When you can't play pickleball
By: Tony Roig | January 26, 2023 |

You Can’t Play Pickleball? Here’s How To Keep Improving Anyway.

It happens to all of us. We can’t get on the pickleball court due to the following:

1. Injury

2. Weather conditions (snow, rain)

3. Anything else (life)

At some point, for any variety of reasons, you can’t get to the courts. Unfortunately, most pickleball players think, that’s it! I can’t play pickleball. Therefore, I can’t improve. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are plenty of things you can do that will translate into improved pickleball the next time you get to play.

Think of your “down” time as that time you never seem to have to do the things you never have the chance to get to. Sort of like organizing the house on a rainy day. There are constructive ways to use your time off the court to better strengthen and prepare for when you are back on the court.

Here are some specific tips to improve each of the three major areas that impact your game: mechanical, strategic, and athletic.

Your Mechanical Skills – Developing Productive Habits

Mechanical improvement or the how-to of pickleball includes your stroke mechanics and footwork. Proficiency comes from repetition. You are looking to give your muscles the memory they currently lack to move in the way you want them to.

Say, for example, you want to improve your lateral (side-to-side) movement. Your body is not used to moving laterally – when do you move laterally when you are not playing pickleball? 🤔 It is unreasonable to expect your body to magically know how to effectively shuffle along the NVZ line when you play.

To gain more fluid movement from side to side, your body must repeat the movement multiple times, training your muscles to move in sync from left to right and then from right to left. This is why tennis converts usually have an easier time with this part of pickleball. They have done it for years, and that skill translates to pickleball (though notice that many tennis players also bring over their cross-step – so it is not all roses for tennis converts – Tony is one, and he knows).

The remarkable thing is that you do not need to be on a pickleball court to get this done. You can get the movement practice you need – the repetitions – in the comfort of your home. Find a space that is large enough – dining area, garage, etc. – and get your move on. Triangles of the feet, ready position, paddle in hand. Move to the left. Move to the right. Go get that dink!

Your muscles have no idea whether you are on a court or at home. All they know is that they are moving and learning. Next time you get on the court, your muscles will repeat what you taught them in your home.

The same methodology can be applied to your strokes.

Want to develop a compact swing for your dink? Then practice it at home – in front of the mirror, preferably. Repeat it enough times, and your arm muscles will know what to do next time you play.

These techniques are proven to work. With enough repetition, you develop the muscle memory you need so that your body responds how you want it to when you are on the pickleball court.

Using your downtime on the mechanical pillar

Downtime is a great time to develop – or improve – your drilling habits and the skills that those drills will develop.

Drilling does not come naturally for most players. It seems to interrupt the many other things we want to be doing. Yet drilling is a must for meaningful mechanical improvement.

The way to build the habit is to use the time you would otherwise have devoted to playing pickleball to, instead, practice pickleball – that is, after all, what drilling boils down to practice. You will use off-court practice techniques if you cannot get on the court. The ones described above for lateral movement and shot improvement are all off-court and will work like a charm.

You can start small – 5 or 10 minutes of dedicated practice at home. You can increase it to do as much as you can fit into your day. Most players find it easier to build the habit by using short (5-15 minutes) but frequent sessions (several times during the day.)

Think of doing drills as printing money. You can do as many of them as you want, and, each time you do, you increase your pickleball bank account. There is almost no limit to the number of repetitions you do – it is up to you (thus, the printing money picture).

If you have a habit of playing each Tuesday at 9 am, use this same time slot for your at-home practice. Your mind and body are already acclimated to those times and will more readily accept them. Transitioning the time from play time to practice time will be easier than adding a new time slot (still doable but let’s start with the easier time slot first).

It will seem more natural as you build – or improve – your drilling habit. Like a part of your day. The benefits to your game will be tremendous.

What drills should I start with or focus on?

The best drills to start with are the ones that target the area of your mechanical game that you are most focused on right now. If you are focused on your volleys, then primarily volley drills. If it is your movement on the court that you are most looking to improve, then footwork drills.

