CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Forget the Drop, Drive and Lob. To Play Your Best Pickleball You Need This!

One of the most valuable and underutilized resources pickleball players have is not a drive, a drop, or even a lob. It’s something that’s rarely practiced. In fact, most of you don’t have any idea how powerful it can be. It’s always in play; on every pickleball court, during every game. It’s an edge over most of your opponents. And if you don’t know how to harness its power, it will turn on you and make you easy pickings for the players on the other side of the net.

What is it?

It’s your mental focus. Your mindset.

One of the best ways to develop your mindset is to understand how successful performers think. Paying particular attention to what they say when asked to analyze a tough win or a heartbreaking loss offers countless insights to help you unleash your performance potential and keep this powerful ally from benefitting your opponents.

Mindset is one of the reasons they are a champion.

They analyze these events, and no matter the outcome, they use them to improve their games. Because one thing is inevitable as long as they are breathing, they will need to deal with something like this in the future. On OR off the court.

The Men’s Singles quarterfinals of Wimbledon 2022 offered a glimpse into the mindset of a champion. And for us pickleball players, some insights to navigate the minefield we all face at some point on the pickleball court.

Novak Djokovic, certainly in the discussion of Tennis Goats’ (Greatest of All Time) with 20 Grand Slam titles on his resume, was pitted against Jannik Sinner, a 20-year-old up-and-comer with a big game.

It was Sinner’s first time on Center Court, and soon he had the defending Wimbledon champion on his heels, down two sets in a best of five-set match.

Things looked grim for Djokovic. Skinner was playing well, and Djokovic, typically a steady performer in these situations, was clearly not having his best day.

Before the third set, Djokovic took a toilet break and, as he would tell us after the match was over, a performance changing conversation.

A conversation with who?

A coach?

A Friend?

Nope.

With himself.

During the on-court post-match interview, he recounted that talk.

“I’ve been blessed to play professional tennis for 20 years now, but nevertheless, I go through the same kind of doubtful moments as anybody else. The inner fight is always the biggest fight that you have to fight, on the court and off the court. Trying to win that internal fight is a big challenge. And once you do that, then the external circumstances are more likely to go in your favor.”

What did he say to himself to calm his inner demons?

Hmmm….we may never know exactly, but we can glean some crucial tactics that can help us with our pickleball games.

1. We all have doubtful moments

Here’s one of the greatest tennis players of all time telling you he had self-doubt.

He has won 20 majors and 87 titles total. He knows how to hit every shot in the book. You name it, and he can do it masterfully. And yet he says, “I go through the same kind of doubtful moments as anybody else.”

It’s easy to think that when someone has had success, they no longer have self-doubt, but that’s not the reality.

Most players are so focused on getting better at hitting the shot or applying the best strategy that they leave little time to develop the mind/body connection or what we call the Athletic Pillar.

Players don’t realize that your mental focus comes into play every time you step on the court.

Whenever we have a discussion at a camp or inside the Pickleball System, players tend to think they are the only ones who experience self-doubt. When Tony and I share our experiences so students can learn tools to deal with their inner dialogue, many are surprised to discover that we experience self-doubt.

We’re all human beings, and self-doubt is as natural as breathing. Yet, whenever we suffer from it, we think we are the only ones that experience it.

Djokovic also noted that the inner battle takes place both on and off the court.

Does any of that sound familiar?

Hopefully, you now know you are not the only one with self-doubt.

So the next time it happens to you, and it will happen to you, don’t be surprised. You are in good company.

But what next?

2. Learn to Deal with the Doubt

We will all experience doubt, but what we do with those doubts makes a difference.

Djokovic took a time out, away from the court, and had a talk with himself.

He described it as a “Pep Talk.”

Wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on that wall?

Was his self-talk kind and nurturing?

Or was it more direct and challenging?

During the post match press conference, a reporter asked for details, saying he imagined it was a reasonably aggressive conversation.

Here was Novak’s response:

“Not really. There was no aggressivity there. It was just a pep talk. A positive talk. As negative and down as you feel on yourself in those moments, even though, as fake as it looks or sounds to you, it really affects and supports you if you’re trying to find the right and positive affirmations.”

Novak went on to say, “That’s what I’ve done. I’ve done that after I lost two sets in the finals of Roland Garros (the French Open) against (Stefanos) Tsitsipas and today. It worked. It doesn’t always work. It’s not a guarantee that it always works. I just felt like I had to change something because I was not playing well.”

The press corps further pressed him to explain the dramatic turnaround. He recounted the game at 4-1 in the first set when he made a couple of mistakes and talked about the self-doubt that crept into his head. He knew he wasn’t playing well and that his opponent was on top of his game. Yet despite how it looked to the rest of us. He didn’t count himself out. Instead, Novak rode out the storm until he had the chance to turn it around.

He kept his self-talk positive, which changed his mindset and performance.

