On Releasing the Elephant’s Chain – Gale Leach and the Pickleball Mental Game

(Ed. Notes:  The following was an exceptional response by Gale Leach to a post we recently wrote on the subject of playing competitive pickleball while anxious or depressed. For those of you who don’t yet know Gale, you should. She wrote The Art of Pickleball, one of the sport’s seminal books (now in its 4th edition) and still one of our favorites.  Gale has given us permission to quote her remarks in their entirety, for which we thank her!)


While I don’t think I have an anxiety disorder, I relate strongly to what you’ve written. I suffer the same anxieties on the pickleball court that you describe—enough so that my play in tournament situations was terrible at times. No, abominable. My partners couldn’t understand what happened.

It’s true in other areas, too. I’m able to get onstage and sing or act with only minor flutters of dread. But ask me to play my hammered dulcimer—an instrument I love and would LOVE to share with others—in front of people, and I become a shaking mass of goo. And shaking while trying to play the instrument doesn’t work well. I freeze, I sweat, I fall apart.

I’ve wondered if it’s the things that we care about most that cause us to react like this most strongly, though I’d place the importance (for me) of singing on stage on par with playing dulcimer . . . or pickleball.

I’ve always thought that practice in doing these things would make it easier. By that, I mean practice in playing competitive pickleball, not just hitting balls with friends. The same should be true if I drag my dulcimer out into the open and just keep hitting the strings where people can listen. I don’t know. For me, it’s knowing that people are watching—judging—my play in either situation that causes dread.

Like you, I’ve read the books that talk about letting go, centering, shutting out the noise, thinking positive thoughts. All help to some degree, but then the self-doubt creeps back in and grabs hold. Even when I’m doing wonderfully, the thought that just around the corner I’ll fail is never far from my mind.

I’ve studied players who have mastered pickleball to discover what they do differently from me. I think they don’t care as much as I do about what people think of them or how they play. That isn’t to say they don’t care about winning. They do. But the win is the thing—not so much how others perceive them. Am I wrong about this?

Lastly, at least for me, the elephant I’ve created in my mind over repeated bad experiences looms large each time I try to conquer it again. Experts say it takes three positive thoughts to offset one negative thought. Instead, I believe it’s necessary to let go of the elephant’s chain and treat the issue differently: be like a child and just go out and play. Remember the good times and lose the rest.

I’ll bring my dulcimer out later today and start playing. Thanks for the post

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