System students can refer to your Success Path and pick the area most important to your game from inside the System materials. If you still need to complete your Success Path or your game has changed since the last time you did one, start there.

If you are not yet a System student, you will want to:

    1. Identify the area you want to work on.
    2. Search for or develop drills that will work in the area you identified in 1.

To clearly know what to work on (Item 1) and gain access to numerous drills that will help you improve that area (Item 2), join us inside The Pickleball System. To find out more and join our next class, visit ThePickleballSystem.com.

What if I am injured – how can I drill?

The answer here is “it depends.” If you are all-over injured, you may not be able to drill until you recover some.

If, however, the injury is to one part of your body, you may (with your medical provider’s permission) be able to do drills that work a different part of your body.

For instance, if the injury to an elbow or shoulder, then do footwork drills. What if the injury is to your leg? Then some stroke drills from a seated position may be the ticket to playing better. Check with your medical provider, but chances are they will want you to stay as active as possible during your recovery.

Your Strategic Mind – Speaking the Language of Pickleball

No matter whether you are on the court or not, you can always work to improve your strategic understanding of pickleball.

Think of it like this. Learning pickleball is like learning a new language – let’s pick Italian. You could learn Italian by traveling to Italy. But even if you are unable to travel to Italy, you can still learn Italian at home. Then, when you get the chance to make it to Italy, you will be able to converse with the locals.

The same happens with pickleball. Strategic pillar work means you are learning to speak the language of pickleball. Just as you did not make it to Italy but are still able to learn Italian, you can also learn pickleball language at home. Once you get back on the court, you are already speaking the language – probably better than the others playing there.

How do I improve my strategic mind?

There are a couple of ways you can improve your strategic mind off the court. First, you can study the concepts of pickleball. This is NOT reviewing a bunch of tips videos on YouTube. This is studying the underlying framework of pickleball and your objectives when you are on the court. These are what drive the strategies you will use and the shots you need to make. Most players do this backward. Focusing on the shots first and then the strategies, never stopping to consider the objectives and framework. 

This graph may help you conceptualize how you build your strategic mind (learn the language):

 

This is the only way you will, with some work, hit the shots that make the most sense in any given situation. It all begins with the framework. Most pickleball players do not fully understand the framework of pickleball. They, therefore, lack clear objectives that they can act upon to develop the best strategies and, ultimately, shots to play their best pickleball.

If you want to maximize your understanding of pickleball, you will start with the framework of the game. Understanding how the interplay of various rules – Non-Volley Zone, 2-bounce rule, scoring rule – create the fabric of pickleball. From there, you determine the objectives that make the most sense. Finally, you are ready for strategy and shot selection.

You have these materials inside the course if you are a System student. You’ll find these in the Pickleball System module. Perhaps you skimmed over these, and even if you did not, the more you grow as a player, the deeper your understanding becomes. This is a great time to go back and explore these concepts.

If you are not a System student, this will take some work. We have spent hundreds of hours crafting the System and its component parts. The shortest path for you to gain this knowledge is in a System class. The PickleballSystem.com will tell you when the next class begins – and you can reserve a seat.

In addition to studying the concepts, the game study videos and tools are another great way to help you speak the language. As you study the game breakdowns that are included in the System, you start to see and hear the game differently. You will see the errors made in real time without needing someone to point them out to you. The next time you play, you will be able to see errors in your game so that you can fix them.

You will also be able to see the errors being made by your opponents. You will then be able to exploit those errors to score easy points.

If you don’t have access to the System, there are plenty of game videos on YouTube. One recommendation, if you want to learn the strategic concepts relevant to your game, make sure to include matches at your level of play, not just pro matches.

The injury should not affect your ability to work on the Strategic Pillar.

Speak better pickleball by practicing it before you travel to the courts.

Your Body and Mind – the Athletic Pillar

Our favorite pillar of the Three Pillars of Pickleball is the Athletic Pillar. Not because the other two pillars are not important – you need to know the Mechanics and Strategy of pickleball. It is just that a stronger Athletic Pillar can help differentiate you from other players (more on this in a second) and also changes your life.

