By: CJ Johnson | March 19, 2021 |

Why You’re Failing at Pickleball and How to Fix it!

You return from the pickleball courts, feeling discouraged and disappointed. How could you have made so many mistakes? Just a few days prior, you felt so excited and full of promise knowing that you’d FINALLY found the solution to your problem on YouTube!

You watched the latest video and knew that was the answer to your pickleball problems. You couldn’t wait to hit the court. It didn’t take long, and you were failing at pickleball again!

The first one sailed straight into the net.

The next ball went so high it was smashed at your partners’ feet. Man, did she give you a dirty look.

Your mind frantically raced through the steps listed in the video. Unsuccessfully you tried to apply one band-aid after another.

Maybe if I…Nope! In the net again.

Perhaps I should …Nope! High enough that a total newbie could smash it with ease.

Ok, now I got it…Nope! Flew out, well beyond the baseline.

Time and time again, mistake after mistake. Sure, occasionally, a shot went in, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

Your mood had changed from hope and excitement to failure and sadness. Not again!

Dejected, you head back to Dr. Google and Coach YouTube, and guess what? This time you’ve found your answer!!!

Has that ever happened to you? Convinced you knew what to do to play your best and change your skill level only to leave the courts feeling like your failing at pickleball and left crying in your beer?

I think that it’s safe to say it’s happened to a lot of us.

That’s the reason that many people are failing to improve their pickleball. They keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results or, as I like to giggle and say, pickleball insanity.

This week, I’ll delve into the learning process and give you three suggestions to personalize your path and learn to play your best.

  1. STOP looking for the shiny penny

Here’s a little tough love. If you want to change your performance level, and I’m guessing you do because you’re reading this article, then STOP looking for the latest and greatest shot to success.

Let’s get clear about this. If you only take one thing away from this post, no one-shot or strategy is standing between you and taking your pickleball game to the next level.

Outstanding performance in any sport, including pickleball, is the ability to execute the basics almost flawlessly over and over and over again, under any condition.

What are the basics of pickleball?

Tony and I coach our Better Pickleball athletes of all skill levels to measure their improvement on their ability to execute the first four shots of the game.

Why? Because at a beginner to intermediate skill level, most rallies don’t last past the first four shots. If you can improve the number of shots you successfully hit to five and your opponent averages four, you’ll be the one who wins more rallies.

So we’re clear, the first four shots mean if you’re on the serving side, you need a consistent deep serve and a third shot that’s over the net. Notice I didn’t say a serve that spins or bounce serve. I also didn’t mention a perfect third-shot drop or drive—a deep serve and a third shot that’s over the net.

When you are on the return team, you need a service return that’s in followed by a fourth shot that is in play. A deep return of serve is nice, but above all, they both need to be in.

Not sure how well you’re executing the first four shots? Set up a phone and take a little video. After you’ve played count the total number of rallies and the total number of rallies that went past 4 shots. The results may surprise you.

2. Understand how you learn

Most experts agree there are three primary ways we learn a new skill; visual, kinesthetic (feel), and auditory.

Here’s where there’s a disconnect, a lot of sports instruction is done in an auditory manner, but that’s not how most people learn.

Not sure how you learn a new skill?

Here’s my learning process. As a lifelong athlete, I realize that my first step to learning something new is to see it. I must have a strong visual picture of what motion I’m trying to replicate. At this point in my learning, some verbal explanation is beneficial. Why do I want to do it this way? What will it help me to accomplish? This is my “big picture.”

By what I just described, you might be tempted to think I’m a visual learner. Nope. For me, it’s just part of the process. My primary source of learning is kinesthetic or feel.  I need to feel the movement, but to do that, the first step in the process is to have a picture of what to do.

I begin to see improvement as I clearly see the picture, my understanding grows, and I experiment with the new technique. Of course, once I have a good picture and clear understanding, I expect myself to be able to execute it immediately. After all, I can see what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m a life-long athlete. I have a highly developed kinesthetic awareness. Why is it so hard? I should be able to get it immediately. But that’s not how learning sports works, even for an accomplished athlete.

Taking it from the visual phase to the feel and performance phase is the hardest, and it can go on for days, weeks, or even months. It can be frustrating and infuriating. Usually, I get to a point where I  get angry and want to give up. At times my negative self-talk is almost overwhelming. “CJ, why can’t you make this simple change?” “What’s the matter with you?” “You’re not getting any better.” “You’re such a failure.” And then, just when I’ve decided I’m never going to be able to it, something clicks.

Since I’ve gone through this once or twice, 😝I understand my process and recognize the signs, and while I still get frustrated, it’s just part of my learning process. If I want to see a change, I have to push through some frustrating on-court sessions to get where I want to go. Some days it would be easy to stop trying and go back to the old familiar movement. Anything to see some results and stroke my ego, but that’s not how to achieve long-term success.

If you are struggling to learn a new skill, examine if the learning process you’re using has been successful for you in the past. If the answer is no, see if there’s a way to address this new skill in a process that fits your preferred learning style.

Tony and I built THE Pickleball System for Athletes who are ready to take ownership of their learning process.
Click this link to learn more about the System.

