CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Overcoming Adversity-Lesson 1 from Atlanta

You will inevitably be behind in a game. Maybe it is close: 8-6. Or maybe it seems hopeless: 9-1. How do you come back to level things and perhaps win the game? Here are three tips for overcoming adversity when you are down, even when you are down a lot. Use these strategies and become the comeback kid.

(This is part of our series-Lessons from the Atlanta PPA Tournament. Each deal with a specific lesson that took place during the tournament. But these lessons don’t simply apply to tournament play. Other than some outliers like time outs and referees, tournament play is the same as competitive non-tournament play.)

I recently played a Senior Pro tournament at the Atlanta Open PPA. It was a fantastic event, and I was fortunate to compete in Mixed Doubles and Men’s Doubles.

The first lesson I want to share – overcoming adversity – comes from a match I played in Mixed Doubles with my partner, the always amazing Sarah Mitten. Sarah and I won 4 games and lost two games during our day.

We were the No. 3 seed, and the teams that beat us were the No. 1 and 2 seeds in our bracket (15 total teams). It was “chalk,” as they sometimes say, with each seed winning their respective medals. This means that we ended the day with the bronze medal.

Thinking through the day, we had some matches that were not that close – both when we were victorious and when not. And we had some nail biters, real tension toward the end—the type of game with adversity in it, the sort that tests you as a player.

The match I want to focus on was our first match in the back draw.

We had lost to the No. 2 seed in two games. Simply put, I just committed too many errors, particularly in the first game (more on this in the next post on the tournament)—far too many against a high-caliber team. As a result, we dropped into the back draw.

If you are not familiar with the term back draw, most tournaments before the medal rounds are double-elimination. Once you lose your first match, you are given one more opportunity to work your way into contention for a medal. Quick side note, back draw games (before the medal round) are one game to 15 points.

Our next match was against a tough team: Taylor and Kim. They were the 8th seed and had just knocked off the 4th seed in a back-and-forth 15-12 battle. I had a chance to watch the match and study the teams, one of which we would end up playing. Particularly prudent strategy if you are playing opponents you do not know.

As best I recall, we started out well in the match.

We built a nice lead, and everything was in order (from our perspective). You switch ends when the first team gets to 8 and at the switch we were up 8-4. We then scored two more points before getting sided out. The score was 4-10-1 after the side out with Taylor and Kim serving.

We found out quickly that our opponents were not yet done for the day. My compliments to them for continuing to battle. It is not uncommon for a team to get down big, fold the tent, and go home. Taylor and Kim were not even thinking about it and, in fact, were just starting their own campfire (to keep with the analogy).

They made some adjustments in their strategy – effective ones – and mounted a comeback. As the team that had been in control of the match, Sarah and I felt the pressure. It is expected, particularly when your opponent is finding solutions and you need to counter them.

Fast-forwarding a bit, and after several rallies, Taylor and Kim served for the match at 14-12-2. They turned a 4-10-1 DISADVANTAGE into a 14-12-2 ADVANTAGE and were poised to win the match.

Sarah and I, however, are also not “tent folders.” We battled through that rally and got the side out. There was some excellent, intense pickleball being played by all players at this stage of the match. Each shot carried the extra weight of the moment.

On our serve, we accomplished our objective. Not to win. Rather, to equalize. Let’s spend a moment here – as this approach is critical to being able to come back in a game.

It helps if you approach your comeback in steps or stages when you are behind in a game. If you go back to serve and think “win,” that is a bridge too far for your mind. Your brain will push back with a subconscious “you ask too much.”

Quick digression to drive this home. Say CJ asked me (I live in Florida) to walk to our camps in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. In all likelihood, I would tell CJ that she is out of her mind, and my body would not take the first step in that direction.

But what if, instead of Nevada, CJ asked me to walk to the next county over from where I live. It is not an easy task, but it is doable. It is something that I can actually accomplish. The next day, CJ could ask me to walk over to the next county over. And so on.

What will happen? Eventually, I will be stepping onto the pickleball courts at Incline Village, Nevada, having walked across the country, one county at a time.

Pickleball is no different (except perhaps for the number of miles). If you are down 8-2 in a game, telling yourself, “Let’s just do this,” will sound crazy to your subconscious self – the one that has to put in the work to accomplish your objective.

But telling yourself, “let’s get this side out” or “let’s just get off of 2,” are things that your “self” can buy into and try to do for you.

