Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Man with tennis racket in hand getting ready to serve.

Anxiety Disorders, Panic, Phobias and Fear Part 3 Professional-level anxiety

by James Porter June 12, 2024

Many professional tennis players have anxiety around serving. And for some it is so bad they have to leave the game entirely.


This is a ten-part series about anxiety: How to identify the different forms of anxiety and what you can do to lessen its effects.

As an anxiety sufferer who has read about it extensively, I can look at the causes of anxiety, see the occasional upside of it, recognize the symptoms, know ALL the cures, and STILL have a great deal of trouble dealing with it from time to time. Fear of flying and fear of public speaking were two forms of anxiety (or phobias) I’ve managed to overcome without completely eliminating the anxious feelings that accompany either activity. (As you will learn in this series, the trick to dealing with anxiety is to make peace with the fact that have it and knowing that, not let it stop you from doing something you really want to do.)

Anxiety sufferers obsess about the future and what-ifs. What if this happens; what if that happens? You’re not just thinking about the future you’re worried about the future. If it’s truly an anxiety disorder, you are probably also feeling nervous and upset about the future and you are probably having some kind of physical symptoms like muscle tightness, increased heart rate or sweating.

One of the issues for people with anxiety, is that you often think you are the only one who has it. Since the stigma around having anxiety is gradually being lifted, we are just beginning to see that anxiety affects all kinds of people in all kinds of professions. For example, I always thought that professional athletes were immune to it: By competing in huge stadiums and on TV in front of millions of people – in my eyes - this proved that professional athletes were completely impervious to anxiety.

But then I met a psychiatrist who worked for the NY Mets. “Imagine when YOU make a little mistake at work,” he explained to me, “who’s going to know about it? But as a Major League baseball player, or any professional athlete, when you make an error, the whole world knows about it before you even get home from work. It can be VERY anxiety producing.”

“Pitchers are the worst,” he explained, “they will often vomit or have anxiety attacks before a game where they have to pitch. They claim to have a bug and can’t play, but I know they’re just anxious and I coach them through it. Basketball great, Bill Russell, threw up before every single game. New York Yankee second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, got so anxious about making the short toss from second base to first base, that he finally quit playing baseball entirely. You don’t have to look very hard to see that anxiety is a fairly common problem in ALL walks of life.”

I found this conversation to be strangely comforting.

Just this past weekend I decided to do something I’ve avoided doing my entire adult life. I entered into a town tennis tournament. Even though I’ve played tennis my entire life, it’s always been against friends who I feel comfortable playing with. I’m a good player (USTA rating: 4.0 out of 7) but I’ve avoided these small, town tournaments – because spectators come to watch them and that makes me anxious.

The idea of making a mistake, in front of even a small group of people, simply terrified me. The thing I was worried about most was double-faulting. If you don’t know tennis, you get two attempts to serve the ball successfully. When you miss both tries that’s a double fault and you lose the point before it even started.

Arnya Sabalenka (Wikipedia)

Here’s a paragraph taken from the NY Times in 2022 about Arnya Sabalenka who is currently one of the best players in the world: 

“She has more cabinet-rattling power than anyone in the women’s game, but she also has developed the yips on her second serve: a sudden inability to rely on the muscle memory that she had acquired through years of playing.”

This is not an uncommon problem even in professional sports as recently seen with Boston Red Sox, Chris Martin as he went on the injured list with anxiety. Articles I looked up about Chuck Knoblauch, the second basemen who had so much trouble throwing to first he had to retire, also referred to his problem as “a case of the yips.”

So that’s exactly what I was worried about playing in a tournament: “Getting a case of the yips” while serving. Other mistakes I could handle making in front of people, but double-faulting, would simply put my problem with anxiety on display for all to see. So that gets back to the stigma around having anxiety. Even though EVERYONE has it to different degrees, because of the stigma, we don’t want anyone to know that WE have it! And that’s why we anxiety sufferers often feel so alone. 

Still, I had developed a cure for the double fault, that I learned while watching old Tony Trabert tennis training videos. Unlike other tennis pros, who teach you to develop two completely different serves for your first and second serve -requiring two different sets of muscle memory - Tony advised his non-professional students – people like me – to simply work on ONE serve – that reliably goes in at least 50% of the time. That way you could comfortably count on almost never double faulting. 

That system worked very well for me. Not only because it was the SAME set of muscle memories every single time it had the distinct psychological edge that the odds of getting at least one serve in play were ALWAYS in my favor. Since it's your thinking that goes awry in a case of the yips, having a psychological tool in my toolkit was a distinct advantage. 

The only other thing I had to do was figure out how to NOT let my nervousness build up in the days before the tournament and RUIN my whole week. For that I relied on techniques I’ve been working on in my meditation practice. Whenever my mind would jump forward in time to anxiously thinking about the tournament ahead, I’d bring it back into the present moment and dwell on whatever I was doing at the time instead. 

I even got through the day of the tournament with minimal nervousness by focusing on the present moment. Despite losing in the first round, and making some perhaps, avoidable mistakes from nervousness, it was a close match and I won some difficult points. Throughout the match I saw that my opponent made plenty of similar mistakes as well. But when the match was over, instead of feeling disappointed that I had lost, I felt a rush of excitement (a dopamine rush) for having faced down a life-long fear, the glow of which lasted for several days afterwards. 

In the next installment I will write about what turns the FEELING of Anxiety into a PROBLEM with Anxiety.

James Porter
James Porter