Playing in the Now

It’s 9-9 and your turn to serve. You feel the anxiety creeping in. Should you hit a third shot dink or drive? Gosh, what if you lose this point! Before you know it, you miss your serve into the net, an unforced error… 

Have you ever found yourself in a situation like this? I know I have! 

The good news is that much like perfecting the perfect dink shot, you can also train your mind with specific mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness is simply the practice of noticing when your mind has strayed from the now, noticing that and then gently bringing it back to the present. 

In this blog we will explore a few tips for training your mind to stay in the now when competing and get a handle on those anxious thoughts that lead to unforced errors. 

1) Practice noticing when your mind has strayed.

Like with any skill, practice makes perfect. You don’t expect to have the perfect dink shot or drive in competition without first drilling it in practice. The same goes for mindfulness. 

The first step in developing mindfulness is simply practicing throughout a day or practice, i.e. simply noticing when your mind strays from the present…without any judgments that your mind has strayed. Practice being a third party objective observer of your own mind and when you notice a stray thought just say something nonjudgmentally (and ideally with kindness) like “Oh, there goes my mind again” and imagine you are gently taking your mind by the hand like you would a small child or maybe a beloved pet and bringing it back to the present moment. 

If you’d like an added practice to get you started in developing your mindful awareness skills, simply pick one activity you already frequently do in daily life and practice doing it mindfully. This might be something as simple as brushing your teeth, getting dressed, showering, or having your first cup of coffee in the morning. Mindfully engage with the activity with all five senses and when you notice your mind straying (and trust me it will; that’s just the nature of minds) gently bring it back to the chosen activity. You can then take this to the pickleball court and continue applying this to your practices. By competition day you’ll be a pro! Or at least more aware 🙂 Awareness is the first step to being in the now. So many people aren’t even aware when they’re not in the now in their day to day on and off the court. If you can master that awareness of noticing when your mind has left the now, you’ve got the first step down!

2) Anchors & Affirmations.

Anchors and affirmations are some of the most powerful mindfulness tools you can have in your toolkit and can be between points as a way to quickly help you refocus and reorient yourself to the present. 

An anchor can be anything. The breath is the most foundational anchor in fact. But I’ve found that using a more physical and concrete anchor can often be more effective than the breath alone. When we’re anxious we often forget to breathe deeply. Simply taking a few deep breaths while very powerful may not be enough especially when that refocusing needs to happen in those short few seconds between points. 

Anchors might include feeling the soles of your feet on the ground, touching the grip of your paddle or other spot on your paddle, feeling the weight of a pickleball in your hand, or even touching your thumb and index finger together. Anchors pair nicely with affirmations. An affirmation might be something like “I can do it”, “I am in the now”, “I am powerful and focused”. And your between points flow would look something like 1) turn away from your opponent, 2) fire off your anchor and affirmation, 3) do a quick pre-point ritual (maybe a twirl of your paddle?) as you are getting honed in for the next point. If you are playing doubles your ritual might involve a quick paddle tap or other way of connecting and focusing with your partner. 

3) What’s the S.C.O.R.E?

There is no way around score pressure when competing and, in fact, that’s even part of the fun (anxious fun?)! The trick is responding mindfully instead of reacting with anxiety. Now that you are armed with your anchor and affirmation, I wanted to share my favorite on and off court acronym called S.C.O.R.E. which stands for Stop, Connect, Observe, Respond.

Stop literally means to stop or pause what you’re doing. If you are feeling tight and about to rush and serve, stop. Then connect to your breath and your anchor and observe your mind (that mindful and nonjudgmental awareness you’ve been practicing). Finally you can choose how you want to respond (firing off your affirmation is always a good step!) instead of automatically reacting in that fight, flight or freeze mode that all too often leads to unforced errors. 

“The greatest efforts in sports come when the mind is as still as a glass lake.” -Timothy Gallwey


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *