EagleVail pickleball coach publishes new book, ‘Zen and the Art of Pickleball’

Mike Leigh, a local pickleball player, published a book this August that talks about how to maintain an even keel on the court and in life.
Mike Leigh/Courtesy photo

“How can you be so calm on the court?” was becoming a worn out phrase from EagleVail’s Mike Leigh’s pickleball students.

“Thanks for your Zen attitude on the court,” a partner at a recent tournament complimented him.

“Thus, the inspiration for this book,” he writes in the introduction to “Zen and the Art of Pickleball,” which he published in August and is selling on Amazon. The text is more than an esoteric approach to the sport psychology of pickleball. The quick, gentle read packs tons of basic principles for success in athletics and life — all in a 48-page pocket-sized manual.

“I’m hoping readers will come away with a new approach to their game: A Zen approach to play with a calm focus, less anxiety and stress, a focus on fun rather than winning every game and a focus on making the game fun for both partners and opponents, no matter the final score,” he said.

“And also, maybe some readers will see that a Zen attitude on the court can also be a Zen attitude for the rest of their lives; that we can all be happier and healthier if we just ‘let it flow.'”

In a sense, no one may be more equipped to write such a book.

Finding his swing

Leigh’s father abandoned his family when Mike was just five. His mom, who was agoraphobic, didn’t drive or work.

“I was raised on welfare and food stamps,” Leigh described, adding that he himself was not an athlete growing up.

His mom “searched for comfort in religion and found a teaching called ‘The Infinite Way,'” when he was about 10-years-old.

“This teaching uses meditation to go within to find God or the spirit that is within each of us,” Leigh explained.

“The infinite way combines Eastern mysticism with Western teachings. Its tenets are that all religious teachings have common roots, and each has had a human mystic which has taught basic spiritual principles.”

Through meditation, Leigh explains, “we become closer to that spirit and let that spirit flow out from within us, enriching our lives and the lives of others.”

Leigh breathes his own theology of sport into the pages of his first book. He mentions being generous with self-officiating, positive in communication with your partner and properly contextualizing the game.

“In the grand scheme of things, this little game on this little planet is of no consequence,” he writes. While he might have trouble telling that to Stephen A. Smith and the ESPN co-hosts who bark for hours at one another over a minuscule and meaningless college offensive coordinator’s second-quarter play-calling, Leigh takes his readers down a path that is inviting , encouraging and ultimately — edifying — no matter what your sporting background (or sport of choice) is.

“You can still leave the court a winner knowing that you tried to do your best on every shot,” he writes, encapsulating a definition of success attainable by anyone curious of what they’re capable of and willing to pursue it.

Leigh’s athletic journey started in the late ’60s at Pasadena High School, where he played tennis.

“I was not an athlete when I was young,” he admitted.

“In fact, I was the chubby little kid that got picked last for the kickball games at school. Then, my uncle taught me tennis and I played on my high school team.”

Even though he considered himself “not a great athlete,” Leigh “did get a glimpse of how meditation could influence my physical and mental aptitude in sports and academics.”

He earned a full academic scholarship to UCLA, graduating in 1973 with a degree in biology. For the next four years, he was a high school math and science teacher and tennis coach. After that, he spent four years at Vic Braden Tennis Academy in Southern California, before moving to EagleVail in 1981. He worked four years teaching skiing in the winters and tennis in the summers, meeting his wife, Denise (who has lived in the valley since 1978), on a 1985 ski trip.

“To my wife Denise and my sons Dylan and Conor, who taught me patience in the face of adversity,” he writes in the dedication of his book. Two others who receive dedication are Leigh’s mother, Dorothy and his dog, Koa, “who taught me to be more mellow.”

Koa, a border collie/Australian cattle/beagle mix walked into Leigh’s life 18 months ago from a Glenwood Springs shelter. The amiable dog accompanies Leigh on long walks and runs on the beach when Mike and Denise are in Mexico, where they spend April-June and Oct.-Nov. to surf and stand-up paddleboard.

“If I go in the water to surf or swim, Koa sits on the shore waiting for my return,” Leigh said.

“He is a very spiritual dog and very calming to be near.”

In the mid-’80s, Leigh decided to get his master’s degree in computer science from San Diego State. His thesis on an “expert system to teach jumping” was highlighted during NBC’s Olympic broadcast in 1988. From 1989-2002, he was the co-owner of Peak Performance Technologies, which developed systems to 3D model athletes. He moved on to work for the United States Olympic Committee’s sports science department from 2002-2009, using computer-video systems to improve athlete performance.

He then held video analysis jobs with Red Bull’s elite athletes and Panasonic, where he installed video analysis systems for the MLB and LED screens for sports venues. In 2018, he shifted to working at Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, teaching math and science, while coaching skiing at Vail during the winter and pickleball in the summers.

Leigh’s mix of ultra-analytical, scientific order and spiritual sense of flow is reflected in the pages of his book. In discussing anxiety and decisions, he outlines methodical, step-by-step processes for playing mistake-free. Surprisingly, he juxtaposes those ideas with an almost paradoxical concept of ‘the flow state,’ where all the decisions are made instantly, subconsciously and confidently.

“This is the Zen of pickleball,” he writes. “No tension, no hurried actions, no anxiety.”

For those familiar with sport psychology literature, Leigh’s descriptions of fully-focused engagement, communication, the ‘flow state’ and visualization are reminiscent of Dr. Terry Orlick’s “In Pursuit of Excellence,” a primer on mental training. That being said, any reader can recognize the tension between process and product.

Putting pen to paper

“Partners and opponents have often commented to me how calm I am on the pickleball court,” Leigh said.

“I find this sense of calm very easy for me and I wonder how others cannot achieve this. So, I thought I’d put down some of my Zen behaviors on paper to help others achieve this sense of calm.”

Leigh was surprised how easily the words came to him; it took him only a few hours to type his manuscript. He reached out to a New York-based publisher whom he’d coached earlier in the summer but didn’t hear back, so he investigated self-publishing.

“Amazon makes it easy to upload a manuscript for both paperback and kindle (eBook) versions,” he detailed, adding that Amazon also takes care of printing and paying royalties every month. Leigh said his proceeds are going to benefit Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. He’s narrated an audio version that is set to be released soon as well.

“The most difficult part that I’ve not got a handle on yet is promotion and marketing,” he said. Leigh’s book is available on Amazon.

“Placing ads in pickleball publications can run into the thousands of dollars.”

As far as future works, Leigh said he is working on an autobiography, “but probably only for my boys to read when I’m gone; not for publishing.”

As a surfer, he’s contemplated the title, “Life is a Wave.”

“Ocean waves, gravity waves, electromagnetic waves, light waves, sound waves, subatomic particle waves — I’ve got a gut feeling that this spirit of which I speak creates all waves and is the creator of all life and matter,” he surmised .

“And that all life and matter breaks down into different forms of waves. Thus, life is a wave.”

Leigh said he “isn’t religious” but does believe in a “universal spirit that animates all life and is found in all of creation and is the basis of all creativity.”

“Tapping into that spirit and that creativity allows us to perform better in athletic pursuits, or as a writer, painter, builder, software developer — whatever is our endeavor in life,” he commented.

“As we meditate, we tap into the spirit within and let it flow out into the world as love, kindness and creation.”

Mike and partner Juli Young on the podium with their silver medals at last month’s Rocky Mountain Championships.
Mike Leigh/Courtesy photo

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