CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

How to Climb Your Pickleball Mountain (in Five Mostly Easy Steps)

Are you happy with your pickleball game? You know what I mean, when you walk off the court, are you where you think you should be in your pickleball journey?

If you are like many of the pickleball players that write to us, you think you should be further along than you currently are.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. Learning and improving are major motivators for both me and CJ. But there are a lot of players who make comparisons to others and, based on those assumptions and, in many cases, misconceptions, make the determination that they have fallen behind.

The road to success is defined differently by every player but is rarely, if ever, a straight line. It’s filled with detours and pivot points that others seldom see.

I thought it might be helpful to you, wherever you are along your pickleball journey, to know a little bit about my journey: from tennis player converted to pickleball to being able to compete at the senior pro level and sometimes even come out on top.

Recently I got to compete in the Hertz National Championships at the USTA campus in Lake Nona, Florida – a PPA event. My partner in the Mixed Senior Pro Division is my friend and fellow senior pro player, Leslie Bernard.

We played five matches (11 games) over about 8 hours (not continuous ☺) and, in the end, were able to secure the gold medal. Some may see it as a straight line to success, but far from it.

Step 1 – Getting Started

Like many players, I was introduced to pickleball by a friend. My wife Jill and I had a tennis background and were active in league play. During the Fall of 2015, we were invited to join a Saturday open play group of pickleball enthusiasts near our home, followed by lunch. We figured why not? We would go out there and bat the ball around after all pickleball is an “old person” sport and then grab a bite. It was a lovely day to be outside.

Fortunately for me, I got drubbed out there. The facility’s pickleball instructor, Steve, was a part of the group. Between him and some strong 3.5/4.0 pickleball players, I got walloped.

As a decent tennis player, I thought, “this shall not stand,” and decided to find out more about this crazy sport. Over the next few months, I discovered where there was open play and went there to play and learn. The players at these facilities shared the sport with me. Most of the advice was alright for my game at the time, but some of it was plain wrong and – as I would later discover – hampered my growth in the game.

Note – the advice these players shared was not meant with ill will. They just shared with me the same wrong information that they had learned and never unlearned.

Step 2 – Learning

At first, we are clueless on the pickleball court. The tricky part is that we think we are playing pickleball. But we do not know that’s not the case. This is not a criticism – of myself or any other players out there working on their games.

CJ and I like to say, “you do not know what you do not know.” There is no reason why someone who is first learning a new sport should know the ins and outs of the game. And there is no reason that you would think you do not know the thing you are, at least by all appearances, doing.

Let’s frame it out. You are standing on a pickleball court with a pickleball paddle and hitting a pickleball. You know what the kitchen line is and how to score. Therefore, you are playing pickleball. Right?

The reality is that, at this stage, we are barely scratching the surface of what pickleball has to offer. It is what keeps me coming back, both as a player and instructor: there is always something to learn in pickleball. As long as we stay curious, pickleball always has something to teach us.

Want bonus material to help you focus on your journey? Listen to the podcast that accompanies this blog

Step 3 – Bumps in the Road and the Fuel of Failure

The first real wake-up call for Jill and me came around the holidays of that year. As competitive tennis players, we were already considered pretty good at our local rec centers. During one of our regular open play sessions, a father-son duo showed up looking for a game. They looked serious, and so the group sent Jill and me to defend the home courts.

The game was over in a flash. 11-0. Jill and I got “pickled.” (if you’re not familiar with that term, we were on the 0 end of that score)

One way to look at it is: we failed as players as we were crushed. But I prefer to look at it as the greatest gift they could have given us: showing us where we were and how far we had to go. They hit shots that we simply never faced. That pushed us back to the drawing board to keep learning about this awesome “new” (at the time) game.

CJ tells a similar story of a lovely gentleman 20 plus years her senior and a few weeks away from hip replacement kicking her butt as the fuel behind her quest to improve.

A lot of players share something comparable. Paul, one of our Pickleball System Members, recently told us this.

I have been using your system since October(2023). At first, I found it interesting and gained some insight into the strategy of the game. However, each time I went out to play in my Clubs ladder league, I noticed I was still winning at the 3.0 level using my old banger strategy, so I was somewhat disappointed in the System and the strategies.

After months of this type of play, I noticed I was no longer winning as I moved into the 3.5-4.0 level. In fact, I was going backward! What was happening?

At a loss for what to do, I went back to the System and started really studying the modules and the framework and strategy of the game. I reluctantly gave up the slam-bang game, and all of a sudden, the rallies got longer, and I started winning again. There is a lot more to this game than 1st meets the eye and the System really breaks it down into detailed and useable modules that, when implemented, really make a difference.

I am far from where I want to be and have a lot of work ahead of me, but I now feel like the System gives me a roadmap to gaining more insight into the game and helping me to improve and ultimately win more games. It’s not all uphill, and I still fall back into old habits, but I do notice it now and can redirect my game to a smarter and more effective strategy.”

