Photo credit: Josh Weltner returns a ball over the net while playing pickleball at Graham Park in Cranberry Township. Julia Maruca/Butler Eagle
Last week I had the opportunity to watch the 2022 USA Pickleball North Mid-Atlantic Diamond Regional in Cranberry, PA. Walking through the venue and seeing game after game being played-truly pickleball heaven. It was such an amazing experience and I recommend going to see a large tournament if you haven’t been (but that’s a post for another time). Some of the 4.5 and 5.0 matches were the best that I’ve ever watched and those players were solid and smooth. They do not seem flustered- they know where to be and what shot to make next. It is clear that they have devoted hour after hour to practicing and perfecting their skills.
After traveling to some pickleball communities outside of my own, I have noticed they all share commonalities. Many times, you hear people talking about how they just really want to master their third shot drop. Another skill that players want to improve- the reset or “slowing down the point.” Some that have solid technique want to work on court awareness and trying to read their opponent better. The list could go on and on; each player that you meet wants to improve and has a goal or two in mind. This got me thinking- what are some specific things that you can do to accomplish your pickleball goals?
This is designated time that you set aside to work on skills. Find a buddy and go drill together. Always practice with purpose; meaning you want to try to work on something very specific. Repeat the shot again and again to develop your muscle memory. However, use this time not only to improve dinks and drops and whatever else you are working on; but also watch your drill partner. Where is he/she on the court? How is his/her paddle angle affecting the shot? Think strategically as you return the ball- place it where you want it to go. Ask your drill partner to not hit the ball directly to you, but make you move. We often think pickleball is all about hitting the ball, but improving your footwork is just as important as swinging the paddle. Think of any other sport you have participated in and the time you put into training. Pickleball should be no different and as the saying goes, “practice makes perfect.”
SIGN UP FOR A CLINIC OR LESSON
If doing a group clinic, make sure you are signed up for your level. You want to be with players of similar abilities to make the most of your time. Ask questions! Tap into the instructor’s knowledge and take advantage of that resource. Leave the lesson or clinic with a take away- one specific skill you are going to focus on through drills and in recreational games. Once you improve (or even better, master) that skill, you can move onto the next.
PLAY WITH A VARIETY OF PEOPLE
Everyone has their pickleball friends. These are the first people you call when you know you can get a court time. However, do not be afraid to expand your circle. After playing with the same people game after game, you start to know their shots. You want to try to play with different people to be exposed to several techniques- think JW Johnson vs. Tyson McGuffin. Could their styles possibly be more opposite? This exposure will improve your game IQ over time. Still invite your pickleball bestie, but get multiple courts going and mix in together with others.
ARRANGE GAMES ON YOUR LEVEL OR HIGHER
This can be an interesting one. Some players treat recreational play like a tournament and just want to win. Let go of that idea. Rec play is fun to win, but you want to use this time to improve your skills. This is the time to try the shots you practiced during your drills. Be consistent and keep working at it, don’t switch to your “go to” shots just because you’re losing. Do not be afraid to play (and possibly lose) to someone better than you. You will learn more from that game than you will from defeating a team below your level.
FIND A PICKLEBALL MENTOR
Everyone has a player or two that they really look up to. Luckily, most pickleball players also love to talk about pickleball. Ask that player to observe a couple points in your recreational play and offer constructive criticism. Sometimes we are doing things that we are completely unaware of and having another set of eyes watching and critiquing can be very beneficial, but you have to have thick skin and open yourself up to learning from that feedback.
WATCH YOURSELF PLAY
It’s obvious to everyone on the sidelines that you are second to only Ben Johns or Anna Leigh, but have you ever watched yourself? This takes some (more like a lot of) vulnerability, but record yourself and watch it back later. At the North Mid-Atlantic Diamond Regional, some teams seemed to have paparazzi following them. It became clear that these teams wanted to go back later to watch the matches and evaluate themselves. Try the same! Observe your court positioning, your body movement, your foodwork, and your technique. Ask your pickleball mentor to watch it back with you- what advice can he or she offer? What is a specific skill that you can focus on? Record yourself again after a couple of weeks to hopefully see how much you have improved.
Some of the tips above may seem like common sense, but when is the last time you did them? To use myself as an example- when is the last time I set aside a solid amount of time to just drill? Honestly (and embarrassingly), it was last summer when I took a lesson from my pickleball mentor. Almost A YEAR AGO! When is the last time I recorded myself and watched it back? Full transparency- never. If my goal was just to play and have fun, that would be ok. However, it isn’t. I want to improve specific aspects of my game just as I’m sure you do. Right now- mentally set your goal and develop an action plan using the advice above. As for me, I better go drill with purpose. I’ll save the recording for another day!