By: CJ Johnson | July 3, 2021 |

The 7 Best Lessons From THE Pickleball Summit 2021

Everyone sees things through a different lens. So it was no surprise that when Tony and I started talking about the best pickleball lessons from the Summit, we had a difference of opinion.

The first three in this article are from Tony and the next three from me. The last one is our absolute best advice and one we talk about all the time with our students. So ignore it at your peril.

Tony’s Top Three Takeaways from THE Pickleball Summit 2021

1. Get comfortable in the transition zone

Position on the pickleball court is not binary. You are not either at the baseline OR at the non-volley zone line. There is no method to teleport from back to front of the court.

The 15 feet that separate the two positions must be traversed to make it to the non-volley zone line. This “transition” zone – sometimes referred to as “no-man’s land” is what separates us from our goal of getting to the front of the court (generally, the most advantageous spot on the court).

The transition zone is easy to traverse when you are the returner. The two-bounce rule gives you the time you need to make your way up to the non-volley zone line without being attacked by your opponents.

When your team is serving, however, the transition zone presents a different challenge. Your opponents – if they know what they are doing – are both standing up at their attack zone, waiting to rain hard shots down on your team. As a result, your ability to navigate the transition zone will be put to the test, and you need to play smart pickleball as you work your way forward.

The best way to ensure that you can successfully move from the back of the court to the front is to learn the waters of the transition zone. Work on your reset block shots and your movement (including the split step). And be patient. Work your way forward calmly and methodically.

Contrary to what you may have been told when you first started playing, there is no rush to get up to the non-volley zone line. You want to get there. But not by recklessly charging through a minefield to get there. Your objective is to move forward but do so on your terms and at your pace.

Pro Pickleball Player John Sperling (Currently No. 2 Ranked Player) shared several tips for getting more comfortable in and through the transition zone. You can see his favorite transition zone drill in this video. And if you want to see his entire presentation, you can get more information about how to access it (and the Summit) here.

Practice the transition zone and then practice it some more. Get comfortable working through this challenging area of the court when under fire from your opponents. Find a pace and technique that works for you. Then, you will be ready to dominate the rallies and score more points.

2. What level do you want to play

If you are reading this, chances are you are interested in improvement. Perhaps you are interested in achieving a specific level – 3.5 or 4.0, say. But, on the other hand, maybe you are less interested in the number assigned to you and just want to improve; to become the best player you can be.

Regardless of your motivation, pickleball is a sport that is well suited to learning and improvement. Fortunately, there are countless stories of pickleball players with little or no formal athletic background playing pickleball at its highest levels.

Take the example of Summit presenter and Senior Pro National Champion Glen Peterson. After playing high school tennis, Glen took a 35-year hiatus from competitive sports, focusing on his family, job, and garden (it is a large garden). Then, at 52, Glen started playing pickleball for the first time. Within a couple of years, he won the Senior Open division (this is the highest division in our sport) at Nationals with Scott Moore.

Winning nationals may or may not be your objective. The point is that no matter what your background, age of entry, or base skill level, you can play pickleball at almost any level you set your mind to.

It will require work to get there. You will need the shots – acquired through repetition – and the know-how – acquired through study and game play. So let’s break each down a bit more.

To improve as a shot-maker, you will need to know how to hit the shot and then practice it with the correct form. You learn how to hit the proper shot from your instructor, YouTube videos (assuming you are watching the right ones), or from reputable online instruction providers (Primetime Pickleball, the Pickleball Kitchen, and VIPickleball, to name a few).

Once you know the correct technique, you need to develop muscle memory. You do this through repetition, drilling by yourself (wall drills, ball machine, dropped balls, ghost drills), with a partner, or with a coach. Don’t eschew solo drilling – even in the mirror. Excellent results can be achieved.

Use self-video to figure out what you are doing well, where adjustments are needed, and what shots require additional work. You most likely already have an excellent video camera in your pocket. All you need is a $10-15 tripod to attach it to the fence or to a bench. Use it.