You just keep on asking yourself to meet these smaller, more achievable objectives until, perhaps, you look up, and it is 7-8. Often, your opponents will wilt in the face of your determination. You just keep taking that next step. And the next one. You are heading to your intended destination (whatever that is).

Back to the match.

We had overcome the match points and leveled the score at 14-14. Side out. Sarah and I looked at each other, “we got what we wanted” (a positive reinforcement). Now we had to keep working.

I do not recall precisely whether they scored a point here or the next go around, but at some point, the score was 15-14-1 in favor of Taylor and Kim. Time again to fight off match points against us. I do not recall the details of the rallies other than to say that we survived.

Serve back to us at 14-15-1.

Sarah does magic here. I will not delve into its details because it has to do with high-level stacking and counter-stacking (if you want to learn stacking, I highly recommend our Stacking Lab – it is a powerful tool available to all levels of play).

What I will say about it is that Sarah recognized an opening that the other team was exploiting (it was on my side). She moved our positions so that the opening was no longer available to them. It worked like a charm. We scored the next two points.

The score is now 16-15-1—one more point to go.

I, probably incorrectly, but we will never know for sure, tell Sarah that I want to go back to our regular formation here. I think it was the right call, but there is no way to know for sure because we did not play it both ways to check.

The point I want to make is that the decisions by both Sarah and me, first to counter-stack and then to go traditional formation, were intentional. We are each knowledgeable players who understand pickleball and can see what the other team is trying to do to us (in addition to what we want to do to them). We made decisions intended to give our team the best chance for success using our knowledge.

(This sort of knowledge and intentionality is available to you, no matter your level of play. It requires work and purpose when you play, but it is doable if it is something that calls out to you. Our Pickleball System gives you the tools you need to start being able to “see” the game the way we do.)

We battled that last point. In the end, we won the rally and point, winning 17-15.

This sort of back and forth match that extends beyond the regular score can teach us a lot about overcoming adversity, generally, by both teams. During this match, each team demonstrated the ability to overcome adversity.

Note that overcoming adversity does not mean “winning.” It means continuing to battle despite things not looking good for you. It means not giving up until the final bell has been rung.

How can you apply the lessons from this match to your game?

Step 1 is to never give up in a game. Keep playing to your best ability.

Taylor and Kim faced adversity first and showed their mettle by continuing to battle even after we had built up a decent lead.

Next, it was me and Sarah weathering the storm. If you are in a competitive match, you need to be ready for the other team to “come at you” during the game. They are not going just to lay down their paddles and let you win. You need to expect that they will make a push.

Step 2 is to expect a battle. Keep executing your game and, when necessary, adjust your strategy to meet the challenge.

It was two teams exchanging blows to the end. They went up. We stopped their advance and tied the game. They went up again. We stopped their advance again. This time we were able to cross the finish line in the lead.

They made adjustments to their strategy. When it worked and exposed a weakness, we made a counter adjustment. It went back and forth. Each team was trying to solve the puzzle and put each player into a position where they could be successful against the team on the other side of the net.

Don’t change something that’s working just for the sake of change. At the same time, please don’t stick to a strategy that’s not working simply because it’s comfortable.

Step 3 is to hunker down when the game is at hand (the critical moments). Keep playing – and playing some more – until the paddles have been tapped.

You cannot control the outcome of a game. But you can control the effort you make during that game. Sometimes you will be the team with 17, and sometimes you will be the team with 15. In either case, as long as you gave it your best, walk away with your head high and, perhaps, a tip of the cap to your opponents for their job well done.

Every well-fought battle has something to teach us if we are open to learning from it. What did you do well? What could you have changed? Capture those lessons. Pay attention to the successes and the failures because if you do, you’ll be able to apply them at another time on the pickleball courts.

3 Comments

  1. Arneitha McCall-Johnson on May 29, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    Lessons learned, keep pushing, never give up, make adjustments, look for your opponents weakness, and much much more👌🏼. I only started playing a little pickleball last April, and felt in love with it. I’m 80 in pretty good shape and condition. I plan to play until my centenarian birthday 🎂. LOL 😆 🤣 😂. Thank you CJ and TONY.

  2. joanie on May 30, 2022 at 3:48 pm

    great advice!
    thank you!

    • CJ Johnson on May 31, 2022 at 9:25 pm

      Glad you found it helpful Joanie!

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