The key takeaway is that failure is part of the process. Unfortunately, many pickleball players don’t understand its importance and get disheartened.

If you want to know more about embracing failure, check out our podcast, Pickleball Therapy. It is the sort of thing we help you with. Here is a link to the episode covering failure and its benefits. Make sure you subscribe to the channel, so you are notified of future episodes.

Step 4 – Growth Phase

After our 11-0 shellacking and some other bumps in the road, such as playing at the first US Open in 2016 and experiencing just how good Wes Gabrielsen (Pickleball Hall of Fame Member)and Dan Moore played the game, I entered a growth phase in the sport. I started to piece together the pickleball strategies that would allow me to grow as a player and to apply them in play.

Here is one war story to give you a more specific idea of my growth journey.

My friend Tom and I (with whom I played many a tournament) were practicing against our friends Tyson and Mon – two awesome players from our community. We were hitting ok third shots – not award-winning but still below the net at the point of contact for Tyson and Mon. Every time we hit the shot and moved forward, “zip,” the ball would be poked past us.

So it occurred to me, “what if we don’t let them pass us with that ‘zip’ shot?” I suggested to Tom that we only take two steps forward after we hit our first third shot (confusing if you do not really understand third shots, I know, but trust me when I tell you that you might have to hit 2 to 22 “third” shots before the shot you are hitting changes its fundamental qualities).

When we used this new approach (new to us anyhow), the “zip” shots were no longer working. We were able to hit another “third” shot and, from here, could make it all the way up to the NVZ line before our next shot. We went from 2-7 at the time of the new strategy to win the game.

I share this story with you not so much to recommend a technique (though it is perfectly fine if you want to give it a try).

I share it with you to let you know that if you continue to work on your game – in an intentional, thoughtful way (and perhaps with some help from us ☺), you will experience these “aha” moments that will radically alter how you approach the game.

That day on the court with my friends, the pickleball movement lightbulb started to go on for me – it did not go full bright right away, but at least it was no longer off.

If we can help kickstart your journey or give you that friendly “push” you need to get you over the hump, visit our online teaching Academy and get on the right track to playing the pickleball you know you are capable of playing – if you just had the right tools and coaching.

Step 5 – Match Ready

Pickleball tournament play is very different from recreational play – even the most competitive type – and is worlds away from open play. I have lost count, but before the PPA Hertz tournament, I must have played in over 40 events. Most of my mixed doubles learning I did playing with Jill in tournaments from Maine to Kalamazoo.

These events have taught me a lot about adversity, digging deep, disappointment, and the sweetness of digging out a hard-fought victory. I would say that I am a pretty savvy tournament veteran.

I do not get rushed out there, use my timeouts, and manage the process as well as any pro player I know. As with everything else I have done in the game, it has been a process to get here and has required attention and work.

In addition to playing many tournaments, I spend about 50% of my on-court time drilling – as opposed to playing. These drills are not boring exercises. On the contrary, they are fun and allow me to work on specific skills that I want to improve or add to my game.

You don’t have to be a pickleball tournament player to use the same processes used by me to get match-ready can be used by you to improve your approach to every game you play, from open play to your local league matches. There is nothing stopping you from seeing progress in your game and in your approach to playing, provided you add a layer of intentionality to your pickleball.

Now for the Rest of the Story…The PPA Gold Medal Day

It was time to put my years of tournament play, training, and study to the test. Leslie and I were slotted as the 2nd seed in the tournament. We started to play shortly after 1 pm, winning our first two matches, 11-3, 11-3, and 11-9, 11-1. We then faced off against the No. 3 seed in a match that was closer than the score, winning 11-4, 11-8.

In the final match of the winner’s bracket (this is not the gold medal match – more on that in a minute), we faced the No. 5 seed, who had won their portion of the bracket. We lost the first game 9-11 but then won the next 2 games 11-6, 11-6. As a result, we were in the gold medal match as the winners of the top bracket. We now had to wait until the bottom bracket finished out, including the bronze medal match, to know who we would be facing. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, it likely means a break of 1.5 to 2 hours or possibly even more.

Quick side note here – being experienced tournament players, Leslie and I knew that we should use our time wisely.

We did two things outside regular hydration. First, we got some substantial food. We had been snacking on bars and such during the day, but now it was time to eat something – but not too much.

The other thing we did was to get ready to play. When it looked like the bronze medal match would be wrapping up in 2 games, we went to the nearest court and warmed up. Once the bronze medal match went into 3 games, we stopped because we also did not want to tire ourselves out. It is a balance.

We would be playing the same team that we had beaten a few hours ago: The no. 5 seed duo of Dave and Seyhan. They would be a challenge as they had a very well thought out strategy for how they played. We welcomed the challenge but did not want to give them any ideas ☺.

We started out strong in game 1, taking it 11-5. In game 2, we took early control and were up 10-5 with a chance to close the match. We did not capitalize on that opportunity (subject for another post coming out soon) but kept fighting and prevailed 14-12. And with that, we had completed the day and earned the gold medal for our division.