3. Create a well-rounded plan

One of several pitfalls of jumping from one YouTube video to the next is that there’s never a plan. If you want to stop failing at pickleball and see lasting improvement, you need an improvement plan focused on three areas.


Your plan should go beyond proper technique or learning to hit specific shots. To play your best pickleball, you need to have a greater strategic understanding of the game.

Not long after I learned to play checkers, my dad’s friend taught us how to play chess. I quickly grasped how the pieces moved, and I remembered thinking it would be a lot like checkers. LOL!  When I played my first game with him, John made 3 or 4 moves before saying checkmate. I sat there bewildered, looking at the board: Yup, checkmate, nowhere to move. I remember thinking, how did that happen so fast? What could I have done differently? We reset the board and played again. He made the same moves in the same order. Checkmate. I get it; if I memorize his pattern, then I’ll have success. No, that didn’t work either. Anytime I changed something, he changed his pattern. Leaving me feeling frustrated and stupid.

I never devoted much time to chess, but I understood it well enough to know that while it was essential to understand specific patterns to be a good player, you needed a more profound strategic level of thinking. The same applies to pickleball.

It helps to understand preferred outcomes and patterns, but you can’t possibly memorize every one. To get a deeper tactical understanding, you need to learn to “see” the game much like a successful chess player sees the board.

Here’s how we breakdown games with Better Pickleball members so you know what you should be looking for.


Earlier I called you an athlete. We’ve noticed that most pickleball players bristle at that word. It’s almost as if we instinctively know there’s a difference between a player and an athlete.

A player is one who simply enjoys the game. They show up, grab a paddle, knock the pickleball around, and have little care or commitment to getting better.

Then there is you. You’re reading an article about pickleball that goes beyond a basic understanding of how to play the game. You want to improve!

It’s likely to find yourself on the courts 3-4 times a week for several hours at a time. You read articles and watch videos, you might even do a little drilling. That sounds like an athlete to me.

Athletes think differently.

But here’s the thing if you call yourself an athlete, you may need to think about some of your choices differently.

An athlete looks at their technique, strategy, fitness, nutrition, recovery, and more.

As Tony so often says, “Whaaaat?”

We’re not saying that you need to drop everything and start preparing yourself the same way an athlete gets ready for the Olympics. What we are saying is that if you knew that doing a little stretching, working on your balance, or forgoing that extra cookie would help you play better pickleball, we bet you’d make a few changes.

As one of my favorite Peloton instructors Robin Arzon says “You’re an athlete, act accordingly.”

Mental preparation

I’ve been a golf professional since 1989. In the early ’90s, several sports physiologists wanted to make their mark on the golf world by taking their theories to the masses. What better way to share them than to educate people like me, the local teaching pro? I saw firsthand how those lessons improved my play and my students.

The same is true on the pickleball court. Unfortunately, most pickleball players have had limited exposure to mental preparation.

Everyone deals with things like negative self-talk. (No, you’re not the worst player in your group. And yes, we all have those thoughts.) There isn’t a way to eliminate them from happening, but there are tried and true methods of combating them once it happens. Athletes understand this and give time and study to changing their habits.

The key is for them to be effective is you need to practice those things before you are on the court.

The Better Pickleball Founding members did a six month study of  Dr. Peter Scales’ book Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis. Don’t let the word tennis fool you; this is a book for pickleball players.

Coach Pete dishes out critical information in small bite-size doses. Things like dealing with that critical negative voice we all hear from time to time or how to deal with opponents that irritate you.

If you want to be a well-rounded, successful pickleball player, you need to focus on your mental performance too!


Incremental improvement is often hard to see. Usually, you need to fail multiple times for days on end before it clicks and your body and mind start working together. If you want to learn something new, do it every day. Here’s the good news, it doesn’t have to be for hours on end. In fact, shorter is often better. 5-10 minutes of daily practice, including not being on the court. Grab a paddle, get in front of a mirror and repeat the motion you are trying to make. It’s a great way to start putting in the reps without getting tired and frustrated. Besides, you’ll likely walk away with a positive feeling. How many times in your life have you practiced the same skill every day for a week? For 30 days? If the answer is never, you aren’t fully tapping into your learning potential and your best pickleball.

Now get to work!

If you want to take the guess work out of improvement join us in the next class of THE Pickleball System.

What have you done to stop failing at pickleball and speed up your learning process? Put your comments below so we can all learn.

CJ Johnson

Hey there — I’m a professional three-sport athlete and coach who has spent my entire adult life earning a living from playing and coaching sports. Since I started coaching more than three decades ago, one thing has remained the same: My commitment to see students not as they are but as what they can become and to move heaven and earth to help them realize their untapped potential. You should know that when it comes to helping pickleball players over 50 live their best lives on and off the courts, I'm an expert. Good pickleball is not just technique; it's the mind and body working holistically. That's why I'm also a personal trainer and weight management specialist. When I’m chillin', you'll find me watching Star Trek with my husband John and our two fur babies, Shirley and Ralph. (Yes, Happy Days)