The Inner Game and Steve Kerr

As soon as he tries to exercise control he loses it.” –Tim Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis

I picked up The Inner Game of Tennis recently after reading Chris Ballard’s SI article about the influence the book has had on Steve Kerr.  The article unpacks the significant influence Gallwey’s book has had on Kerr as a basketball player, and now as a coach.

the inner game of steve kerr


The Player

I remember watching Steve Kerr with the Bulls during their championship runs in the 90s. He drained 3-pointers reliably during crucial segments of the game. Coming off the bench. He was clutch. The job required incredible poise and steely nerves.

Ballard writes,

He credits the The Inner Game of Tennis with helping him to develop the tools to handle such a role. “The question for the athlete, as Kerr puts it: “How do you get out of your own way? How do you stop the chatter in your mind?”

He borrowed savvy ideas and creative techniques from the book.

For instance, the article details how he would pretend for a day of training to be a different player.

“To get out of his own head, Kerr tried Gallwey tricks such as pretending to be a different player for a day, thus allowing him to play with more freedom. Kerr chose Jeff Hornacek, the crafty Utah shooting guard (and now head coach of the Knicks). “I loved his game because he had all those flip shots. I didn’t have a lot of that,” says Kerr. “I realized, watching Jeff, I could be more loose and more aggressive and shoot some different shots, not just be a spot up shooter. And one of the ways I got to that was to show up to practice and go, ‘F–k Steve Kerr, I’m going to be Jeff Hornacek!’”

Kerr laughs, remembering it. “And it was way more fun.”

A few years ago, before I read this book, we tried something similar with our team. We assigned each player a teammate to be for that day of training.

It really was a fun, liberating day for our players. One of exploration and freedom.

The Coach

As a coach Kerr judges players less and observes more. He recognizes the value of modeling and demonstrating. Show more, say less.

He also speaks less to them realizing that his comments add to a player’s confusion and self consciousness.

 “Think of any sport,” he says. “Let’s say golf. ‘I gotta keep my head down, I don’t want to sway, I want to keep my shoulders upright, I want to keep my swing inside and on impact I want my hands slightly forward.’ At what point are you going to be like, ‘Holy s—, I just told myself 17 things, how am I going to do all those things?’ Whereas if you just watch a golfer and don’t say anything and just try to mimic his swing, it condenses everything into a more meaningful moment.”

His insights also resonate with the work of researcher Gabriele Wulf who studies attention and the power of an external focus.  Wulf’s work explores the idea that focusing outside the self enables one to execute complex skills.

Kerr reinforces that idea.

Again from the article,

“Forget what happened on the last two plays, what will happen if you miss this shot, and your weekend plans. Instead, concentrate on the seams of the ball, or the whack-thump of hit and bounce (in tennis), or the pattern of your breathing. Occupy your brain and it can’t fret or chide (Keep your wrist firm, move your front foot, grip tight!).”

The Learner

Kerr fits the mold of the life-long learner.  Gallwey’s book may be the most influential, but Kerr is constantly reading and exchanging books with everyone around him.  He likes fiction as much as non-fiction and is clearly an expansive thinker.

It’s fascinating how often this turns out to be true of the best coaches.

Check out the article.

The Inner Game of Tennis is essential reading for athletes and coaches.

best books for coaches and leaders

How do you get out of your own way? In sports and in life. It’s a question that comes up all the time when pursuing excellence.

Here’s Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated addressing the question while writing about Steve Kerr’s love of the great book The Inner Game of Tennis by Steven Gallwey.

According to Gallwey, there are. One is your mind (“Self One”) and the other your body (“Self Two”). And far too often in sports, Self One is berating Self Two. We’re constantly disappointed in ourselves (“My backhand sucks today! Hit a goddamn shot!”). Here we have a remarkable physical machine, one capable of innately calculating and executing complicated sequences in microseconds, and we treat it with contempt. The question for the athlete, as Kerr puts it: “How do you get out of your own way? How do you stop the chatter in your mind?”

I recommend the book for any coach or athlete.

Approaching a Season

Here’s Kerr the coach addressing the pace required for sustained excellence.

Steve Kerr was interviewed at in 2017 and asked about his coaching priorities for the upcoming season.  Specifically he was asked about the record number of wins the Golden State team produced the year before and what role that accomplishment would play in his upcoming season.

He acknowledged it had been an important accomplishment the year before, but that the focus changed for the franchise.

They shifted to a goal of winning a championship season. That took priority over any regular season records.

What’s did he determine would be the key? Being fresh at the end of the season.

How do you do that?

Here are the coaching priorities he outlined at the time

Pace Your Team

He borrowed from his experience as a player with the Bulls where being the best team year after year wore on them. I remember watching that team, and Kerr as a player, and you could see at times in the middle of the season they were simply managing themselves to get to the end. A full season is a grind.

“We were running on fumes,” Kerr said. “I think the toll was over several years. That’s one of the reasons I think this year we’re going to pace ourselves somewhat … but we’re also better off having the new blood and the new life, because I think it will give us that boost.

“It doesn’t guarantee that were going to be better, but it changes the dynamics a little bit. I think it’ll make things a little fresher, and make it maybe a little easier for us to get through the regular season and get through the grind.”

Stay Healthy

Kerr referenced the need to keep the players healthy through a long regular season. The toll can be substantial on the body. And, the toll can be significant on the spirit.

He mentions LeBron James’s huge accomplishment of playing in 6 championships in a row, but that he would limit his regular season play some in order to be his best at the end. Something he intended to do with more of his team.

“The toll was more emotional than anything,” Kerr said Friday, ahead of the Warriors’ preseason game against the Denver Nuggets. “Over time, that stuff adds up. That’s why LeBron [James] going to the Finals six straight years is, to me, one of the great accomplishments of all time. Like, how many guys have done that?

“It’s a tricky issue on this team because people come out to see these guys play,” Kerr said. “I am sensitive to that. Not at the expense of our team’s health, but if guys are healthy, at the very minimum I want to throw them out there — for a few minutes, anyway — so fans get to see them play. But health always comes first.”

Experiment Early

Another focus, at least early was to experiment some with his team. Take some risks and discover a bit more about who they are.  This is part of managing the season for an experienced team.

“I don’t think we’ll have that this year,” Kerr said. “We’ve kind of been through that. We’d rather win a championship than set a record, that’s for sure.

“Last year we felt like we could do both — and we were pretty close — but we couldn’t pull it off. This year’s more about just growing and getting better and experimenting the first couple months of the season.”

In order to confidently try this approach a team and a coach have to have established a substantial record of success.   The Warriors had this record, and have one of the handful of best players in basketball with Curry.   It’s a risky thing to approach it with these coaching priorities–pacing yourself and experimenting with personnel,  but it’s a calculated risk born of a depth of experience and success.

How will you adapt your next season to fit your goals and give your team the best chance of success. You don’t need to copy Kerr’s tactics, but it is wise as a strategy to re-think our goals and approach each season.

The Steve Kerr article is here.

Still curious about Kerr?

Check out the podcast Finding Mastery.

He combines creativity, intelligence, thoughtfulness, competitiveness and the social awareness of other greats like Dean Smith or Greg Poppovich.

Here is the Finding Mastery podcast interview of Kerr.

The value that means the most to our team is joy, and its reflected in the way we play.