Just another step in the climb

Was it nice to win the tournament? Of course, it was, but it is a step along a journey. One that I hope to continue on as long as I am able.

Up until now, the journey has been about me learning about pickleball: technique, strategy, mental, body, everything. In 2018 my journey branched: from just playing to also sharing the knowledge I had learned through my studies as well my on-court experiences (successful and not). In 2020, that learning journey became a full-time endeavor that continues through the writing of this article.

I feel like my pickleball journey has been a series of mountains.

Every time I crest the peak of the mountain I am climbing, I see another mountain waiting behind it. Another challenge, should I choose to accept it.

No matter what mountain you are currently climbing, know two things:

    1. You can climb the mountain (sometimes you need some guidance – which CJ and I are happy to provide) and
    2. As long as you want to continue climbing, there is always another mountain waiting for you on the other side of this one.

As we sit here, it is impossible to know where our pickleball journeys will take us. Who knows, maybe one day we will meet at open play. Or perhaps we will be playing each other in the Nationals Finals one day.

Why not?

Stay curious out there.

8 Comments

  1. CJ Johnson on December 11, 2022 at 2:56 am

    What has been a key moment in your pickleball journey?

  2. Lynnette Lubrant on December 11, 2022 at 7:59 pm

    A friend and I started in the system together last year, and we both enjoy drilling. We live a distance from each other so we don’t get to play / drill a lot. And when we are at the same place at the same time, we never end up on the same side of the court, due to the round robin style of play that is set up. So we end up drilling alone when possible and lament that we never get to actually see how we might do as a team.
    Well recently we were able to be partners. As we got on the court, we agreed to pick a few things to focus on with our System and see how it would go. We were playing against a couple who both can tend to be slammers who play together a lot. They asked us to split because they had played 3 games together already, but we just refused and said we really want to play as partners because we literally never get to !
    They humored us. We have both played against or with them enough to know we might just get a lot of slams. But we were committed to see how we might do with our intention. We planned to try to remember our 3rd shot drops ( or 5th, 7th, etc ) and to be at the net, and to use dinking / soft game…And also to remember we can’t win a point on the return side, stay cool and just keep them working ! It worked ! It was amazing to see their frustration build ! They were losing points on their own when serving, hitting balls out, into the net, etc. And we stayed committed to our plan. 11-6 victory ! But the real victory was finally getting to play with another person with the same System training !

    • Janice Drickey on December 12, 2022 at 5:53 pm

      Right now, I’m playing at the upper end of the four groups I play with. It has been a long time in coming, so I’m pausing to enjoy it thoroughly before I begin to climb the next mountain. I am SO GRATEFUL to you, CJ and Tony, for giving so much time and energy to helping others improve. As you say, if we’re lucky, playing Pickleball will be a journey of and for a lifetime. For me, it’s worth every single step.

      • CJ Johnson on December 14, 2022 at 4:38 am

        Congratulations on your hard work Janice!

  3. Jeff on December 12, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    There’s an edit to be made above. I don’t think the fellow was enrolled in the System in 2023 😁

    Key moment? I took several lessons from a pro. Others immediately noticed the difference in my game. He taught the same (with less detail) as the System. You are filling in the gaps. The knowledge helped a lot.

    Has my game improved? Hard to say. I have a torn meniscus from a fall on the court a year ago. I’m getting surgery in January. Doc says No pickleball for three months after. I guess I’ll do a lot of indoor drills.

    However, I don’t expect my game to get substantially better without drilling. I’ve observed people who rec play twice a day. Their games don’t improve much. Even though I was playing once every day I’m in the same boat.

    • CJ Johnson on December 14, 2022 at 4:38 am

      Hi Jeff, sorry to hear you are injured. Your stroke mechanics won’t get better without drilling. However it doesn’t make a difference whether you are hitting a ball or not. Habit is formed by doing the motion over and over. The ghost drills section of the System should help while you get better. Speedy recovery.

  4. Darlene Handa on December 14, 2022 at 4:11 pm

    I enjoy reading your insight to playing; however, I am considering quitting because of all my set backs. This year, 2022, I played approximately 6 months and the rest of the year I spent recovering including three ambulance trips to the hospital. Maybe this sport is not for me even though I love playing. Any suggestions? Thank you, Darlene

    • CJ Johnson on December 14, 2022 at 4:38 pm

      Hi Darlene, setbacks take a physical and emotional toll. My recommendation would be to seek out a Physical Therapist who can assist you. Since you mentioned ambulance trips, I’m making an assumption they were acute injuries that were most likely related to a trip and fall. If that’s the case, what were you doing when they happened? Were you going back to retrieve a lob? Did you fall moving laterally at the NVZ? Once you narrow it down, a PT should be able to help you to develop a program to improve the skill that’s the root cause of these issues. It may mean that you spend time off the court working on things like balance, mobility, strength or footwork. Given that this has occurred several times for you, I’d recommend seeking out a physical therapist in your area and working with them to get personalized advice.

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