I had plans to write an article this week about paddle thickness and whether/how it matters for paddle selection but my Saturday morning pickleball session completely changed my mind. I left the courts completely frustrated, not pleased with my attitude, and I knew I needed to address some issues we all face as pickleball players.
I will preface this entire article by stating a few facts:
- I am always willing to play down in level to give back to the pickleball community. People have done that with me so I am happy to return the favor—it's part of this wonderful sport we all love.
- I am on a pickleball court all day long teaching lessons. I love pickleball as much or more than the next guy (or gal) but it does get tiring. Because of my busy teaching schedule, I haven’t been able to play and train as much as I'd like to.
- I am not one to blame partners for a loss (who am I kidding I have done that before LOL we all have)
I arrived to Memorial Park in Santa Monica at 9am on Saturday. The courts were packed!!! Im talking 12 courts completely full with people waiting on every court. I had a lesson to give at noon at the country club so I only had until 11:30 to play. The first game I played was against my buddy and his girlfriend. She is new to the game but since it was the first game of the day, I was fine having a “hit and giggle” game.
I then waited 30 minutes to play a few games. These games were slightly better but it was a warm-up to the games I was hoping for. There were some other pros there and I wanted to get in some competitive games. After about 15 minutes waiting in between games again, I was randomly partnered with a very nice girl against 2 strong 5.0s/pros. They were driving 3rds at her and isolating her—we got killed. As I stated earlier, the courts were packed and the waiting game started again. I will cut the whining short and just tell you that my final 3 games of the morning were against the same 2 strong 5.0s/pros paired with each other while I was paired with considerably weaker partners that were waiting to get on the court. My frustration set in—yes I have plenty to work on in my own game and was my game perfect all morning?—not even close—but I wanted to be able to play in competitive games that gave me a chance to work on things while also having a chance to win. Is that too much to ask? Maybe it is. Let’s take a look at and answer some important questions.
Who should we expect to play with and how often should we play below our level, at our level, and above our level? As a general rule, I think it is critical for your overall development that you play with and against players of all levels.
Playing with/against players at your level
These players can do what you can do. They have the ability to defend your shots and they also have the skills to attack you. These practices will come down to decision-making and player's ability to execute in pressure situations. These games should be competitive and leave you feeling fulfilled. When you lose, you’re not happy but when you win—you realize you solved a puzzle. These types of games should make up 60-70% of your playing practice.
Playing with/against players above your level
Look around, you MIGHT be the worst player on the court. This may seem like a bad thing but it’s a necessity. Your speed-ups may not work today, your dinks may not have enough on them, you may get beat in hands battles and you may realize you just need more on your finishing shots. This is all a positive. The only way to find out what works and what doesn’t is by playing against the best—or at least better than you. This will force your game to a higher level in order to win points. Your decision-making will need to be faster and/or better and you might not get away with certain shots you’re used to. Enjoy taking your licks out here because it's only going to make you better. These types of games should make up 20% of your playing practice.
Playing with/against players below your level
I get it, NOBODY wants to play below their level. But like I said, this is a necessity. You have to look at this as an opportunity to try new things. You can be super aggressive and work on shots you wouldn’t normally try in tight situations. You can work on playing more of the court like Ben Johns. If your partner puts you in bad positions, take it as a challenge to steal a few points when you're behind in the rally. Things won’t always go your way—but make sure you are the strongest mentally during this practice. It will pay off in the future. These types of games should make up 10%-20% of your playing practice.
My final thoughts
The key to practicing in this manner is all about managing expectations. If you are going to a packed park expecting to only play in competitive games, that may not be realistic. Try your best to work on your game, encourage those around you, and give the best effort you can. This will leave you feeling as fulfilled as possible.
I know it's not always possible—but all we can do is try!