Unfortunately, what we see in many pickleball players is the opposite. They let the side of themselves experiencing the self-doubt pile on with a bunch of negative talk. Players not experienced in the mental aspect of the game have few tools to deal with the doubt, which allows that inner voice to grow louder and louder. Often to the point, that’s the only thing they hear.

Players kick themselves when they are down.

Dr. Todd Kays, the author of Sports Psychology for Dummies and a recent presenter at the Pickleball Summit 2022, said that awareness was the first step to changing your mindset. First, you must be aware of what’s happening and what it sounds like in YOUR head.

Djokovic was able to have the “pep talk” because he recognized what was happening. As a result, he changed his mind, ultimately changing his performance.

He came back on the court and won the next three sets convincingly.

So the next time you’re feeling down on the courts, here are some steps to help you deal with doubt and negativity

    1. Know that it happens to all of us. It’s normal.
    2. Learn what YOUR internal struggle sounds and feels like while it’s happening
    3. Avoid the temptation to give in to the negative voices and “pile on.”
    4. Creating positivity can change the outcome.

I’ve been a competitive athlete my entire life, and I can assure you this is one area where you never check a box that says completed. If you continue to play pickleball (or breath, for that matter, because this happens off the court, too), you will encounter these situations time and again.

Learning how to deal with them, grow, and change is one of the many lessons sports have given me. It’s a journey, and our hope for you is that you embrace and enjoy it.

Thanks for letting us be a part of your journey.

19 Comments

  1. Meredith Anderson on July 9, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    Great article! Such helpful advice!

    • CJ Johnson on July 10, 2022 at 11:34 am

      Glad you found it helpful Meredith

      • Mari on July 10, 2022 at 5:01 pm

        Thank you for sharing this article! It was very relevant to me as a beginner to keep at it no matter how difficult it gets.

        • CJ Johnson on July 13, 2022 at 3:24 pm

          Welcome to pickleball! Always remember why you started playing in the first place

    • Rita on July 10, 2022 at 3:19 pm

      Here’s something I have noticed in rec play – when a player hits a bad shot he/she will yell at themselves, “C’mon” in a negative voice. Fast forward to the pros (I.e. Anna Leigh Waters, Riley Newman) and when “C’mon” comes out of their mouths it is after they’ve hit a great shot to further encourage themselves in a positive voice. Try this sometime when you play; it’s harder than you can imagine. When all 4 people try it, it can be really humorous! A great exercise in developing positive mindset.

      • CJ Johnson on July 13, 2022 at 3:24 pm

        Great observation!

  2. Lizanne Mako on July 9, 2022 at 11:04 pm

    This message sent was very timely. I have a big event tomorrow and I will review your message a few more times.

    • CJ Johnson on July 10, 2022 at 11:34 am

      Good luck Lizanne. Stay focused on the things you can control. That’s you! lol!

  3. Michael Nealy on July 10, 2022 at 12:30 am

    Great advice. Often we overlook the simple things and over complicate them. Getting and keeping our mind in the game or any part of life can have positive results.

  4. Bo Blinski on July 10, 2022 at 12:39 am

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights, I totally agree with your view. It has been an honor watching, Joker, Rafa & Roger, they are all true champions at many levels of their sport.

    • CJ Johnson on July 10, 2022 at 11:33 am

      It’s been a fun time to watch tennis!

  5. Herb on July 10, 2022 at 12:50 am

    I enjoyed this lesson. I never thought that the mindset could be so helpful to your game. It’s the positive mental out look that can change your game play. Never give up, keep saying in your mind that you can still win no matter the score.

    • CJ Johnson on July 10, 2022 at 11:33 am

      Glad you found it helpful Herb

  6. Jim Wilkins on July 10, 2022 at 2:58 am

    At 67 and having played many sports , when momentum goes against you it can be difficult. I have found for me the talk is that I am not focused which leads to lack of effort. I will always refocus, work harder and regain the momentum. It doesn’t always work but I feel that I did not beat myself.

    • CJ Johnson on July 10, 2022 at 11:32 am

      Great insight Jim

  7. Frank Jones on July 10, 2022 at 10:28 pm

    Very timely information! I decided this weekend to adopt the mantra, “Watch the ball!” I guess I should add an accompanying image of a smiley emoji! Personal jingle, “Don’t worry, Be happy!” GO Martinez Pickleball Club (CA)!

    • CJ Johnson on July 13, 2022 at 3:23 pm

      Sounds like a good mantra!

  8. Bettina Moench on July 12, 2022 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for this great article! Such an important reminder about the negative self-talk that just makes thing worse when not playing well. The “I’m not good enough” talk on and off the court is such a soul-sucker! Helps to know everyone experiences it. Thanks for the tips to try and redirect when you hear yourself!!

    • CJ Johnson on July 13, 2022 at 3:23 pm

      We’re glad you found it helpful!

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