Eight great ways to defeat your performance anxiety on the pickleball court.
Whether it’s before a big tournament, or meeting a new group of people, everyone has nerves—literally. Our nervous system coordinates our movements, recognizes what’s most important to us,
and is on the constant lookout for what could potentially hurt us. Having spent countless hours over the last decade with performance anxiety, I’m fascinated with how valuable and instinctual our nervous system is.
Other sources of stress come from how we think, traumatic experiences, uncertainty, or other factors
such as quality of sleep, nutrition, hydration, or other pressures that come from our lived experiences, or imagined fears. There are ways to calm our nerves when facing challenging situations in pickleball.
Most people look at anxiety as bad. It isn’t. It’s signaling something’s important to you. Of course, you want to win.
As author Joseph Campbell put it, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” Whatever you fear, you value. You’ve got to slay the dragon of fear to get the gold (medal). Gold isn’t just laying around; it’s usually guarded by something—fear.
The most common treasure we find when we confront our fears is discovering something we didn’t know
about ourselves. We are more capable than we realized. Friends, money, medals, and ranking points are nice as well. Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, but the confrontation of it.
A one-word definition of anxiety is: Uncertainty. You’re feeling nervous because you don’t know exactly how things will unfold. The goal is to realize that despite the unknown, uncertain outcomes, you can handle any of them.
Let’s say you’re getting ready for your first match of the day. What could happen? Well, you could win, you could lose, you could forfeit, someone could sadly have an injury, or you could embarrass yourself to the point that the entire community never wants to play with you again. I say this last one facetiously, however the fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or shame is one of our greatest fears.
Luckily for us, this is not the type of community pickleball is, or attracts. The pickleball community
as a whole is immensely gracious and accepting of
all different types and classes of people and abilities. That’s a big reason we play this sport in the first place: acceptance and belonging.
Pete Sampras has puked, broken down in tears, and overcome many emotions. Federer has wept. Nadal has talked openly about his anxiousness. Professional athletes have “choked” in the biggest moments, and it makes us love them even more. We can all relate. We’re all human. We all get nervous and that’s OK.
EVERYTHING’S A CHOICE
You and your nervous system don’t like feeling forced to do anything. Just watch a kid being forced to go to school where they have been bullied, or being compelled to ride an intimidating roller coaster. The nerves will kick into full gear, and they will resist.
You don’t have to do anything. This truth has a calming effect on your nerves. Nothing is forcing you to play in a tournament. There are a million other things you could do with your day. Recognizing it’s your choice activates a different part of your brain and you will feel the confidence that accompanies choosing to confront something important to you, albeit scary, rather than feeling compelled to do it.
HAVE COURAGE AND BE KIND
Learn how to be a good winner, as well as a good loser. If you can accept victory and defeat with the same level of gratitude, grace, and poise, you are much less likely to feel anxious (and are in fact more likely to play your best).
Sometimes people get fixated on “luck” and refuse to give their opponent any credit. This is a path that will just lead to frustration. They aren’t the only ones who are getting lucky, even though admittedly it can feel that way at times. It feels better to congratulate your opponent, rather than berate yourself for every tiny mistake you have made since your conception!
Giving credit to your opponents can take the pressure off of you. They are a valuable part of the process. Even though they seem to get in the way of what you want, what you want wouldn’t exist without their presence.
Be grateful that your mind and body allow you to be playing this game—there are millions of people who don’t have that same luxury. Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Be grateful our battles are with plastic balls and graphite paddles. Be grateful for the people who are engaged in much more significant battlefields so that we can play.
According to Timothy Gallwey in “The Inner Game of Tennis,” the root definition of competition is a “mutual uplift,” not a winner and a loser. Competition, in its finest form, brings out the best of all competitors and spectators alike. Sadly, there are situations where competition can bring out the worst, but that’s not in the spirit of true competition.
You want to be competing at the threshold of your capabilities. You could sign up for a lesser league so that you win every time. But this isn’t competing. You could also sign up for a much higher level. You are unlikely to feel nerves in these situations and this may be an avoidance of nerves, rather than the willingness to grow and courageously compete.
TAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF
Your thinking mind can create stories that just aren’t accurate. If you miss a dink, you aren’t “an uncoordinated loser who has never done anything right in your life.” The ball just went either too wide, too short, or too high. Don’t judge yourself so harshly.
If things feel like they are going too quickly, take a time out, take some deep breaths, take a drink of water—pay attention to where you are feeling stress and bring some relaxation and compassion to that area. Count to 10, then count backward from 10, then count to 10 by evens, then backward with odds… focus on something that isn’t the score, broaden your perspective, feel the sense of gratitude that you exist at all.
Do you have a best friend, a family member, a place on this planet, or another source where you feel a
sense of security or grounding when you are stressed? Not to go too deep into the psychology of it, but secure connection calms our nerves. If you have something that you are securely attached to—a phrase, a person, a ritual—continue to use it. If you don’t, that’s something worth finding. That’s where true comfort and soothing are found.
What seemed like an impossible mountain to climb
a year ago seems like a speed bump today. Not that the fear has decreased, but that your ability to confront it has increased. You used to be afraid to go to your local community center and now you can compete at Nationals. Good for you! That’s what the hero does—gets to the point of limitation, challenges it, and then grows due to the process.
Good luck on the courts!