Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Ac"tions" of Improving at Pickleball

Improving your pickleball game is the fruit of 9 ac"tions".  I have chosen 9 action words, which are words that all have in common, the suffix "tion".  "Tion" as a suffix turns a verb into an action noun, and since pickleball is all about action, I thought they were appropriate.

They are Appreciation, Aspiration, Observation, Concentration, Imitation, Perspiration, Replication, Combination, and finally Deviation.

All of you reading this, I hope, have come to realize that Pickleball is a lot of fun.  Since most of us are older, though fighting a resistance to dotage, we have discovered that it is a way to get some competitive juices flowing again, and get some great exercise, with limited risk of serious injury, though men will be boys, so anything is possible.

Those of us who started our sports careers in another day and age may hanker for the good old days once again, a chance for has beens and never weres to become more than legends in our own minds.

Most of us walked on to a pickleball court one day, were handed a paddle, and started in to play. Instruction was usually minimal, and may remain so to this day.  So, we picked up that game on our own with our friends, and gradually got better at it, picking up skills by osmosis and repetition.  It has been studied in tennis instruction that just playing games will improve someone's play, but that the growth is erratic and slow, compared to other methods for skill growth, particularly involving drills and practice of skills.

So, let's see if the "tions" I listed above can help to set a framework for improving our game of Pickleball.


Appreciation is the building block for growth.  It is actually composed of two parts.

The first thing to appreciate is you, whether you care to improve your game, or are just having a great time playing with your new and old friends.  If you are happy with your play, with the amount you play and its skill level, then read no further.  You are enjoying the game and it is meeting your needs, so why do anything more?  There is nothing wrong with stopping reading now, and going out and playing a game.

But, some of you will appreciate that you have this desire to play pickleball the best you possibly can at whatever is your age and stage and that getting better is important to you, hopefully not as important as your marriage, your faith, your other hobbies, but somewhat important none the less.  

You may not be a pickleball addict, but you are at least a carrier.  I run  into more pickleball players particularly at the tournaments I have watched or played in who say in passing that pickleball is addictive.

But, let's look for a moment at the word addiction. Addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors.  Now, to be perfectly honest, I have not personally noticed that playing pickleball has adverse consequences, unless of course, you ignore your non pickleball playing spouse, which can lead to expensive consequences, such as the need to buy expensive mea culpa gifts, or the cost of a good divorce lawyer.  

But, where pickleball might be an addiction is where there is some evidence that pickleball players might have a neurological impairment, that results in them dreaming about pickleball, talking about nothing but pickleball, carrying their pickleball gear with them wherever they go, or writing articles about pickleball and skill building in pickleball.

So, having dispensed with this nonsense about pickleball as an addiction, let's those of us who have a great affinity for the game move along to part 2 of appreciation of pickleball.

So then, part 2 of appreciation is appreciating the game and its nuances.  If the game to you is no bigger than you and your partners and opponents on the court, then you have nothing more to add.  But, particularly if you have watched skilled players in tournaments or on YouTube videos, then you have begun to appreciate that there is much more to the game.  You have begun to see that there are aspects to the game that look like fun, but which are currently not in your repertoire, and you have no idea how to use them if they were.

You now have some appreciation for the game, and this will grow over time.

Most of these "tions" are like the stages of grieving described in the book On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.  As she described in her book, during the grieving of a loss, we move in and out of the 5 stages of grieving, back and forth, to and fro, until we hopefully come to a period of acceptance, and our period of grief is over.

So too with the "tions" of pickleball, starting with Appreciation.  You have some appreciation today, and as you move through the other stages below, you may revisit Appreciation and view it quite differently than you do today.


Once you can appreciate that the game is bigger than a bread box, then you can aspire to explore the game for yourself and to set some objectives for how you would like to be able to play the game.

Frankly, I find it hard to watch somebody like Mark "Yoda" Friedenberg and not want to get better.  Here is a man about my size, a couple of years older, and with due respect to Mark, somewhat hunched over, who stays in the play, makes a good partner, and makes a very challenging opponent.  He also wins a lot of tournaments, and runs great coaching clinics.

Among the best players in North America, there seem to be 3 major sources of them, Washington State, Arizona and Florida.  That is where they tend to converge for major pickleball tournaments, and Arizona and Florida as winter destinations seem to be places where a lot of skill is built and then spread out around North America.

