CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

How to Get the Most from Open Play Pickleball

Most pickleball players play some form of open play – from anyone can come to semi-private groups. In this article, we share some tips to take advantage of the open play pickleball near you and things that you can do to maximize your improvement.

But before we dive in, those of you new to pickleball might be wondering…what is open play?

Open play is simply a predetermined time where pickleball players show up at the courts to play. You don’t have to worry about finding three other people or not being able to play when you’re traveling. All you simply need to do is find out where and when and then show up paddle in hand.

Some clubs divide up the dates & times, i.e., beginner players on one day and advanced players on another. Other facilities have everyone show up at once and segregate different levels on different courts.

Most locations have rules, written or unwritten, that govern play. If you are new to the group, it’s usually best to ask an experienced player to explain the ropes.

In general, most open play settings are pretty welcoming. The one exception might be if you are playing with the wrong skill levels, so if you’re new to the group, make sure to get a lay of the land.

Let’s get focused on some of the things you can do to get the most out of a rec play experience. (rec and open play are interchangeable terms)

Critical Spectating-Developing a Pickleball IQ

Frequently during open play, there will be periods where you are waiting to play. Socialize and catch up with your friends. Maybe stretch some and get some hydration or a snack.

But once you are done with these, you are in a prime spot to learn and improve. This is because the players with whom you usually play the game are out on the courts playing. So you get to see the game you are playing in real-time—not just talking here about pickleball in general. You get to watch and study the actual game played by you and your contemporaries on the court.

The way to do this is to see if you can identify shot selection and basic strategy that makes sense and those that could be re-thought. Look at the movement of the players and their position on the court. What does Player 1 do well, and what is something that Player 1 could do better?

This is not just watching the game as entertainment (which is fine too). This is studying the game as it unfolds. Learning the rhythm of a good rally as well as the disharmony of a rally played without intentionality.

Do this, and your Pickleball IQ will increase and, with it, your play and enjoyment of the game.

Working on “X”

Open play can vary immensely from game to game. Sometimes you will be in an incredible 10-10 tied match full of tension and drama. On the other hand, some games will last 3 minutes and be 11-1. The 10-10 game gives you plenty to work on for sure, but the 11-1 game can sometimes feel like a waste of time.

One way to make all of your time during open play as productive as possible is to pick ONE thing to work on, say the depth and consistency of your return of serve. Then, rather than being concerned with the outcome of the games, keep your focus on your returns of serve. Doing so will give you a metric to measure that is way more valuable than wins or losses.

What’s critical here is that you pick one thing, not multiple ones. You might change it between games or based on the opponents on the other side of the net but don’t try to work on multiple things in the same game.

What to do with a challenging open play partner – Part 1

Rec play presents situations where you may be paired with a challenging partner. One type of challenging partner is the player who does not come up to the NVZ line after returning, will not ever try to slow the game down (even when it makes sense), cannot hit the ball, etc.

In these situations, three pieces of advice:

    1. Focus on something that will help you. For example, when you have a player who insists on playing from the baseline, stay with them – wherever they are on the court. If they look at you funny or ask why you are doing that, you can tell them that you will play from where they are. This approach allows you to work on your third shots and resets, skills that will come in handy when you play the 10-10 game.
    2. If you are playing with a partner who is considerably different in ability and you know your opponents, ask them to make sure to hit you some balls. There are different ways to do this – do it in the way that most makes sense for you and your group. It is no fun to stand on the court while your partner gets every single ball hit to them – outside of tournament play, this is a big no-no.
    3. Maintain a healthy perspective. It is likely, in fact, should be expected that you will lose in either of these two scenarios. So it should not be upsetting when you tap paddles at 2-11.

What to do with a challenging partner – Part 2

There is another sort of challenging partner you may find at open play: the not-nice player, the whiner, and similar.

You have a couple of choices here. If it is just someone who complains about everything (the net, the wind, the color of someone’s shirt), perhaps play with them and either shut out the noise or lighten the mood as much as possible. The same goes for the negative nelly for whom nothing ever goes right. Look at this as an opportunity to work on your mental focus.

If the level of negativity or just non-niceness is such that its impacts can’t be overlooked, then the other option is to decline the invitation to play. Each time the paddles get held up, it is an invitation for the four players to go out there and hit the ball around. You have every right to decline the invitation and should probably do so if the player is such that your experience on the courts will suffer a severe negative impact.

If you need more ideas on how to deal with this gracefully, check out this blog.


