CJ Tony Kyleen Jess
By: Kyleen Dye | June 1, 2024 |

How to Prepare for a Pickleball Tournament; Putting Mental Over Medal

I am not a pickleball tournament player. Or at least that’s what I used to tell myself.

 

I recently listened to an episode of the Smartless podcast with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett. In the episode, they interviewed Michael Stipe (R.E.M.). They discussed how Michael was putting himself out there and trying new things that made him uncomfortable. Michael said, “If I’m terrified, then I know that I’m doing something right.” The guys went on to discuss how being in a position where you are uncomfortable is a pretty good place to be.

Since it aired, I’ve thought a lot about that conversation, and I’ve tried to take it to heart and push myself to do some things that make me uncomfortable. One of those things is tournament pickleball.

In the past, competing in tournaments has been a not-so-fun and, honestly, pretty stressful experience for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love being in the tournament environment, surrounded by the sport and the people who love it so much. But the experience of actual tournament play has never been a priority for me.

2023 APP Tournament…Where It All Began

Last May, I went to Flushing Meadows, the tournament setting for the APP New York City Open, to watch Tony and a few other friends compete. I was impressed with the way the tournament was run, and the tournament venue, the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, was amazing.

I joked with a friend that we should play in that tournament in 2024. Throughout the year, we joked about it, but I still felt it was too big, too scary, too much. But when registration opened (shortly after I listened to that Smartless episode), I decided to put my tournament nerves aside and do something that made me uncomfortable. Once registered, I was committed and needed to get my mind on board.

Managing My Mental Game

This was easier said than done because, in recent months, my mental game had taken a hit. I had a bad experience with a league that shot my confidence on the court. I am also dealing with a shoulder injury that doctors can’t identify or really fix. So I was worried I was going to make a fool out of myself in the tournament.

Oh, and my pickleball partner, Jess, is younger than me, which meant I needed to play in the younger bracket. At 44, registering for Women’s Doubles 3.5, ages 30-39, I figured I wasn’t that far outside the bracket. I could probably hang. What I wasn’t expecting was for APP to merge the 30-39 bracket with the 19+ bracket, which really meant anyone younger than 40.

Interestingly, when I got that bit of news I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. There was nothing I could do to make myself younger and more athletic, so it relieved some of the pressure I was feeling. Suddenly, I was free to just go out there and play with no expectations of beating these players. If I failed terribly, well it would be understandable, right?

I was mentally in a better spot than I’ve ever been for a tournament, but really, that’s not saying much. Still, I was looking forward to a morning of pickleball and figured that by lunchtime, I’d be done and able to watch some great pickleball as a spectator of the APP Tournament.

Tournament Day

The morning of the tournament, I woke up feeling pretty good despite staying up far too late the night before and waking up far too early. I allowed plenty of time to get to the venue and checked in early.

Due to the merging of the two age groups, our bracket had two pools. During pool play, we lost our first game 15-7. This was due to some incredible lobs by our opponents that we were 100% sure were out (spoiler alert: they weren’t). We won the other three games, ending up #2 in our pool.

Pool Play Takeaways

Key takeaways from pool play:

  1. One team we played was surprised that we complimented their good shots. But shouldn’t all games be like that? I felt sad thinking about them playing in their rec games without that positive encouragement.
  2. Stack in a tournament only when both players understand when and why to do it. Our Game 2 opponents were on a tournament “blind date” and were stacking. Poorly. Jess and I were able to take advantage of huge holes on the court and won handily. That was just the boost we needed after losing Game 1.
  3. Early on, Jess and I decided we were going to lean into positivity, and our game was going to involve frequent hugs. This ended up being essential to our mental game as the day went on.
  4. If you’ve taken the Better Pickleball Tournament Game Plan course, you know that you want to choose “side” when you win the coin toss. But every other team who won the coin toss opted to serve, which allowed us to choose the side we wanted, kicking off each game with a small but mighty feeling of control.
  5. Timeouts are the best. I really got into using timeouts when we needed to slow momentum, take a breather, strategize, or just have a minute to laugh together.