Shots are great to have, but now you need to understand what to do with them and how to put the game together. You learn this part of the equation through game study and game play. Analyzing game breakdowns on video is a great tool. This is something that we specialize in at VIPickleball. CJ and I use game footage from different levels of play to show you the good and the could be improved and explain the overall context of optimal game strategy.

As you work through your improvement, your shots will get better, and, importantly, you will better understand the dance you are dancing when you are on the court. You will recognize when you are flowing with the rhythm of the game and when your steps are off the mark.

The takeaway here is that you can achieve almost any level of play you set yourself to. No matter what, if you put in the work, you will see a marked improvement in your game, bringing confidence and assurance when you are on the court.

3. Keep it simple to win

It would be great if there were a magic elixir or secret shot that we could show you, and, poof, you are a benchmark 4.0 player or higher.

Fortunately (you will see why), there is no such thing. The best pickleball is played through doing a lot of little things well. Over and over.

Exciting shots – the ATP, Erne, insane volley rallies – are all, well, exciting. Likewise, exciting rallies that see-saw back and forth between the teams – too are exciting.

But exciting shots and exciting rallies do not win games. Games are won by the little things. Did you miss fewer returns of serve than your opponents? Were your serves and returns of serve deep in the court? Were you working your rallies on serve?

The team that does these “little” things better will win the game.

How do we translate this truism about pickleball into practice?

First, we keep our eye on the ball, literally and figuratively. Then, stay focused on the fundamentals and table (“save for later” to use Amazon parlance) the rest. This helps us avoid the shiny new penny – the cool backhand roll volley or super spin shot we just saw on a YouTube video.

Second, we keep our eye on the prize when we are playing. We are not inflated or deflated by the exciting shots or rallies. We like them and can appreciate their awesomeness. But winning or losing one of these exchanges does not affect our approach. We keep our focus on doing the little things well, knowing that these will determine the ultimate outcome of the game.

Third, we look for smaller ones. It is easy to see the big mistakes, like a missed return of serve. But are we seeing the importance of the short return of serve or missed fourth shot? Are we appreciating the positive impact of having kept the serve team back one extra shot? Once you see these “smaller” things as you play, you will be able to maximize your on-court play.

Fourth, we keep it simple. During the Summit, we asked arguably the greatest player in pickleball history, Kyle Yates, for one tip for any player looking to improve. His advice was to keep things simple on the court. Pickleball is most often won and lost on errors. So be the one with fewer errors, and you will win more often. And keeping it simple is the best way to avoid needless mistakes.

I mentioned above that I would explain why it is fortunate that there is no magic solution to the game that will just get you to 4.0. I describe it more in this article, but, in sum, it is that pickleball provides us with an endless opportunity to learn. The best players in our game still know. And those who do not are soon passed. Pickleball always has something new to teach us, and that is its gift.

CJ’s Top Three Takeaways from THE Pickleball Summit 2021

4. Everyone makes mistakes

Intellectually, we know that, but how do mistakes manifest in your pickleball game? Let’s get real no one wants to make mistakes, and a game, a day at rec play, or a tournament filled with them isn’t fun. But it’s inevitable, and it’s one of the ways we learn. I love the story that Eddie Atkins told in his segment Journey to 4.0. He talked about his first tournament with Webby.

They went to the tournament, and let’s just say that it didn’t live up to either of their expectations. I think the phrase he used is they got killed. Eddie could have taken that as a defeat and never entered another tournament. I’m sure some people have done precisely that, but not him. Instead, he used it as a motivator to improve, fueling the fire on his journey to 4.0. He focused on developing a greater understanding as a way of minimizing some of his errors. Notice I said minimize, not eliminate.

Do you permit yourself to make mistakes?

We’ve been studying Coach Pete’s book Compete, Learn, Honor-Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis inside VIPickleball. As Tony and I discussed the format for Coach Pete’s live interview at the Summit, we decided to ask him questions on the hottest topics our VIPickleball members discussed during the book club. Chapter 13, titled Mistakes are Necessary to Improve, certainly fell into that category.

Some pickleball players berate themselves for every little mistake. Sometimes you can hear it. Sometimes you just see it. One of the things that good athletes have is short memories. It’s OK to remember a pivotal negative moment such as Eddie’s first tournament. What’s not OK is to internalize those mistakes and to sow seeds of self-doubt.