We are both responsible for our own sportsmanship out there and responsible for protecting ourselves from the less than stellar sportsmanship of others.

Open play can bring together different levels of play. It is ok to want to play at your level or slightly above it. But do not forget to also play with those who are still working on getting to your level. You may be the player who helps them climb that ladder.

Avoid the temptation to target the weaker opponent but also do not freeze them out. Instead, play each shot like you usually would and let the player in that position receive the shot. Remind your friends when opposing you and a weaker player to do likewise.

Pickleball is a game requiring multiple players. Show respect to yourself and your opponents by remembering that a loss for you means a win for them.


Open play pickleball can be a fun experiment with all sorts of possible player combinations. Some result in exciting matches. Some are duds. Get the most out of all of them by adopting the above recommendations into your open play.

Importantly, maintain your agency and the boundaries necessary so that you enjoy your time on the pickleball courts. You have a right to maintain a positive and healthy relationship with pickleball, and no person should be able to interfere with it or take it away. If it helps, back your position up with CJ or Tony agree with me on this and then give the other player our email (@Better Pickleball.com) and let them know we are always open to discussing their point of view. We have your back. 😀

Want more tips on open play? Listen to the Podcast

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.


  1. Avatar photo Bernadette Montgomery on November 14, 2021 at 4:32 pm

    Thank you for this reminder. I enjoy reading all your tips. I do try to work on one area of my game
    during open play. I have never tried staying back when my partner does not move up to the NVZ .
    Guess I just automatically move up and then look back at my partner then try to poach !

    • Avatar photo Elaine St. John on May 1, 2022 at 2:54 am

      I play with folks who took club lessons (ME) and others who have picked up the game “free-range”. You can usually distinguish the “free-rangers” who, through not knowing from clinics/lessons, don’t understand where they need to be positioned.

  2. Avatar photo Tony Leonard on December 31, 2021 at 11:54 pm

    I have 2 new Pickleball courts just south of Venice Fl. Would you consider doing a session in my area at sometime. They are professional courts and I’m sure you could get a group of people to come here to learn as I would. My name is Tony Leonard. Thx

    • Avatar photo CJ Johnson on January 7, 2022 at 7:40 pm

      Hey Tony, thanks so much for the invite. As you might imagine our schedules fill quickly and since Tony lives in Tampa we use it as our east coast home base. We have camps coming up in March. You can check out the schedule at betterpickleball.com/camps. We hope to see you at a camp!

  3. Avatar photo Jeannie Tully on April 30, 2022 at 10:08 pm

    I’ve played PB for five years now and I’m still learning however my “nightmare player is the lob player,usually over your head,if you’ve a fairly new partner then the point is lost and the there’s the “slammer” at your body (not your feet) at the kitchen line from 5’ away from you. Can ruin my day if they’re the only ones playing which is sometimes the case.

    • Avatar photo CJ Johnson on May 1, 2022 at 6:03 pm

      Hey Jeannie, if a person is afraid of falling when going after a lob then perhaps they still play but refuse to run after a lob so they don’t get hurt. In this instance it sounds like it’s a strategy or skill set challenge for the newer player. If you know or at least suspect the lob is coming maybe encourage the player to play a few feet off the NVZ. It’s unorthodox but it might help.

  4. Avatar photo Elaine St. John on May 1, 2022 at 2:38 am

    That’s me! OK, I come with a chip on my shoulder… “But do not forget to also play with those who are still working on getting to your level. You may be the player who helps them climb that ladder.” I help. I will play with anyone who wants to enjoy this sport. And improve without feeling bad about their specific learning curve. Heck, some of them may surpass us all…and I HELPED them get there!

  5. Avatar photo Elaine St. John on May 1, 2022 at 2:47 am

    From Elaine: We have two players “skating on thin ice”. They have been warned. One more transgression and they will be asked not to play with our group. So sorry it had to come to this, but as adults, one would think the play yard bully you once were, has “left the building”…guess not.

  6. Avatar photo Mary Singh on May 1, 2022 at 11:51 am

    What is the best way to determine who is playing when there is an odd number of players?

    • Avatar photo CJ Johnson on May 1, 2022 at 5:56 pm

      Hi Mary, it depends on how many courts, the number of players all sorts of factors. You might want to try a paddle box, or the winners stay and split and two new people come on, if you only have 5 players (which is something that our small group often does) we follow a rotation so that you end up sitting once every 4th game.