For those of us who are snowbirding seniors, we see more of the seniors among the better pickleball players in the tournaments where we keep warm for the winter.  That allows us to set our aspirations somewhere in the realm of possibility, as compared to watching some of the younger, faster pickleball players, like Mark Nelson (The Puppet Master), and the other 20 somethings, and even the 30 and 40 somethings, like Steve Wong, Don Paschal, and Emilio Ruiz, with no disrespect meant for the many fine women players around in all age groups, or the other fine male players like the USAPA 2013 National Champions, Brian Staub and Phil Bagley from The Villages in Florida.

If all you have seen are the local players at your local club or park, it is hard to aspire beyond being the biggest fish in the small pond you play in.  To build some Aspiration within the game, you must see better players play, or attempt to play against a better caliber of player.

I have played at Rincon Country West RV Park in Tucson for a couple of winters and then in London Ontario with the London Pickleball Club for a couple of summers.  But, it was when we played in our first winter tournament in Arizona that my eyes were opened to the game.  It was then I decided that I want to up my game.  It was watching the 5.0 players play that gave me inspiration to have Aspirations.


You can appreciate pickleball and aspire to improve your game all you want, but it takes more to get good at pickleball than those two, though with both of them as a foundation, you are ready to take the next step to advancing your skill set.

You may have watched better players play either in tournaments or at your own courts, and you may have noticed that there are things that they do that you don't, but have you really observed their play and observed your own play.  It is one thing to watch, quite another to really observe.

For the longest time, I would see what others were doing and being somewhat of a visual person would try to do what they did, and had some, though limited, success with that.  I may have picked up on the physical movement of the body required to hit a certain shot, but probably not on the situation and the why of doing what was done.

You can watch how a former tennis player hits a baseline volley shot with topspin on it, without knowing why he hit that particular shot and why he placed it where he did.  That is where observation comes in.

Observation is more than just seeing.  It is looking for nuance.  Observation is very difficult if you do not know what you are observing for, and you may well watch a video of a top tournament match and pick up on some things today, based on your own knowledge, and see the same video a year from now, and pick up on a whole new set of things that catch your attention.


To make your observation complete, you need to focus on what you are observing. Concentration can be intense since you are looking at what you are observing, but comparing it to your own play, how you would have played a particular situation, how the paddle is being held and how the preparation for the shot occurs. 

Concentration on the play of others with your own play in the back of your mind lets you vicariously put yourself into the play and figure out things that are missing in your own skill set.  Watching and breaking down videos is particularly good for this, since you can see something one minute, go back and look at it again looking for something different and pick up on other nuances of play.

I don't usually like to watch a movie over again, even a good one, but when I do, with what I know already, if I remember ever having seen the movie before, I see things I missed the first time.  It is the same with good tournament videos of pickleball.


It is said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  Though we would like to play like better players, our purpose in imitating them is not to flatter them, but to beat them, basically at their own game.

If your concentration has paid off, then you have seen things that you want to imitate to improve your game.

I have watched a lot of games the last few years, and am continually amazed how many players will repeat certain types of shots that are marginally successful at best, and expect a good result each time.  That is pretty much the definition of insanity, repeating unsuccessful behaviors and expecting changes in results.

If a shot works for you 10% of the time, why on God’s little green earth would you want to try it 10 times a game?  Actually, if a shot is only successful 10% of the time, why would you ever use it again?

One particular friend of mine has a shot where he is approaching the net, so his feet are not planted and he swings through the ball.  1 in 10 times he hits a shot that is impossible to return just over the net.  7 of ten times his shots go into the net, or out of the court, and the other 2 are returnable.

This friend is imitating himself, and for a good reason.  When he hits that shot successfully, it is a great shot, and his opponents, if they are smart, will compliment him on such a masterful execution of skill.  So, the 10% success puffs up, due to the positive reinforcement he gets, and it looks like he is having a higher success rate, since nobody mentions the dumb shots into the net, or off into never never land.

So, his opponents are totting up the points and if they are really smart are setting him up for more of that shot.

So, we are imitating ourselves much of the time, to little or no avail, and need instead to imitate those who we have come to appreciate and aspire to emulate.

But, the problem of imitation is that without the following actions, we are imitating a mirage, not the substance of what we have seen.  At this point without the rest of the work of skill building, our imitation is a wisp of what we are hoping to achieve.

The difficulty with the steps we have taken thus far is that they are all enclosed in this quote from various writers, including Steven Covey, which goes: “We see the world not as it is, but as we are – or, as we are conditioned to see it.”

Up till now, we have done the mental gymnastics to improve our game, but the game we are trying to improve is built somewhat on a lie, if we are to believe Mr. Covey and I personally do, at least in this instance.

Up to this point, we are dealing with the perception of reality, which is not the same, no matter how hard we try as reality itself.  It is not until we actually do the real physical work described in the following steps that the truth percolates up to the surface and sets our inner pickleball star free.


