In William Goldman’s story, The Princess Bride, the evil Count says, “One of my theories . . . is that pain involves anticipation.” He then chains Westley, the hero, near a torture device that he promises to use on Westley later. This is detrimental anticipation.
It’s easier to understand in reverse: anticipation can be painful because it brings anxiety. People often respond to anxiety by forcing a resolution before it’s time, just to end the feeling.
Because pickleball is fun, you may not realize you feel anxious while you play. Let’s say you’re waiting for your pickleball game to begin. Maybe it’s a tournament, or maybe it’s just a game that matters to you. You start feeling anxious, and your confidence diminishes with each negative thought you have. By the time the game starts, you’re not at your best.
Dealing with that type of anxiety requires you to block negative thoughts and dwell on positive ones. Relaxing and focusing on your strengths will bring a much better result. This takes practice, but it’s something you can work on all the time, not just when you’re playing pickleball. (I find it helps in many other situations, too.)
Here’s another example: you’re at bat in a softball game. The count is two balls and one strike. The pitch comes. You’re anxious to get a hit so you swing, but the ball was low and outside and you miss. Now it’s two balls and two strikes and you’re more anxious because another strike will put you out. The pitch comes . . . and your anxiety causes you to swing too soon and miss what probably would have been a hit.
Here’s another example: you’re at the net playing doubles and your opponents keep dinking to your backhand. It’s not your best shot, and you worry you’re going to put the ball in the net. In fact, you do put it in the net when you try to get out of the dink too soon. When you get to the net again in the next rally, you’re in the same spot, and you’re more anxious because the opponents have gained a point. Your anxiety causes you to make a poor return, which goes too high this time. You know the rest.
I like to spend time watching great pickleball players at tournaments or on YouTube. They make the game appear effortless. They don’t rush around the court. They take whatever time they have for each shot, and they don’t let anxiety about what’s coming interfere with the stroke they are making. They are calm — or at least more calm than other players. This is due to the amount of training they’ve had and how much they believe in their ability to succeed.
These last points are important. Training comes with directed practice, not just play — it’s practice toward a goal, whatever that goal might be. Directed practice makes you more confident in your ability to succeed at that goal. This success in turn reduces anxiety and promotes confidence, leading to better play, which again inspires more confidence. Win-Win (pun intended).
The dinking example illustrates the need for patience. It’s hard to be patient when you want to get that hit, but being patient is what will help you hit better when the time is right. This is particularly important in dinking, where you must continue patiently sending the ball back and forth, back and forth, until your opponent makes a mistake and you can take advantage of it. Don’t be anxious and end the dink too soon or you’ll be the one making the mistake.
If you watch as your opponent hits the ball, you’ll get a good idea where the ball is going to land, how much spin it will have, and more. Watch where your opponent is looking, too — that can reveal a lot about where the ball will go. (Of course, some players are tricky and look one way while using their peripheral vision to guide their shots, too.)
Planning ahead will also ensure that you have good position on the court when it is time to hit the ball. If you’ve ever watched a good pool or billiards player, you know they think ahead and set up their next shot while making the current one. Watching your opponent’s shot can help you know where you should be on the court in order to properly execute a return. Similarly, you can anticipate what your opponent’s next shot might be before the ball leaves your paddle and start moving accordingly.
For example, if you’re drawn to the outside of the court, chances are your opponent will send the next shot back to the center of your court — the place where you’re not. Quickly moving back to the center of your court is always a good idea, since it gives you the most options to reach the next ball. In this case, it could help you get there in time to make the shot instead of miss it. Whenever you can think ahead to what your opponent is likely to do and prepare for it, you’ll be one or more steps ahead, which can make quite a difference. The same is true when playing to your opponent’s weaknesses: knowing your opponent’s style helps you anticipate his actions, so it’s wise to pay attention to any patterns in his play.
Try to avoid the type of anticipation that leads to anxiety. Stay relaxed, and practice until you’re comfortable with your game. Keep your wits about you, and try to anticipate your opponent’s next move in order to be able to counter it effectively.