Pickleball insights: 'It's all about your head'

A friend of mine recently sent me an excerpt from "Open: An Autobiography," by Andre Agassi, the retired tennis professional. In it he talks about the mental battle he learned to fight after finding a new coach who helped propel him to do remarkable things in tennis.

My friend saw parallels in my own thought process: "The tyranny of perfection".

Growing up playing tennis with a father who (most of the time) gently taught my brother and me the needed skills, I was still subconsciously motivated to compete against my younger (by 18 months) brother, who was a superior athlete in our teenage years.

Fifty years later and I still wanted to beat him. When I first started to play pickleball, I took that on the court every time and that meant hitting perfect shots down the middle, along the line, or beautiful cross-court backhands. Or trying to blast the ball through my opponent as he stood at the net.

This striving for perfection, and the simmering anger that accompanied it, was getting in the way of just enjoying what I could still do as I approach my 70th year on this planet – being able to move with balance, learn new skills, and enjoy time with health-minded folks.

If this sounds like you, hear me, there's help for you. If you don't consider yourself a competitive person, there might still be something to learn here.

For me, sports play can achieve a situational awareness because to play well, "play my game," I have to bring myself into the moment and focus. If I'm distracted, thinking about the day's chores, a disagreement at home, or the person across from me who just hit me with the ball (not on purpose, of course), that can really throw off my game.

Sometimes my focus can look like, and probably is, an intensity that makes others uncomfortable. So, I'll remember to smile when I'm receiving a serve, like I'm enjoying myself. Or compliment my opponent, or my partner, when they hit a good shot. I'll smother a negative reaction, by yelling "Got me!" when someone gets a ball past my paddle. This has taken time to happen in my game.

Professional athletes talk about, while stepping to the plate to hit a baseball, or playing on Center Court at Wimbledon, or fighting in a world championship, not hearing the crowd. Not hear a crowd of 60,000 people screaming at you? How can that be? They have learned to focus so intently that all that is present in their minds is that moment, and after that moment the next moment.

And the other battle that us lesser mortals fight is our inner voice, self-talk. The one that tells us we "goofed," or are stupid, inferior, uncoordinated, incapable, dumb, etc. We are then not only playing against our opponent, but ourselves. And that is certainly an unlevel playing field.

At the start, this was really a bad situation for me, and the people I played with. I "played angry," was erratic and no fun to be around. It was only because I apologized for my behavior, promptly, that people continued to play with me.

It's taken about three years, but I don't have the outbursts I used to have. I rarely got angry with other players, it was usually about my own play, but that shouldn't have mattered. My friend, the same one who sent me the Agassi excerpt, told me, "I'm your friend, but sometimes you make it really hard".

Agassi quotes his coach again: "When you chase perfection, when you make perfection the ultimate goal, do you know what you're doing? You're chasing something that doesn't exist. You're making everyone around you miserable. You're making yourself miserable. Perfection? There's about five times a year you wake up perfect, when you can't lose to anybody, but it's not those five times a year that make a tennis player. Or a human being , for that matter. It's the other times. It's all about your head, man."

So, three years into my new sport I think I've found my way to a place where I am aware of the thought processes that can propel me in an upward spiral. Have I found my "happy place"? Maybe.

I've found meditation helps. As I drive up to the court to play, I'll try to remind myself what I'm doing there, and why I'm doing it. And taking even a few moments during a game to focus on the here and now, a deep breath, saying "this is it" in my head, then letting other thoughts fall away, is helpful. That helps get me in the right place.

And I try to constantly remind myself that it's just a game.

Next time: How to improve your recreational play

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