There is no other way to improve your game but to practice, practice and then practice some more.  Any other approach to pickleball improvement is based on delusion.

What you need is a commitment to work at improving your game, and then you need a place to do it away from the gaze of others, and except for one particular skill you need a willing partner or 3 to work with you.

The one skill you can work on by yourself is hand speed.  That requires a ball, and a wall, and you.  You can practice serves on your own with a bucket of balls, which is also useful, but limited in scope.

To improve the fundamental shots of pickleball, the serve, return of serve, third shot drop, dinking, overheads and volleying requires at least one other player to work with you.  It requires commitment to spending an hour or more regularly with your associates going through the repetition of drills that are designed for improving these skills.  It also requires your partners being willing to tell you about things in your stroke, footwork, grip or court position that are working against you, so you can improve them as part of this work.

It is here while you perspire that you reevaluate those things you posited in the earlier stages and see how they match up to the reality of who you are and how you play the game, and can learn to play the game.
There are a number of drills available on the Rincon Country West Pickleball Club site under the Skills heading that can be incorporated into any practice routines for building up your skills.


Working on the aspects of your pickleball game is about replicating what is good and eliminating what is not.

You want the correct paddle grip, alignment with the net, stroke, knee bend for any particular shot to become part of your muscle memory so that when a shot comes to you, knowing what to do with it is second nature to you.  By replication you not only improve the skill, but you cut down on how long it takes you to execute the shot, since there is no conscious thought needed to prepare for the shot.

Imagine if a shot is so easy for you to execute that rather than executing it alone, you are actually able to look at where you want to place it, and make your shot a strategic shot.

You move from being a squirrel in traffic to being the traffic cop, directing the traffic.

So, it is in the replication of the skill building exercises that you refine things like your body position, or your hand placement on your paddle as you practice, practice and practice some more how to execute the particular shot you are working on at the moment.

When they are refined, you then continue to work on them regularly so as not to lose that edge you are building.

Of course, there will be times when that great skill you learned breaks down during competition as your opponents have an easy answer for you.  That leads you back to your drills and refining your skill set once again to adjust to things you never imagined before.


When you have grasped how to execute individual shots, it is time to work them into combinations. 

For example, when I first learned how to dink the ball properly, and developed some skill at it, I would get into a rally and dink till I died.  But, my tournament partner John Szabo was getting irritated with me for doing it, and he was right.  Dinking is good, but knowing when, in a dinking rally, to reach in a bit and hit a hard volley or when the ball is high enough to smack it back is better.

The most common combination in pickleball is the serve, return of serve, and third shot drop followed by net play.  This particular combination needs lots of practice, but working on the combination before you have the components down is just a source of frustration.

Having written this particular paragraph above a few days ago, I happened to have our first practice session with a small group of us this morning.  Though we had fun, we did not actually see much improvement since for some reason we immediately went into the above combination routine without first practicing the individual components.  I proved to my own satisfaction that you must follow the building blocks in order, even if you jump back and forth later to revisit one or another.

So, in practice it is good when working with an opposition team to intend to work on particular combinations and to advise your opponents what you are desirous of accomplishing, and enlisting their support, as well as giving yours to them.  Combination work is best done with 4 players, though you can still do most of it with two.

In combination work, you see where ball placement and positioning work into the equation of play, which further builds muscle memory as you learn to play a step or two ahead.


The final aspect of skill building is learning deviation.  Many of us learned to return a serve deep and receive a deep return of serve.  Our perception, or at least mine, back then, was that there were only two options for me to play, drill the ball back at the opponents, or lob a shot over their heads.  That was all we knew when we were learning to play the game.

But, once you have learned the third shot drop, it becomes a more effective play because it allows you to get to the non volley line, and so there is a tendency to go with it.

But, in deviation, you are looking for opportunities to put your opponent on guard, to change things up.  Here you can use that hard back line volley shot that you put back into your club bag, just to change things up a bit.  It should be used sparingly, because if it is expected, it is an easier shot to put away for a skilled opponent than a good drop shot.  But a little surprise now and then is not only good for a marriage; it is good for your pickleball game.

If you bear the above in mind and either stick to what I have written above or formulate your own method based on the above your game is likely to improve greatly.

But, this is just a written overview of improving your game.  There are many fine articles written by such skilled instructors and players as Prem Carnot, the Pickleball Guru.  He has a site with articles and help for specific skills and situations that is both thought provoking and directly instructive.

Another site with lots of good ideas is which was developed by Bob Halpin and his wife Loretta.

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