Usually Irene and I write our articles together. This one, however, is about my own experiences with the mental game, trying to play pickleball, and especially competitive pickleball when feeling anxious, depressed or both.
First things first. I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) about 40 years ago. The reality is I’ve had some disorder like this since I was a baby practicing projectile vomiting. Later my malady was diagnosed by well-meaning grade-school teachers as “nerves” – the schools called my mom more than once to come get me because I was overly “nervous”, whatever that meant.
Sometimes my stubborn little friend manifested a lot like agaraphobia, sometimes like obsessive-compulsive behavior. Sometimes, captured by it, I feel compelled to eat, especially sweets, especially between dinner and bedtime. This can feel terribly addictive and out of control, like it’s hunger with a mind of its own, like the Alien will soon explode through my stretched chest. Of course, sometimes when it hits the skids for real I can go in the other direction and not eat at all, which presents its own set of problems. Although it’s pretty good for the weight, I’ll admit.
I won’t go too far into panic attacks, which probably need their own article. Except to say that, yes, I’ve had a number of them, and yes, they suck amazingly strongly. Do you know the saying “There’s nothing to fear except fear itself,” first attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address? (And only later to Oingo Bongo in their 1982 album of approximately the same name and later still to a 3rd season episode of The Golden Girls, and never ever to Winston Churchill, who said other famous stuff.) (And while I’m thinking about it, the Bene Gesserit had something to say about it in Dune, didn’t they? See illustration above.) Well, to put the lie to some of that “fear is only” crap, I’m reprinting here a recent excerpt from New York Times senior columnist Jennifer Senior:
“(for any functional depressive) it’s work to seem fine. If you’re just well enough to drag yourself to your place of employment (your thoughts still a sound cloud of distress but the volume on low), or your depression takes the form more of an itchy sweater than a leaden dentist’s apron (which is to say, anxiety), you are forever and always performing your okayness. Every depresssed person has a clandestine self…..I know a thing or two about this. I’ve always wandered through the world nerves first. My anxiety can shatter stones, spook ghosts, freak out a cup of coffee. I jazz-hands my way through it.”
See what she’s doing there? She admits her “clandestine self” is what allows her to “jazz-hands” her way through her professional challenges. More and more public figures are outing their own struggles about living with anxiety and depression. I’ve seen people admit to having “Don’t Kill Yourself!” on their mirror in (I think it was) red lipstick to remind themselves to stay alive when they were in the middle of an episode. Not that they really wanted to kill themselves, I’d guess; more that at those moments they simply didn’t want to be alive ‘cuz living felt worse than what they imagined death could be like. And to remind themselves that they might get through this (which experience is probably telling them is very probable). IMHO depression could be even worse than anxiety in that regard. Maybe.
Now that I think about it, I really don’t know which is worse for me, anxiety or depression or dysthymia, (the latter being a low-grade consistent melancholy that sucks joy out of things like a giant invisible mosquito sitting on my shoulder). Seems when I’m in the throes of any one disorder, that’s the one that’s the worse, no doubt. But often when I dig my way out of (say) a panic attack I slide into depression, if not because that’s the natural path then because panic attacks are exhausting. People have often told me “Hey, panic attacks won’t kill you!” and so far they’ve been right. But I often feel that death might be preferable for a few hours after. But then the depression is worse. And so on.
Impact on My Game-pickleball
Of course the real point of this article, (at least when I began writing it), is how to explain how to deal with this shit and still play competitive pickleball. Fact is, this isn’t a one-trick pony of an answer, at least not for me. I’ve been trying to address this particular issue for a decade. Every pickleball tournament I played in (probably 70-100) required me to move past some degree of anxiety. Three times the anxiety spiked, triggering an AFib incident and the medical team would pull me off the courts because my steady heart rate was suddenly more like a boxer jumping on a trampoline. One of those three times Irene drug me off the court and raced me to an emergency room, where I got to hear the intern tell the ambulance driver that “We might have another one”, and to stand by. Other times I’d take medical time outs just to get my breath…not ‘cuz I was out of breath but because I simply couldn’t breath at all. You know that’s the issue when you suddenly begin to see the ball coming over the net only as a vague yellow blur and the angle of the court floor itself suddenly seems rather steep for a pickleball court. Dehydration usually sets in around then, which tends to exacerbate AFib and stress and anxiety anyway…and suddenly everything seems very hard and dark. (I apologize here to the several partners I left in the lurch when my stuff got in our way. It was my issue. You can apply for your money back. Except Grasso. You were playing like ca-ca that day, too, so don’t blame me all that much! I’ll split it with you. PayPal OK?)
