I’m coming off a tournament weekend where I came head to head with a difficult opponent. I don’t mean difficult skill wise as much as this person was just hard to play; did not seem to be having any fun and was out for blood. This happens rarely in my pickleball world- yes, I play competitive people, but they are still FUN opponents. I will always say that the pickleball world is composed of the nicest people on the planet, but we all know there are exceptions to every rule.
Let me briefly set the scene: this was an advanced level open tournament. Teams could be composed of mixed doubles, two men, or two women. Out of the ten teams, all but three were two men. The other three, including mine, were mixed doubles. Luckily, I am very used to playing men and am not intimidated. However, I have only encountered maybe three people total in my years of playing pickleball that I really did NOT enjoy playing against; and yesterday included one of them.
The match was a game to 15 points, win by two. We were stuck at 14-13 (my team up) for three rounds… then it crept to 14-14 for three rounds….then it advanced to 16-14 quickly and we lost. Obviously, no one wants to lose, especially in a tourney, but it’s part of the game. Minimal mistakes were made on both sides and it was actually a fantastic game. What I just can’t shake is that this unpleasant opponent is in my head, not because of the score, but rather his demeanor and style of play. Learning from my own mistakes, here are some tips for you (and ME) about how to keep your cool mentally on the courts.
Have a Poker Face
Pickleball can be an emotional game. When I play recreationally, I enjoy the banter and some degree of antics on the court. Not theatrics, but quick one liners or jokes between points. This is not the case in tournaments, things are more serious. If you show emotion, especially frustration, that will put a target on YOU. Opponents are looking for those “tells” and the person on your team who shows any sign of weakness becomes the person who gets EVERY ball hit to him/her.
It’s best to keep any talk quiet and to your teammate only. So if your partner is falling into a funk and needs a little pep talk, make sure the other team doesn’t hear you. Just as you don’t want them to hear you, you don’t want them to “see” you. Try to keep a straight face- no grimaces or eye rolls. I’ve seen a couple pictures of me playing competitively and I look downright mean. This is not my normal persona at all, but I am proud that I have perfected my game face.
My grandmother used to say to her grandchildren, “Never let them see you sweat.” Very sound advice in a competition. You want to appear cool as a cucumber, even if your adrenaline is off the charts. When you watch pickleball at the highest level, there are a few pros that hoot and holler on the courts, but more frequently you see calm and composed players. Two that come to mind immediately are JW Johnson and Lee Whitwell. The blank stare no matter how exciting the point is composure at its finest! If you have not watched them play, do yourself a favor and look up some matches. Watching those two will help you find your own game face.
Switch it Up
I’m going to address the elephant in the room head-on if you are a female on a mixed doubles team, you are the target. Even if you are the stronger player, you are the target at the start of the game. If you are the weaker player on ANY doubles team- you are the target. Your opponent will find you and will hit every possible ball to you. BE ready! This doesn’t bother me playing mixed doubles because I’ve played enough competitive matches that I know it’s coming. Did it bother me at first? YES! Does it bother me in rec play? YES! Does it bother me when the score is 14-14 and the two male opponents have hit every ball to me the entire game even though I’ve proven I can hang with them? Hmmm, apparently so!
So what do you do to get a mental break from ball after ball? I got very good advice from a 4.5 female player who is a true student of the game. She said that whatever your partner can do to take some of the pressure off of you (especially mixed doubles), let him do it! If it’s a well timed poach or taking up most of the court- let him. Give yourself a little reprieve. Have you seen the pros that cover 85% of the court and give their female partner 15%? Of course you have, it happens all of the time. It’s hard NOT to look at those guys as ball hogs, and they have the very best female partners in the world! Change that mindset and look at it not as ball hogging or stepping on your toes, but see it as being a strong teammate covering more ground to set you up for better shots later in the point. By the way, I’m still working on that mental shift myself.
One way to accomplish this is through stacking. Stacking can be confusing at first, but it is designed to give the stronger player his/her forehand in the middle. Do not start stacking for the first time during a tournament. You’ll look disorganized and could lose points due to wrong server positioning. Research it (read our article about stacking), watch videos, practice during rec play! You want your stacking to be second nature without any worry about who should be where.
Another way to switch things up, slow down the game. You know those points that get faster and faster and the ball is being hit harder every time? The best thing you can do is reset and slow it down. Get control of the point and play offensively rather than defensively. Nothing gets in a bangers head more than a soft reset dink. If you are in “driver’s seat” and slow down the point, you take command. Will you always win the point? No, but your chances are higher.
Take a Break
I once played with a man who was a certified referee. It was an informal shootout with no medals or prizes and he took a time out. I was thinking, “Seriously?!,” and kind of awkwardly stood there during the minute break. Once he explained his reasoning, it actually made sense. We were up 5-3, but the other team had scored 3 in a row. He explained that the time out was to hopefully break the other team’s momentum going forward.
In pickleball, you get two time outs per game. As my teammate said that day, “You can’t take them with you,” so use them. Pickleball is often so mental that the one minute break to grab a quick drink (or just breathe) can be a game changer. In that match yesterday that was 14-14; I knew it was coming and I knew I should’ve been the one to call the time out, but my opponent beat me to it. We had the serve and had just played some stellar defense not letting them score. The momentum was on our side and then I heard it- TIME! Although I was grateful for the break and for the drink, I wanted to just keep going. I wanted to win. He knew exactly what he was doing and I have to begrudgingly give him props for a well-timed break. However, I also learned a valuable lesson- use your time outs, preferably it will benefit you and not your opponent.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Lots of distractions can happen during a match. The venue we played at yesterday was an indoor facility due to a rain out at the scheduled outdoor park. We walk in- wooden gym floor, four courts lined up in a row about two feet apart, light green taped lines over basketball lines, hoops hanging down in the end two courts. Basically our worst nightmare as far as playing conditions go. Oh and it gets even better; during a match to 15 points, you could count on at least 4 interruptions due to balls or people running onto your court. It was HARD to stay focused.
How do you handle that? My best advice is take it one point at a time. If you are playing a great point and hear your neighbors yell, “BALL!,” at least you do not lose the point, you get a chance to play it again. Restart and show them what you are made of! Have one goal in mind- get the ball back over the net. Make the opponent make the mistake.
Have you ever had to give a speech in front of a crowd and someone told you to “picture the audience in their underwear.”? First of all, I always thought that was terrible advice and will NOT apply that to the game of pickleball. However, I often picture my opponents as friends that I’m playing with during rec play. I internally tell myself to just play how I would play against them. Don’t look in the eyes of the opponent mean-mugging you across the court; just picture your normal foursome playing a fun (yet competitive) match. This helps me to stay focused even if my team is behind. You are never out of a pickleball match until that very last point is won.
My last parting words of wisdom for playing against someone unpleasant: leave it on the court. In the grand scheme of things, the winner of a pickleball tournament will be no further ahead in life. No one is getting rich and famous off of a round robin tournament. Although my irksome opponent from yesterday fueled a little fire in me, I was able to get some good content for this article and now I will follow my own guidance and let it go. Onto the next match!