My favorite way to check internal dialogue is by asking yourself this question; If your best friend talked to you the way you talk to yourself, would you still be friends? If the answer is no, you need to change how you’re internalizing your mistakes because that negative self-talk keeps you from making mistakes, an essential part of the learning process.

5. It’s OK to be uncomfortable

One of the speakers’ themes was that to improve, they needed to challenge the skills they already had. It didn’t matter if those are mental or physical skills. To get to a different level, they needed to change what they had.

Can we all agree that any time we’re making a change, we’re uncomfortable?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner who’s come to the courts for the first time or if you’re an advanced player working your way up to 4.5 or beyond; for most people change is uncomfortable.

One of the tools several speakers mentioned to help them change was watching a video. Not just YouTube videos, but videos of them playing! I’m consistently amazed that people ignore the powerful teaching tool in their pockets, your phone.

Here’s my challenge to you. Get uncomfortable by turning on your camera and taking a video of your next game.

If you’re already using your camera, how about having someone else analyze it or do a video analysis with a pro?

Sometimes the process can be painful, but often, that makes the rewards great.

6. Approach your improvement path holistically

Much of the content on YouTube and Facebook is focused on technique, so it’s easy to get caught up in the trap of technique improvement. How do I hit a topspin volley? What about a backspin groundstroke? A quick google search of the third shot in pickleball returned 240,000 results!

Stroke mechanics is only one thing that makes a good pickleball player, and I’d argue that it’s not the most important. After all, look at the pickleball pro’s you’ll see many different styles to execute the same shot. Tony and I always say we’d rather partner with somebody who has great court awareness and average technique versus strong technique and poor court awareness.

Good pickleball players take a holistic view of their game; technique, strategy, fitness, injury prevention, mindset,  and rules knowledge combines to create a well-rounded pickleball player. That’s also why there were a variety of topics at the Summit.

Too often, all we do to improve is play. People who want to improve know that drilling is essential. As Mike Schwartz said when talking about ball machines, there’s no substitute to hitting the shot multiple times, so it becomes a habit. But that doesn’t mean playing and drilling are the only two things you need to do to improve. Coach B talked about thinking of yourself as an athlete.

Good players are athletes who also work on understanding strategy, mindset, as well as fitness, and injury prevention. Much of this study is done away from the courts. You can work on seeing the ball better with a Brock String, as Lukas McKnight of Vizual Edge suggested. Or practice with the indoor ball that Edward Hechter CEO of Pickleball Central discussed.  A large portion of the mental game training should be done off the court. It’s easy to work on your fitness away from the pickleball, take an extra walk or do some strength training.

Ready to do something easy that just takes a few minutes a day and can be done while you’re focused on something else?

Work on your balance. We need to be well balanced out on the pickleball courts, and balance diminishes as we age. Unfortunately, most people don’t practice their balance, and if you don’t, it’s getting worse. Here’s an easy way to start. Next time you brush your teeth, stand on one leg for half of the time and then switch to the other. Already working on your balance? Whatever activity you’re doing attempt it with your eyes closed.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly your balance begins to improve. Not only will better balance improve your pickleball, ultimately, but it’s also going to improve your life.

Our best tip for anyone at any level

7. One step at a time

We all know that trying to do too many things at once is a recipe for failure. It doesn’t matter if you take pickleball instruction in person, purchased a Summit all-access pass, are more of a do-it-yourself learner, or one of our VIPickleball members. Improvement is more easily made when you have a solid plan in place.

Our recommendation is to look for the lowest hanging fruit and start there first. What’s the easiest way to find it? If you’re working with a coach, ask them. If not, turn on that video camera! Analyze exactly what needs to be done to accomplish your goal and start with the first step. It’s best to limit yourself to one item on the court and one thing you can do away from the courts. As an example, begin working on your transition area game and start focusing on your negative self-talk.

Too much information leads to information overload and a lack of improvement, even for the most diehard pickleball enthusiasts. Make a plan and stick to it!

We’d love to know what was your favorite Pickleball Summit takeaway? Please put it in the comments below.


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)