Playing Pickleball Purposefully

Pickleball (like golf, skiing and tennis) is one of few individual sports in which players achieve rating levels (from 1.0 to 5.5+) based on their skills. The best thing about player skill ratings is that it leads most to try to be the best they can be. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing just for fun, but as someone striving do so myself, I prefer to play with the like-minded, whatever their skill level is compared to mine.

USA Pickleball Player Skill Rating Definitions and Assessment Sheets

The worst assumption that trying-to-improve players make is to believe that the best way to do so is to play with better players. Scott Smith suggests that players divide their playing time equally between: below, at and above their skill level. I agree. Playing with less skilled, trying-to-improvers who request feedback (I’m against players offering unsolicited feedback) not only helps grow the sport and help your less-skilled opponents get better, it empowers you to take risks and practice patience in low pressure situations. At (your own) skill level play allows you to try things you’ve learned and work on consistency with those of similar skills. Playing “up” gives you the opportunity to tweak existing skills, learn new ones, and (according to Scott), exposes your weaknesses. Plus, it’s humbling. Sarah Ansboury says, “Humility is absolutely essential to learning any new skill. Only when we are humble will we seek advice. But more importantly, only those who are humble will be willing to lose a game, or perhaps “look a bit foolish” as they attempt to incorporate a new skill into their game.” Hear, hear!

Players of different skill levels during rec play at the Skagit Valley Family YMCA

Nearly everyone has an opinion about every aspect of pickleball play. To a beginner, more experienced players will often offer, “the forehand player takes the middle.” This works…until it doesn’t. Next, they might suggest the idea of “the X” when deciding who should take the shot (if the ball is coming towards you, you take the shot). Eventually, if you are very lucky, my friend Cristian may share with you (as he did with me) the following guidelines, which I have dubbed “Cristian’s Rules” and share with anyone who asks. One caveat to the rules: you should be in the proper position (not reaching) when taking the shot.

Cristian’s Rules (on Whether or Not You Should Take a Middle Shot)

  • You are in the front (of your partner) – Returning a shot sooner rather than later gives your opponents less time to react.
  • The ball is coming towards you – It is biomechanically easier for you to hit a ball coming towards you than one that’s not.
  • You are in the action – While repeatedly returning hits, your partner is likely less ready than you to hit the next nearby one.

Another common belief is that attending a camp or taking a lesson from a professional will make you a better player. That may be true, or it may not. If you care about value like I do, then you might want to perform a Cost-Benefit Analysis that includes the cost of the camp, for example, $595 for a three-day Engage Pickleball Camp, transportation including, travel time (time is money), lodging, and meals. Several of my friends recently attended one such camp. Afterwards, they shared a few things that they learned from “the largest pickleball training provider in the world:”

  1. Hit the return of serve down the line (to the person in front of you) rather than cross court.
  2. Hit the third shot drop to the person coming up to the line – the person who returned the serve – because they are moving.
  3. When in ready position at the kitchen line, hold your paddle slightly rotated to favor the backhand rather than perpendicular to the net.

I just saved you over $595. You’re welcome! For some players, a camp or lesson with a professional is worth it, but there are several factors that come in to play, including ending up with several lower than the specified rating level players in your group. Sign up ratings are based on the honor system and based on my experience with drop-in play, especially at the 3.5- level, and anecdotes from camp-attending friends, players tend to rate themselves higher than their actual skill level.

I have yet to encounter an out-of-towner seeking at level play who didn’t exaggerate their rating.

To me, the best, most efficient way to play pickleball purposefully includes seeking and assimilating feedback from better players. Here I give tribute to those who have helped me achieve my current skill level:

Awesome AdviceAdvisor
Get to the line and don’t back up.Phyllis R
You don’t need to rush to the line all at one time. Make your way up. Don’t reach. Move your feet.Joe M
When you are dinking, move them (your opponent) around.Jamie L
Be patient. Don’t rush your shots.Cristian B
Hit low and to their backhand. Hit to their non-dominant hand foot. Keep your paddle up.Scott S
The best strategy is to avoid hitting unforced errors.Carol V
Call every ball.Sarah Ansboury
To encourage your partner to get to a short ball, call out “Get there!”Steve R
To suggest that your partner let a likely out ball bounce before hitting it, call out “Watch it!”Brandi G
After your side serves, don’t creep into the back few feet of the court.Joe M / Carol V
If an opponent tends to beat you at dink and/or volley battles, stop hitting to them repeatedly.Bruce B
At 4.0+ level, when your partner’s drop is obviously good, you should beat them to the kitchen.Art X

Friends and a new acquaintance at Yost Park in Edmonds, WA. Pickleball brings people together :-).

Lastly, I think that most players will agree that spending time doing drills and drill games is useful. Simone Jardim, currently the highest ranked women’s pickleball player in the world, has some great drill and drill game videos. And find terrific tips via video at Pickleball 411 As they say, “Now, there’s only one thing to do, and that’s go play!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s