• Pickleballerz

I Get Anxious at Tournaments. Here’s How I Learned to Deal with it

By: Jason Shriner

the bronze, silver, and gold medal winners from the 2020 Fairfax Classic tournament pose with their medals and paddles
Jason and Thuy (center) won gold for mixed doubles 3.5 at the 2020 Fairfax Tournament. Pickleballerz members Chrissy and James also medaled.

About a month ago, my mixed doubles partner, Thuy, sent me a forum thread. The original poster expressed that she was great at rec play but she would get so nervous and anxious during a tournament that she would play very poorly. She didn’t want to give up competitive play, but she knew her nerves were holding her back and she was seeking tips on how to get her stress under control.

“She sounds just like you!” Thuy teased in a text message to me. She was right. During rec play, I feel at ease and I have a solid game. But drop me into a tournament, and I feel like I want to vomit. I hated that feeling because I love pickleball so much, and one of my favorite things about a tournament is getting to play with new people. I desperately read through the hundreds of comments on the forum looking for an answer.

Turns out the original poster and I aren’t the only people who get nervous in a competitive environment. If your nerves are your biggest enemy during a tournament, read on. I’ll share with you some of my favorite recommendations from that forum and how I keep myself steady when the pressure is on.

The most important thing is to find a partner you resonate with

One lesson I learned early on in pickleball is that I play so much better with a teammate where there is a steady flow of positive energy between us. I can play with a lower level player and we can still have a fighting chance against tough opponents because we are relaxed, trust each other, and are focused on having fun. But if I play with a higher-level player and I feel like they’re secretly judging me for every mistake I make, I guarantee you – I’ll make more mistakes.

Find a partner who is focused on building you up – and one you want to build up in return. You’ll enjoy pickleball more and you can push each other to develop your skills. Most importantly, they can help you focus and reduce the pressure you feel during a tournament. One of my favorite tournaments was with my friend Kelly where we chatted and laughed in between every point – even when we were losing! It really kept the games enjoyable and the stress at a minimum.

Teamwork can be the deciding factor in any match, so be sure to take the time to find the right partner for you.

Focus on the current rally, not the score

When you’re anxious, any situation can feel like it’s spiraling out of your control. The fact that we’re forced to say the score before a serve can add to that mounting pressure. But we all know from rec play, any team can come from a score of 1-10 and win 12-10. Remind yourself that pickleball is a game of inches and focus on getting one point at a time. Treat every rally as its own independent segment of your game and let go of any mistakes from previous rallies.

Drill before you start your day of rec play

When you’re stressed, your brain seems to be doing its own thing. It helps to be able to rely on muscle memory until your mind settles. The only way to develop that muscle memory is to drill and drill and drill.

We, as pickleball players, have a really bad habit of going onto a court, “warming up” for 2 minutes, and jumping right into rec play. That is a huge disservice to your own skill development in the long run. Instead of doing a basic warm up, spend at least 5-10 minutes and practice one skill that you want to drill. Over time, that will add up to hours of drilling! And that instinct you build into your game can make a huge difference when you feel like you’re panicking.

If you’re seeking a partner to drill with or need examples of drills to improve your game, the clinics at Pickleballerz can help. Check out what clinics are coming up on Court Reserve.

Participate in lots of competitive events

Part of being an athlete is getting used to being in a high-pressure situation. If you only participate in a tournament every couple of months, you’re never going to get used to the physical sensations that plague you during competitive games.

For me, no matter how hard I pretended rec play was a tournament, I could never replicate that awful feeling. So, I signed up for ladders, leagues, and round robins – any type of organized play that was even a little competitive. At one point, I was playing competitively 2-3 times a week. Over time, those anxious sensations slowly became quieter and quieter because eventually competitive play started to feel like rec play.

Getting to that comfort level is only part of the goal – I have to maintain it. When I moved up in rating, all that experience washed away, and I had to start over getting used to being nervous at a whole new rating. It’s a lot of pressure knowing that you’re the lowest 3.5 when folks are about to cross over to 4.0! Try participating in competitive events that challenge you, so that when it’s game time, it feels like just any other day on the courts.

Fortunately, Pickeballerz has lots of competitive events built into their calendar. Visit Court Reserve to check out what events are coming up!

Try meditation and external mental anchoring

When I was really struggling to control my nerves, I decided to take up meditation again. I figured it was just a daily commitment of 10-20 minutes a day and I could only benefit, so why not?

Meditation is all about making time for yourself, living in the moment, and awareness. Most guided meditations teach you to focus on your breath and calm your thoughts. In others you pay attention to your body and really listen to what it’s trying to tell you. All of these internal practices help you connect your mind and body.

The guided meditation that made the biggest difference for me was learning how to practice external mental anchoring. Unlike other meditation practices, this one is done with your eyes open and can be done at any time including in the middle of performing. While meditation teaches you to pay attention to your internal self, when you’re anxious about performing that could be the worst thing for calming your nerves. External anchoring helps distract your mind from spiraling thoughts and accompanying nervous physical sensations.

To practice external mental anchoring, pick one of your senses (usually sight, hearing, or touch) and really focus your attention on the sensations outside of your body. What I like to do is look around and look for colors and say what they are, “Green court. Orange kitchen. White shirt. Red shoes. Black net.” I do this before I serve or while I wait to receive a serve and it helps tremendously. You can also listen – really listen – to the other pickleballs being hit in other courts or the leaves rustling in the trees. Or really feel what your paddle’s handle feels like or how it feels when the pickleball bounces of your paddle.

I also rely on two other tricks I’ve learned through meditation. One is I imagine I’m breathing in refreshing, calming blue air and exhaling red air that is carrying away stress and anxiety. Really imagine inhaling and exhaling that cloud of air. Speaking of clouds, if you find yourself agonizing over mistakes remind yourself to let it pass through you like a cloud and imagine it actually happening. Just like external anchoring, these tricks can distract you from your stress while also having a very tangible calming effect.

If you’re interested in trying meditation but need guidance, I recommend the Calm App which you can download to your smart phone. It’s about $70/year but you can get a pretty nice discount for the first year subscription. They do a great job curating daily content and there’s a ton of existing content to dig through. I highly recommend Shinzen Young’s Deconstructing Performance Anxiety – the 20 minute session – where I learned about external anchoring.

Try a little “medicine” to calm yourself

If you’re a fan of fragrances, lotions and essential oils might be able to help ground you and soothe your nerves. My go-to scent is a eucalyptus spearmint blend. You can find this as a lotion at Bath and Body Works or buy essential oils. Lavender, citrus, and vanilla are other scents that can have calming or inspiring effects.

Last but not least, you can try one of my favorite recommendations from the forum – take a shot of your favorite liquor! Before we began a tournament, Thuy and I decided to try a shot of Fireball whiskey as little bit of “calming medicine” for our nerves. Even if it didn’t really have a truly calming effect, it brought us closer as friends and partners and made the tournament a tiny bit extra fun for us. Just don’t overdo it, of course!

Do you have any other strategies for dealing with stress during a tournament or performance anxiety? I’d love to hear about them!

Jason Shriner is a PPR certified coach for Pickleballerz. He is also an AFAA certified group fitness instructor and a marketing professional. Aside from pickleball, Jason enjoys board games with friends, listening to educational podcasts, traveling, eating desserts, and hiking with his husband and Eggroll, his dog. You can follow him on Instagram.

Northern Virginia’s first indoor dedicated pickleball facility, Pickleballerz is conveniently located off Routes 28 and 50 at 14424 Albemarle Point Place, Chantilly, VA. Keep up with Pickleballerz by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and subscribing to the mailing list.