Want to Play Better Pickleball? Caution: You May Not Like the Solution
You laughed when you heard the name “pickleball,” but like so many others, the pickleball bug bit you. Suddenly you’re playing more often and watching a random Youtube pickleball video. However, your improvement is incremental at best, and you are wondering just what to do to get better.
Any of this sound familiar? So the question becomes, how do you play better pickleball?
My earliest childhood memories involve athletics. As an adult, my livelihood and passion have revolved around sports. To this day I spend time on both sides of the fence, coaching and being coached.
I see the same thing in pickleball. It begs the question, Why can’t players get past the intermediate level?
While I can’t speak for every sport, my experience in golf, skiing, and pickleball has taught me it’s rooted in the way that people who have surpassed the beginner stage approach getting better. Most people will move heaven and earth to play their favorite sport but avoid practice like it’s the crazy uncle who shows up at the family reunion.
If you are a golfer, the quickest way to score better is to practice your chipping and putting. As a skier, gentle terrain with a couple of drills are the ticket. As a pickleball player, it’s strategic drills.
However, go to any golf course and the number of people on the range making full swings is easily quadruple the players working on their short game. Equally as rare is a skier working on technique on low angle terrain. Pickleball may be the worst, few people ever drill.
Therefore it’s not exactly shocking that just like other sports, most pickleball players are stuck because they aren’t doing the things that will help them improve.
If you want to play better pickleball, you need to practice. It may not be the answer you were looking for, but it’s true for every sport.
I recently asked members of the F.B. Pickleball Forum; what is your favorite pickleball drill? There were 33 comments. Not surprisingly, the better players on the forum like Mark Renneson and Aspen Kern answered with a particular drill or technique they like. Most of the other answers were vague, but several replied that they choose not to or don’t have anyone who wants to drill with them.
For many of us, the word drill or practice conjures up the notion of Mrs. Mendelson’s gym class and doing something so boring and useless that we rather watch a Laverne and Shirley marathon. However, practice and specifically pickleball practice doesn’t have to be that way.
There has been a skills and drills clinic about 40 minutes from my home for as long as I’ve played. I am ashamed to say, even though I enjoy and know the importance of practice it still took me a year to work it into my schedule.
Much to my surprise, there were more than 60 people of different skill levels, rotating practice drills on three separate courts. There was some huffing and puffing, a lot of encouragement, but surprisingly a lot of laughter. Here were people having fun and getting better at the same time. No wonder this is such a successful evening!
It’s hard for me to drive 40 minutes each way to attend the clinic regularly, so I talked to my group about starting one. Eight of us committed to drilling weekly for an hour. Since it was my idea, and I’m the one with a coaching background, logistics, and execution fell in my lap.
Want to know exactly what we did? Click here for your FREE Checklist complete with helpful resources to start a skill and drill night.
The Checklist is a helpful start, but if all that I shared were the physical resources your group needs, I would be remiss as a coach. People need to find value in learning, and it must be fun! Here are some considerations.
Ask your group what they want to learn
Canvassing your group is a good starting point. However, don’t be surprised if someone who can’t consistently hit a dink tells you they want to find out how to spin a dink. We are not always the best judge of our strengths and weakness. That’s why the best players in the world in most sports still have a coach.
Next, sit back and observe your group play. Where are the majority of errors occurring? Start by picking an exercise to improve that skill. Most pickleball players improve quickly if they eliminate a few errors.
The enthusiasm your group shows toward the concept of drilling may indicate the session length.
It may be best to start with 10-15 minutes before play to get people comfortable and realize the value. Increase the length of the sessions once the group has bought into the process.
Drilling is both physically and mentally challenging. I rarely have a session last longer than an hour.
Warm-up and cool down
It’s easy to skip this, and most people do, but you don’t want to have an injury.
Dynamic stretching at the beginning will help the body to prepare for movement, and few static stretches at the end can help aid the body’s ability to cool down and recover. It’s a few minutes well spent.
In an hour, we do three drills, all on a different skill for about 10 minutes each. In the end, we finish with a game or some contest, based on one of the skills we practiced, to have fun, and to reinforce the learning.
Depending on court space or the drill, you may need to divide people into similar skill levels.
If you are simply working on a skill like overheads, it probably doesn’t matter. However, if it’s a dinking drill, there is some merit to having players working together who are near the same level of shot-making and consistency.
Be aware that some players may be self-conscious of playing with better players. Depending on your group size, you may need to rotate groups or pair by skill to alleviate that issue.
You don’t have to be a great coach to make this successful. Placement of the ball on the court or the number of errors made provides instant feedback. Instruction can help, but no coaching is better than bad coaching.
If you want to focus solely on one skill, have a themed practice. Here’s an example of a “Dink Night.”
Warm-up with shuffling dinks, next do straight on dinks, followed by crosscourt. After you’ve practiced for a bit throw in some contests; such as who can sustain the longest rally, next, play a full game using only the kitchen lines or adjust it to 1st three shots in the kitchen, and after that, anything goes.
Have an odd number or large group of people? Play a point using the kitchen line, and whoever makes the unforced error rotates out.
Be Positive and take breaks
Drills are hard physically and mentally.
It’s usually a lot more fun to do something well, and drilling exposes our weakness. It can be challenging to keep a smile on your face when you are tired and not having much success. A little encouragement and a bit of rest go a long way to skill improvement and to have fun.
Ask for Feedback
My two favorite questions are “what was the best part,” and “what could we do better.” Make sure to seek out one or two players that tend to be most critical since they are usually willing to share their thoughts openly.
I highly recommend Mark Rennison’s book 20 Drills, and 10 games to play better pickleball. It doesn’t matter if you are starting a group or working with one other player; the drills and games in this book will make your time productive and enjoyable.
Setting up practice time might sound like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. This video will give you a few more tips.
It contains links and resources to help you set up a drills and skills night for any number of your pickleball friends quickly and efficiently.
What are the drills that have helped you play better pickleball? Put them in the comment section below.
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)
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