Life By Design: High Anxiety

One definition of anxiety is wishing to be successful in an endeavor in which you inevitably choke.



My latest foray into what Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Blink calls ‘temporary autism’ was terrifically displayed at a recent member-guest tennis invitational.

As an avid player I was thrilled to get the invite.  As an egotist, I was sure I should accept, even if it was the day before driving to the Midwest with my three manic boys.  After all, my host, a new friend, insisted that she needed a ringer to win since she had bombed out last year.

The anxiety of leaving the house before 8:00 for an event that no one I lived with thought important was multiplied by driving to the Ardsley Country Club with the prediction I would never find it.  But I did.  Advantage, me.

Like anybody else who enjoys a bit of competition, I went onto the courts with the idea that this was going to be some fun.  I wasn’t planning on First Place, but at least a Runners-Up platter, in pewter, engraved with the date and place of the win-a tiny line where my name would go.

Not to be confused with The State of Panic, but meeting the first challengers out of seven, signs of nervousness crept up: dry mouth, shaking.  It didn’t take more than the warm-up strokes for me to realize that it may have been wise to have played tennis at least once with my partner since dinner parties don’t demand that you hit like a man while making lady-like chit-chat in a skimpy get-up fit for a much younger you.  With each grand slam past the baseline I brought my racket in closer, my strokes slowly looking as though I was swatting mosquitoes.  Caution took over where cavalier was called for.

I tried to shake my brain fog off, thinking of perfect Roger Federer, who as noted in an article in the New Yorker called Anxiety on the Grass, ‘has absolute confidence in his own magical gifts.   In fact the people watching him seem to have more anxiety over a possible loss than he does’.  As my own magical gifts slipped away, we lost one round after the other, stopping to sip juice in between while women in white skirts eyed the board, rackets ready, smiles wider than considered normal.

Like any solid anxiety, the reality of how unimportant this was became quickly replaced by how bad I was at math.  And how in my sophomore year I was told off by what turned out to be a super-alcoholic geometry teacher.  There was no doubt it had been kids like me who had driven him to drink.  Having never overcome my math phobia I knew this was a slippery slope toward demonstrative self laceration.  And one Abbey Michaels outlines as the third symptom in Signs & Symptoms of Math Anxiety, Negative Self-Talk. 

So by the fourth round having lost almost three out of four, I started sounding deranged, unhinged.  Cursing at the passing balls down the line; hitting my racket on the clay with each shot down the middle that both my partner and I stepped back from so the other could get it.  Muttering pointers to myself like “hit the ball moron”.  I had reached Gladwell’s full temporary autism which is considered a mind-blindness where you can no longer understand what other people might be thinking by looking at them.

I couldn’t read my opponents.   It was probably apparent what others thought by looking at me; my blank mind could grasp this, but not how to hit a serve.    In this state, you have tunnel vision, and the sense that time is slowing down allowing you to step back and look at how crappy you really are. 

Remembering in slow motion that this happened to me in a high school play-off, I prayed to be stung by bees, bringing the match to a halt out of no fault of my own.  Where was a looming disaster when you needed one?  Why was I suddenly back in high school?   

After losing five out of six, in the last match we handily pummeled a bright cheery mother of three boys and her partner, their piano teacher.  Had it not been her first year of play and my 40th, I could have gloated my way to the losers table at lunch.  Relying on my ability to know which fork to use, I calmly took in the beautiful setting overlooking the Hudson from atop the mansion’s stone terrace.  My host tired of my apologies and brought the score board over, bravely going over our points.  

Unlike sensitive Roger who used to cry when he lost but now cries when he wins, I did neither, my dignity returning as I successfully made small talk while remembering to chew with my mouth closed.

I thought about Roger’s evolution, questioning my own. 

They passed out mugs for the losers with the word LOVE on it—was I the only one chuckling that LOVE is a zero score? 

That night one of my brothers was in from Chicago and came for dinner.  Turns out sports anxiety runs in the family.  He said he consistently chokes on the golf course when he plays with guys who have inside jokes and clients he wants to impress.  “If I don’t keep score I’m fine, otherwise I can shoot 20 over my game.”

In the end, not worrying what the other guy thinks separates the winners.  How else would you explain   Roger’s rival Rafael Nadal pulling his shorts out of his behind before every serve?


Kim Berns is a writer and designer living in Rye.


  1. Great article Kim, really enjoyed that one.

  2. There comes a time when one must simply sprain an ankle. Though I admire your spunk in not doing so.

  3. Finally read it! You know you have to do a follow up sometime celebrating the victory over anxiety (or whatever it is) upon return to the scene of the disaster…..

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