In this equation, the capital P refers to Performance – the end result you actually achieve. The lower-case p refers to potential – what you are actually capable of achieving. The lower-case i refers to interference – your capacity to get in your own way.

If you take a few moments to think about your worst moment in karate practice and compare it to your best moment, what might you discover? In your best moment, your body flows freely from technique to technique, stances are strong, and you may even feel invincible. This moment is a manifestation of your potential.

Perhaps your worst moment occurred during a competition or a belt test when you realized you were surrounded by experts who were judging every stance, every technique, every body position. Did the awareness of being scrutinized impair your ability to relax and perform to your best ability?  Were you aware of or distracted by the voice inside your head critiquing every misstep and questioning every answer? This is what we call  interference.

Most people try to increase Performance by increasing potential. I hope that in this article you will discover some tips to help you increase your Performance capability by decreasing the interference you experience.

Awareness, Will, and Trust: The Three Skills of the Inner Game

AWARENESS without judgment is the First Skill of the Inner Game. Natural learning happens when we are aware of how well our performance matches our intention. We are constantly bombarded by inner and outer distractions, but we can choose a focus for our awareness. By accepting that distractions (both external and internal) will always be present, we can consciously choose to focus our attention intentionally on the present moment. Any of four things may happen when we focus our awareness on our performance:

  1. Simple awareness may be enough. My first experience with martial arts was kung fu when I was in my twenties. At my first class, we learned to roll when being thrown by a fellow classmate. The sifu stated numerous times, “Tuck your chin.” It only took one try to discover that I was not tucking my chin. Since then, I am always aware of my chin position when rolling. The knot on my head served to heighten my awareness!

  2. Accept the problem the way it is. I struggle to remember kata. The sequence of techniques tends to get jumbled in my mind. My natural tendency is to criticize my ability to learn, but I have found that when I accept that this aspect of karate is difficult for me, I allow myself grace and more time and repetitions to feel confident in the sequence. As strange as it may seem, allowing myself to not be perfect every time helps me to be more consistent overall.

  3. Notice subtle differences. My roundhouse kick is subpar. Instead of seeing every kick as a failure (less than perfect), I have rated each practice session on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how close it is to ideal. In this way, even though I may only score a 5 on a particular workout, I can see progress from the 2 I scored when I first learned the technique. Incremental improvement then becomes a reason for pride rather than discouragement.

  4. Finding the problem behind the problem. Occasionally, awareness will lead us to discover that a problem is really a symptom of a different problem. For example, when I discover that my loss of balance typically occurs when my stance is too narrow, the root problem is not my sense of balance, but my stance width. Improving my stances will then resolve my balance issue.

The Second Skill Tim Gallwey defines as WILL.  This involves both the direction and the intensity of your intention. “Awareness” needs some direction if it is to produce the desired results. “Will” uses the feedback that awareness gives to improve its aim. Through trial and error, we gradually shape our performance to be closer to the ideal. Shaping our performance is more effective when we have a clearly stated goal. When we have clear goals and are focused on them, our concentration can be sustained.

Imagine the scenario of demonstrating kata at a test. Ideally, 100% concentration would be on 100% kata. But even if you’re only paying attention to one other factor, your capacity to focus has been reduced to 50%. Introduce more distractions, your concentration on kata may be even less:

Why do you practice karate? What is your overall goal? There are infinite reasons: weight loss, cardiovascular health, self-defense, social enrichment, etc.  For me, my personal goals include all of these to some degree.  Once you have named your “why”, determine incremental goals toward accomplishing your overall goal. A goal journal may be helpful in executing this step to develop the Will.

The Third Skill is TRUST. Trust goes together with the other two skills. It takes trust to allow simple awareness to take place, and to explore the will’s trial and error approach. Above all, it takes trust in our inner resources for us to tap into them and perform our best.2 My favorite exercise in this regard is “Best and Worst.” 

When approaching a Core Kata Challenge for instance, I determine what the best and worst outcomes are. The worst outcome may be that I perform a kata incorrectly 100 times. Consider the result of such a blunder. Will I have to work hard to correct the error? Absolutely. Will I be embarrassed? Maybe. Will I be banned from the dojo? Certainly not. And even if the sequence of techniques was out of order, the repetition of the basics is sure to result in overall improvement in stamina and endurance. All in all, the worst case scenario is really not that bad. 

Now, consider the best case scenario. I complete the challenge as planned. Has my skill improved? Yes. Do I have bragging rights? Maybe. Am I valued any more or less as a person by my sensei and peers? I hope not. We find that the best case is fine, but not fine enough to worry about it.

In the end, the goal of exercising these three disciplines of Awareness, Will, and Trust allows us to simply let go and enjoy the process of learning. We can become aware of the difficulties and distractions, make them subject to our will, and trust the process to help us reach our stated goals.

More information about Timothy Gallwey and the Inner Game is available at




2  Green, Barry. The Inner Game of Music. New York: Doubleday, 1986. pp. 28-29.

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