By the time our pool play ended, it was about noon, and the New York sun was hitting hard. We knew we had done well in our pool, but we had no idea what that meant for moving on in the tournament.

Learning Our Fate

We had some time between matches while the rest of our pool finished playing. At this point, we had no idea if we would play again or if we were done for the day. We used the time to watch some pro play (a bonus of playing in the APP tournament) while trying to stay loose. Eventually, we found out we were moving into the quarter-finals and facing the youngest team in the bracket. And I mean young.

When I walked into the quarter-final match, I was certain we were done. This was it for us, we had a good run.

Our opponents were a teenage girl and a 10-year-old child, who happened to be the progeny of two well-known pro pickleball players who were playing (and winning) in the tournament. In my head, this game was going to be a nightmare for several reasons:

  1. We’ve got a PROFESSIONAL pickleball player’s kid across the net from us. No doubt she has had some serious pickleball training and should not be taken lightly.
  2. Did I mention I’ve got a professional pickleball player’s KID across the net from me? This girl was younger than my own 12-year-old daughter!
  3. It was 90 degrees, full sun, no breeze.

A Physical AND Mental Battle

Thinking back on the day, this game was the hardest for me, and not because the competition was necessarily the best (though they were very good). This game was a mental challenge, and my tournament nerves were alive and well. How could I go out there and play my best, most aggressive game while picturing my own kid on the other side?

Plus, the vibe of this game was weird. Jess and I feed off positive energy during matches, but this game felt so serious. I can only imagine how weird it is for the kids to be playing against adults, but let me tell you, those girls across the net from us had some skills. Someday, that kid’s two-handed-backhand is going to do some serious damage out on the courts, and I’ll have a story to tell about how they almost had us beat.

Fortunately, at some point during that game, I was able to reset my mindset regarding our opponents’ ages, settle my tournament nerves, and fight back. Ultimately we won the game 17-15 after holding them to match point 4 different times. But we were toast, mentally and physically. I didn’t come to the tournament prepared to deal with that kind of exhaustion.

Maintaining Energy on Long Tournament Days

What I learned while recovering from that game:

  1. Bring extra electrolytes and snacks. Just because you’re playing at a renowned tournament venue like I was does not mean they will sell Gatorade. I was lucky that my support system had the nutrition supplies we needed because, as a pickleball tournament newbie, I wasn’t prepared.
  2. Taking off your shoes in between matches feels absolutely amazing. Bring extra socks and clothes.
  3. Having a support system with you is incredible.

Add some time in the shade, and we felt restored and ready to go.

Taking care of my body allowed me to feel pretty good going into the bronze medal match, despite the fact that it was now 92 degrees.

Medal Match

The final game of the day brought us back together with the first team we faced (and lost to). The fun thing was that we had the same USA Pickleball referee as well, so the gang was back together!

This time, we were playing best 2 out of 3 games to 11, and we promptly lost the first game. But here’s the thing: We knew we could beat them. So, in games 2 and 3, we brought back our secret weapon: hugging. We just went out there and had fun, hugged often, and played some great pickleball, and we won the bronze medal as a result!

During my experience at the APP NYC Open, I learned a lot about tournament pickleball, both about the game and about myself. It was a tremendous experience of self-growth. If you have the opportunity to take part in a tournament and you want to see how it goes, I say, “Go for it.” Just make sure you are prepared for the tournament day itself to ensure you have the best experience possible.

A good way to do that is to check out the Tournament Game Plan course inside the Better Pickleball Academy. That course contains lessons on what to do before, during, and even after the tournament. The lessons were essential to my tournament day.

Now that you know how to prepare for a pickleball tournament, go have some fun out there! Let us know how it goes in the comments!

 

 

Kyleen Dye

Hi pickleball friends, I'm Kyleen, a certified pickleball coach and a member of the Better Pickleball team. Prior to learning pickleball a few years ago, I had no racquet sport experience, so honing the mechanics of this amazing sport is a focus for me. I love how much the game of pickleball brings to my life, the experiences it allows me to have, and the people I get to meet.