What Pickleball Taught Me About Relaxing Into Discomfort

I was at an event for my book the other night when someone asked if certain skills in the book required more time to learn and practice. I thought it was such a thoughtful question, and I’m still not sure I have a definite answer. 

My answer in the moment was skill #9: relaxing into discomfort. 

You don’t need big scary uncomfortable goals like jumping out of an airplane, posing naked or doing some Fear Factor-type exposure to practice this. Big things like this are sexy and make for great IG reels, but it’s the day-to-day micro-shifts that move our dial forward. 

I was reminded of this in the most unsexy of ways this week — pickleball. 

As anyone who read my book knows, I had a love-hate relationship with tennis growing up. I loved it when there was no competition, but the minute there was pressure, I crumbled. 

Like on the verge of vomiting as if I was playing a Grand Slam instead of a middle school tennis match. 

And when I was young, there were no “mindset coaches” (not that my parents would have sent me to one) or any of the resources there are today. So I quit tennis, happy to avoid the distress and discomfort

Fast forward to the present. I decided about 9 months ago to learn pickleball. From the start, all those old stories came back:

I can’t handle pressure.

It’ll be like tennis 2.0.

I’m going to be a terrible partner.

No one will want to play with me.

I’m not good enough to play.

I know it sounds irrational (and it’s just pickleball) but welcome to my thoughts. 

Even though I’ve been playing, I still prefer the comforts of a relaxed, non-competitive crowd. 

Lately, however, I’ve been on a streak of playing with some very intense players. 

I’ve been snapped at several times — for making simple mistakes like not letting the ball bounce, not moving fast enough, not marking a corner, “not wanting to be coached” and “not wanting to win enough.”  

My initial reaction was:

This crowd is too intense. I’m never coming back.

I knew they were too good, and I wasn’t up for it. I suck.

Who cares this much about pickleball? I’m done.

Before I threw in the towel, I decided to give it at least 24 hours. Yes, I had had a string of negative interactions there, but there were also many good ones. 

Unlike when I quit tennis, I knew the dangers of quitting and reinforcing the (false) belief that I can’t handle pressure. I don’t like it but I can do it, and I’ve done way harder things than play pickleball. I also knew that my desire to avoid playing was driven by a desire NOT to feel anxious versus a persistent problem with the environment. 

It took me .0000099999th of a second to realize it was me wanting to avoid distress, so I knew here was my chance to relax into the discomfort. 

Here’s how I did it:

  • Went back ASAP
  • Accepted being anxious while I played BUT met it with a relaxed body (think rag doll, slow movements, long exhales) to show my brain I’m feeling uncomfortable, but it’s okay. (I also knew tensing up would mess up my shots.)
  • Worked on not judging my shots as “terrible” or “great”
  • Made a commitment not to apologize for missed shots and explain that I’m new(ish)
  • When my brain wants to replay the shots I messed up or an unpleasant interaction, I notice the thought (or if I’m lost in it) and redirect to the present

Over and over. 

For me, playing with this crowd was harder than the hardest squats I do. 

And I continue to go and practice.  

Because it’s not really about pickleball or the people. 

Like I’ve said before, it’s not about the trigger because the trigger will change. It could just as easily be about dating, my kids, a loss, moving, etc. 

It’s about how I react to the trigger.

Am I treating the trigger as an opportunity to learn something about myself, get better at something and possibly have fun, or am I treating it as something I can’t handle that’s too much?

Leaning in here helps me in any other situation that’s uncomfortable or distressing. 

I’m leaning into many of the same skills — distress tolerance, acceptance of “what is,” moving toward what’s important — but the level of distress may be different. Here. it may be a 5/10 whereas another situation may be a 7/10 or a 3/10 or a 8/10. 

Same skills, different levels of distress.

I encourage you to seek out as many opportunities as possible to lean into the distress. And remember, it’s the same skills but some are predictably more challenging. You may not be able to do those hard ones….yet.