Tools I’ve Used in Pickleball Tournaments
I have and have had several good tools to help me deal with my little problems during pickleball tournaments. In advance, working and drilling on pre-shot routines, especially for my serve (which I regularly lose, a recurring feature in a book we wrote last year, The Fish Finder Chronicles), certainly helped. Meditation sort of worked too, and many folks have said they saw me, eyes closed, sitting with my back against a chain-link fence, between matches. Just slow-breathing and hydrating until I sloshed to matches helped a bit. Eating something without caffeine or refined sugar in it helped, too. Reading some sports psychology tome or other helped. Writing down stuff from the last match focused me, except once when a 5.0 I was in awe of read what I was writing over my shoulder and razzed me mercilessly thereafter, reminding me of my days of (regularly) finding shame on the schoolyard basketball courts.
Getting some intel on who we were playing next was useful..anything I could do to prepare in advance for a pickleball match was worth doing. I tried other things…copper bracelets, lucky stones, 3X5 pocket cards noting the meme I had for myself that day, or sometimes reminding myself of what to focus on. It seems it wouldn’t need saying but it didn’t often make sense for me to poach certain partner’s middle shots when their strong-hand was 4.8 X stronger than my weak hand – which, in the midst of an adrenaline rush, I’d do. But reading that note on my little card sometimes reminded me to stay on my own side of the court.
Other prosaic things helped significantly. Mark Freedenberg told me a long time ago, back when dinosaurs were still very small, that he changed his socks after every match. Thus his feet stayed dry and cozy and gave him one less thing to think about. Same with shirts and even shoes. I remember one tournament Grasso and I won, the 4.0 in Huntsman. That was a big deal and kicked us to 4.5 but mostly I remember playing the final match, late in the day and still in 100-degree heat, me as tense as if I was a tightly-strung piano wire, with a shirt like a wet mop and with my sun-block actually melting and getting in my eyes. Lucky we were in the winner’s bracket. We needed the consolation match.
I’ll also admit to doing a couple of stranger things from time to time. Well, one I can talk about, anyway. I used to pay a friend, no names mentioned (oh, OK, it was Bobbie Cooper) to come to my matches (when she was there anyway) to cheer for me. The rate was $1 a cheer. Yes, it’s true. Yes, it worked. And, yes, I paid up.
Tools I’ve Used in Life
Of course, outside the courts I’ve done lots of work on these issues as well. Here’s a partial list:
- Talk therapy? Put a couple of folk’s grandkids through college with it. This includes one straight-up sports performance psychologist, who was more interesting but not particularly useful.
- Drugs? I can name them all (with Xanex being my favorite and the hardest to eventually get off of).
- Meditation classes and clinics? You bet. Twice for one of them.
- Meditation practice? Sure, guided and self-guided, using breath and visualization mostly.
- Acupuncture? Loved it, but it didn’t help. Same with massage.
- Yoga? Sure, although my L3-L4-L5-S1 decided maybe I shouldn’t any more. (Refer to the part about being 74.)
- On-line courses guaranteeing anxiety and depression control in weeks? They lied, but yes, twice. Well, three times if you add in the sports psychology course I took.
- Books? I collect books anyway, so of course. BTW, there actually is one book (My Age Of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel) that I actually recommend you stay away from like we retirees stay away from hard work. It frankly scared the crap out of me, ‘cuz Scott seems worse-off than me and, worse, showing me a further downward spiral is still possible. You are now going to go buy it, I know. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Actually, looking through the above list, I now remember several other things I initially forgot to mention. They didn’t work either so I won’t bother you by mentioning them. This article is already way too long.
Next – the Creation of the Clandestine Self
So that’s me. A “head-up” for those of you who read our stuff regularly, like it or not you’ll probably see more on this subject ‘cuz I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Fact is, all I’ve covered in the above is a (hopefully fascinating) recap of anxiety and depression issues and a listing of of tools I’ve used to address them. In another article I’ll discuss how to create and maintain a Clandestine Self, so that you can better hide behind it, like I do. (Few, if any, of my erstwhile opponents ever suspected why I was playing even more like poo-poo that day.
I hope all this does you some good. Or at least makes you feel you’re not alone. (You’re not, BTW – a significant percentage of adults suffer from either anxiety, depression or both. Perhaps 20% by Look it up.) Anyway, talking with you about it helps me, at least, so thanks much.
(Ed. Note: We have had a very strong reaction from our readers about this article, which we always appreciate. Some of the remarks have been remarkably on-target and useful in their own right. For instance, Gale Leach’s comments are worth a read and inform on the way that performance anxiety in particular can impact far more than pickleball in a multi-talented person. Gale is author of one of the most-reprinted Pickleball books, the Art of Pickleball.)