  7. Avatar photo Margie on May 1, 2022 at 3:06 pm

    What about the banger who will only play with good partners and then continuously smashes the ball at those less capable ? I decline to play with her and that looks bad 🙁

    • Avatar photo CJ Johnson on May 1, 2022 at 5:54 pm

      Hi Margie, when I first started playing I ended up in a game with a really good player and his wife who was much less skilled than he was. He popped up the ball and I went to hit a smash in her direction. I remember seeing her start to duck and look terrified. That was a wake-up call for me. While aggressiveness is important to my game there are certain games where it just isn’t appropriate. I share my story with players who I see repeat that same behavior I did. Some of them change, some of them don’t and just like you I choose not to play with the ones that don’t.

  8. Avatar photo Gregg Whitfield on May 2, 2022 at 1:11 pm

    Very nice article on Open Play! It is a subject that involves one of the biggest problems in pickleball which is always targeting the weaker player to win that game. I would just like to add this.

    CJ writes, “If you are playing with a partner who is considerably different in ability and you know your opponents, ask them to make sure to hit you some balls. There are different ways to do this – do it in the way that most makes sense for you and your group. It is no fun to stand on the court while your partner gets every single ball hit to them – outside of tournament play, this is a big no-no”.
    As an Ambassador, teacher, 5.0 player, almost 70 years old, who plays often with all players at different venues across the country, my biggest concern is getting on the court and watching my partners get the vast majority of the shots. Here are the common statements from the “opponents” who are targeting my weaker partner when I say something about sharing the ball. “Oh, I’m hitting the ball to both of you”, “I just don’t have the control to hit accurately like you”, “In mixed doubles, the women get most of the shots”, etc.

    CJ gives this advice, “Avoid the temptation to target the weaker opponent but also do not freeze them out. Instead, play each shot like you usually would and let the player in that position receive the shot”.
    I get the point to play each shot like you usually would but I encourage players to play to the level of the opponent. In rec play, play to the weaker player like you do in warm up. Do not put the ball away. Control your pace so the weaker player has a legitimate chance to return the ball. Instead of hitting every high ball for a winner, place the ball to extend the point.

    In conclusion, I asked a local player who was a decent tennis player if he would hit the ball to Roger Federer if he were on the court? He gave it some thought and said, “No, never”. That attitude says it all. IMHO, that is the attitude of recreational play that I see all over. What needs to be taught all over is to not isolate players in recreational games. And to the better players, don’t bring out you banging winning shots on all balls against weaker players. Save it for your peers. Extend the point, hit to everyone on the court, have longer points, and work on your placement. Many venues have paddles in a rack waiting for an open court. You have a choice. Hit to the weaker player on all of your shots and win 11-1 in 5 minutes and then wait 20 minutes to get on again or extend the rallies, play a game that lasts 20 minutes with longer points, and most importantly, give the better players an incentive to play with you again.

    • Avatar photo Tony Roig on May 2, 2022 at 1:23 pm

      Too bad about the other player’s view when playing Federer. I want Federer feeling like we included him and coming back. Thank you for your well thought out comment.

  9. Avatar photo Steve on May 2, 2022 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks for the reminders. Our division is for 3.0 to 4.0 players. I play at 3.5 level, have weekly practice
    sessions and study the strategies of the game with your help, books and videos. As my game improves
    so does my enjoyment level BUT we have players who have no basic skills or understanding of the game
    signing up to play. (The analogy I use is: people who want to play hockey but have never skated.)
    My wife who also plays tunes me up for acting like a bonehead when I am partnered with an entry level
    player. I understand everyone starts somewhere but it is frustrating. I remind my wife that I am a work
    in progress. Great email. Much Appreciated. Steve

    • Avatar photo CJ Johnson on May 2, 2022 at 4:53 pm

      We are all works in progress Steve!

  10. Avatar photo Florida Gal on May 2, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    Like the comment about how to play with those who won’t come up to the NVZ; take a frustration to a lesson. My only other comment is those that socialize while playing, someone comes onto the court and they feel the necessity of acknowledging them or ask where they’ve been or if they are leaving, stopping play and saying good-bye! 🙁

  11. Avatar photo Sharon Boisvert on September 8, 2022 at 6:38 pm

    Just want to say a big thank you! Whenever I feel frustrated about any area of Pickleball , you always put it in perspective for me. I’m a tennis player turned Pickleball player and love to drill, practice and improve. I’m also in the over 55 group! Way over!! Thanks again for all you two do for us picklers!!

    • Avatar photo CJ Johnson on September 8, 2022 at 8:20 pm

      We’re glad you’ve found this information helpful!

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