The Mental Game Between Pickleball Points: Why It’s Tougher Than Tennis
Pickleball and tennis are both tough sports mentally, in their own ways. A lot of pickleball players came from tennis and might think that the mental game is a bigger deal in tennis. But one of the ways pickleball is harder mentally is the between-points time. Get your mental game right between the points and between your ears, and you’ll be a stronger pickleball player.
Between Pickleball Points: The 2nd Game You’re Playing
There are two games in every game or match—the one you’re playing with the ball and the one going on in your head. Your goal is to compete well in both of those games! The ball is actually in play more often in pickleball than in tennis, but Joe Dinoffer of oncourtoffcourt.com has calculated it’s still the majority of the time–about 55%–that you are not playing a point. You—and your partner—have to manage your mind, body, and emotions during that whole time.
Between points in pickleball is at the server’s pleasure, but no more than just 10 seconds after the score is announced (and, yes, sometimes a bit more if the serving partners are changing sides), versus in tennis where you have 20-25 secs depending on the event/level. So in pickleball, you only have roughly HALF the time to learn from the last point, adjust, and get ready for the upcoming point. What does that mean? Your between-points routine in pickleball has to be even more efficient than it is for tennis.
4R’s for a Great Between-Points Routine
Here’s how to go through an effective 4R’s between-points routine in those roughly 10 seconds:
- Positive Response—Uh, don’t chuck your paddle, curse, stomp around, etc. Find what works for you, but what works for a lot of players is simply to say “Ok” to yourself and smile. You’re just letting that point go, and it’s hard to be angry or down when you smile. If you’re playing doubles, RUN to your dubs partner and touch paddles with a smile, energy, positivity, and ready to talk about the next point.
- Relax—Do something to manage your breathing and release the tension in your muscles. A couple of good belly breaths—in through the nose and out through the mouth—and putting the paddle in your non-dominant hand while you tense and release your dominant hand is simple and can work wonders. If you’re a righty, squeezing and releasing your LEFT hand can calm you down quickly. Sorry lefties—like much about you, the research isn’t as clear!
- Refocus—Say something to turn your attention away from the last point and toward your plan for the upcoming one. As simple as saying “Now,” “Go,” or “Plan” to yourself if you’re playing singles. If dubs, partners also say where you’re going to serve or return and whether you’re going to poach, do a shake & bake, rush and crush, stack, etc. Say the plan!
- Ready—Step up to the baseline or wherever you’re standing, if not serving, with a ritual that prepares you to serve or return. For some people, it’s one bounce of the ball, and they serve. For a returner, it might be doing light steps between left and right foot and rocking to get the body in motion before the opponent even serves, twirling the paddle, or making sure a certain side of the paddle is facing the court if you hit a forehand. Whatever your “ready” ritual is, do it the same way, every time between points, just like excellent free throw shooters do in basketball.
The last point is—you have to rehearse this 4R’s ritual. It doesn’t become instinctive if you just read about it.
So…write it out or record it on your phone if that’s better for you, and then make sure you read and listen to those notes and rehearse this in your practice games and matches. You have to think about it in practice and consciously do it, over and over, so it becomes instinctive without thinking and just by feeling once you’re in games and matches that “count” once you’re under pressure. If you can’t do it under pressure, then you don’t have it yet. Rehearse more!
It’s hard enough to do all this consistently in tennis, where you have roughly twice the time. It’s harder in pickleball. But if, through repeated rehearsal, you can get your 4R’s between-points ritual down to instinct within those 10 seconds, you’ll be amazed at how much stronger a player you are.
Coach Pete Scales Ph.D.
Coach Pete Scales is a developmental psychologist acclaimed for his worldwide research in positive youth development and for creating the Compete-Learn-Honor® approach to coaching and player development. A US Professional Tennis Association-certified pro, long-time high school tennis coach, and intermediate pickleball learner, he has been a frequent guest speaker for the Pickleball Therapy podcast, and The Pickleball Summits, has been published by TENNIS.com and Pickleball Magazine, has a regular tennis and pickleball mental game column (“The Bench”) for Racquet Sports Industry Magazine, and a regular mental game column for youth sports coaches on SportingKidLive, the online magazine of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. Coach Pete’s latest book is The Compete-Learn-Honor Playbook: Simple Steps to Take Your Mental & Emotional Tennis & Pickleball Game to a New Level, which Better Pickleball has called a “masterclass in the mental side” of the game, and which is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Compete-Learn-HonorTM-Playbook-Peter-C-Scales/dp/1606795724
Like what you see?
Subscribe to the free newsletter today for more exclusive pickleball tips.