Let me address the changes first. Your pickleball will undoubtedly improve as you gain increased mobility and strength in your legs, hips, shoulders, and arms. You will get to more balls quicker, hit them better, and play longer. But the benefits extend beyond the pickleball court as you will also enjoy a better life.

The same occurs with your mind. The techniques you use to maintain mental clarity on the pickleball court apply when you are confronted with a case of road rage or other nonsense out there. Pickleball is the catalyst to get you to strengthen your mind, but the benefits of a stronger mental frame far exceeds the game.

Athletic pillar work can also differentiate you from other pickleball players. Most players eventually work on their third shot drop and may even become decent at it. In the end, all these players have the same third-shot drop. But only a handful of these players have bothered to spend time on their bodies or mind.

When these players go out to play, the players who have spent time strengthening their bodies and minds will have a distinct advantage over their contemporaries. Their third shots may be the same. But the players who dedicated time to a sounder body will be able to hit this shot more consistently after playing several games. The player who dedicates time to their mind will more easily control anxiety and be able to hit a better third shot under pressure. Simply put, players who have yet to invest in their bodies and mind will not be able to compete with the players who invested in themselves.

How do I improve my body and mind?

If you are not injured, work on your body: strength, flexibility, mobility, balance, and cardio, to name some of the major ones. Get your body in a condition that it can play at your peak during your entire 3-4 hour session.

There are several programs for you to choose from inside the System.

If you are injured, ask your medical provider if you can work on the healthy parts of your body. For example, if you have a leg injury, can you strengthen your forearm? Can you do body-weight squats or hip openers if the injury is to your arm?

No matter what, work on your mind. Our podcast, Pickleball Therapy, is a great place to start. You will get a weekly dose of mental training in each episode. You can access the other mental training books and resources we recommend here.

Your goal here is to improve your mental conditioning. You will gain a better perspective on pickleball and your relationship to it. And you will train your mind to handle those moments of adversity you will undoubtedly face during a tough match.

Mental training does not happen overnight. Here is a brief roadmap to train your brain:

You read a section of one of the books from our resource section, say Coach Peter Scales’ book. Then reflect on how a situation you previously faced would be different with that new information you learned. You internalize the information so that the next time you are faced with the same situation (on a court or the road), you can bring it to the front of your mind and use it.

The value of mental training cannot be overstated. Yogi Berra said that baseball is 90% mental and the other 50% physical. Yogi was spot on – about pickleball too. Most sports psychologists attribute to the mental side of the game upwards of 50% of your success, with several going as high as Yogi did. You cannot accomplish what you want on the pickleball court unless your mind is actively involved and getting done what you want to be done.

Being off the court, for whatever reason, is the best time to pay some mind to your mind (pun intended). You can best reflect and absorb concepts often foreign to your traditional way of thinking. Give it a try – you will not be disappointed.

Next Steps for You

Start with one of the suggestions we shared above with you. Get into the habit of doing it. Then add another. And keep going.

Be creative with this process. Once you have the hang of doing off-court work, you can add and modify your work to gain the most out of your off-court time.

The keys are:

(1) to realize that you can gain lots of improvement in your game (and life) with off-court work

(2) to actually do the things that will give you the improvement.

Make the most out of your time off court and reap the rewards when you get back on the court. Your friends who have not seen you for a bit will hardly recognize this new and improved version of the pickleball you.

Tony Roig

Hola. Hello. Konichiwa. After 40 years playing tennis, I am now a full-time pickleball player and professional. As a 5.0 rated Senior Pro Pickleball Player and an IPTPA-certified Master Teaching Professional, my focus is on helping players like you learn to play their best pickleball. In 2016, shortly after starting to play pickleball, my friend Tom and I jumped into the highest division at the first US Open in Naples, Florida. That morning it became clear just how much there is to learn in this seemingly simple sport – a lifetime of learning if you so choose. Since 2018, I have been on a mission to share my knowledge of pickleball so other players can enjoy the game at a higher level and attain their pickleball objectives. When not studying or playing pickleball, I like to travel with my other half, Jill.