When Anna Leigh Waters feels the pressure inching closer on the court and needs to climb out of the hole, she calls a timeout and talks to herself.
Taking a deep breath, analyzing her strategy, and focusing on her mindset centers her above all else, often snapping her back into the game to make a comeback.
“When you’re in the hole, you have to stay positive because your opponent’s trying to beat you, and if you’re trying to beat yourself too, then that’s two against one,” the 16-year-old athlete tells Fortune. “Believe in your shots. Believe in your game and what you’ve done.”
Waters’ mental strength and competitive edge helped launch her to the top of her game—she holds the number one title in pickleball worldwide in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.
Waters turned professional in pickleball at age 12, becoming the youngest pro player in the sport. She quickly climbed up the ranks, having since racked up 10 triple crowns and six gold medals from the USA Pickleball Nationals.
She often turns to her mom, an expert player herself in pickleball who left her lawyer job to coach and travel with her daughter, on the sidelines for a “tune-up session,” Waters says.
“If I’m missing a couple shots, she’ll be like, ‘Anna Leigh, just be you,’” Waters says. “It really helps me a lot because I know what I can do and what I’ve done in the past, so if I remember those moments, or just remember me being me, it really helps me and gets me motivated.”
‘Pressure is a privilege’
Keeping her eyes on the prize, and strengthening her confidence in a short amount of time, is no easy feat. Waters attributes her ability to crush self-doubt and stay positive in moments of high stress to her mother’s words of wisdom and the mental coach she has had on her side for the last year.
The more times Waters practices talking kindly about herself, the more she has shown up on and off the court and been able to “tune-up” without the help of her coaches. She also reminds herself: “Pressure is a privilege.” That burning, heart racing feeling means she cares, and has already accomplished something worthwhile in the past.
Giving yourself grace is tough, Waters says, especially because the brain generates thousands of often unhelpful and negative thoughts each day. But actively switching gears has helped Waters succeed.
“Watching Anna Leigh compete, she’s feisty. She’s the animal. She’s an absolute beast on the court,” says Christian Alshon, a professional pickleballer who often plays with Waters, in a previous Fortune video interview.
Waters, a natural athlete who grew up on the tennis court and soccer field, never expected to turn pickleball into a career. When her grandfather asked her and her mom to play pickleball after evacuating their home in Florida due to Hurricane Irma in 2017, she gave the sport a go.
Waters and her mom fell in love with the game and began playing together.
“It was just something that we could do and could travel, and then all of a sudden, after COVID, pickleball blew up,” she says. “I just kind of fell into the right spot at the right time, and I’m really grateful that I found the sport when I did.”
The duo soon after competed in tournaments—recognized for their savvy and aggressive playing style and won nationals in 2019. Waters credits her mom for giving the game a more fast-paced competitive edge, using harder-hitting shots instead of softer ones.
“We have this mother-daughter intuition where we know where the other one is going to be on the court,” Waters previously told Fortune.
The daily routine of the world’s number-one pickleball player
Waters typically begins her day in the morning with two hours of drill sessions with her mom or a local hitting partner. After doing her school work, she heads back to the gym around 3 p.m. for another two hours with her trainer. She’s been traveling for tournaments every other week from Thursday to Sunday. In these instances, she will take Monday as a recovery day and return to the court by Tuesday.
The rise of the pickleballer
Waters’ dedication and love for the sport mirrors the slew of people trading in their tennis rackets for paddles—over 36 million Americans played pickleball in 2022. Founded in 1965, pickleball combines the style of tennis, badminton, and ping pong and has become accessible across generations and skill levels. It’s now America’s fastest-growing sport.
“As I get older, and as I grew up, I feel like the sport is doing the same thing,” she says, who has noticed more people at local parks playing the game and has even observed newly installed pickleball courts replacing tennis courts overhead when she’s flying across the country.
“The only good thing that came out of COVID was that people started to know what pickleball was,” Waters says. “It’s so addicting and people love it so much that they’ll go and tell all their friends about it and like try to really get them to try and they’re super inviting and helpful.”
Much as pickleball serves the I-play-for-fun amateur, its place as a professional sport skyrocketed too. Pickleball professional leagues sprung up along with a pickleball draft—last year CBS televised the game for the first time on a major broadcast network, which featured a match with Waters and her mom.
“Pickleball unassumingly fosters a childlike wonder in play and movement, while naturally highlighting the human need for community and fun,” says David Dutrieuille, the national pickleball director at Life Time. “It’s a sport that you accidently fall in love with.”
At Life Time, pickleball participation has grown 300% over the last year. The fitness company hopes to have over 1,000 courts by the end of 2024, Dutrieuille says. The sport’s popularity among high-profile celebrities like Bill and Melinda Gates and LeBron James has propelled the sport’s growth and gotten the game to go mainstream.
Waters, who now has brand deals with Fila and Paddletek among others and earns a six-figure salary from winnings and endorsements, sees the sport’s benefits beyond her success on the court. She wants more people to see how pickleball can be for everyone—with the bonus that it’s strengthened her ability to stay mentally tough amid stress.
“Just get out there and try it once. I promise you’ll love it,” Waters says, whose goal is to play pickleball in the Olympics.