Your Complete Guide to Pickleball Improvement
Pickleball players want to improve. At least we know you do. Otherwise, you would not be reading this article.
What are you doing about it?
It’s so easy to get lost in the ever-growing sea of pickleball content. How does a committed pickleball player such as yourself improve?
I love to ride the Peloton Bike, and one of the things that push me are the Peloton challenges. At the end of 2020, I logged 8000 minutes in the yearly challenge. I didn’t have a plan, but being in the middle of a lockdown made the bike one of my primary workouts. At the end of 2020, I wondered if I could get to 1,000 minutes a month or 12,000 for the challenge.
My next thought was 12,000 is a pretty big jump because it’s not the only activity I do. How about 10,000 minutes in 2021? That was pretty much my last formal thought about the challenge. All I did was what I’d done the previous year- just ride the bike.
November rolls around, and when I finally look at the numbers, and I’m like, oh, my goodness, I’m going to have to bust my hump to get to 6000 minutes or 2000 less than the previous year.
How did this happen? The whole year had gone by with no chance for improvement. In fact, I’d gone backward.
When I registered for the 2022 challenge, I again thought about making 12,000 minutes my goal. Let’s scale it back to reality, rather than double the number, let’s try to get to 10,000.
After my big whiff in 2021, I knew if I wanted to reach that number, something had to change. When I returned from teaching our WeArePickleball camps in January, where I had limited time on the Peloton, I took a look at the numbers.
It was obvious that if I was going to get to 10,000, I had to do the math. I put pen to paper and figured out how many minutes a month and how many workouts a week. Once I knew the numbers, I put a weekly plan in place to get to 10,000 minutes.
My Peloton experience is a lot like many players’ pickleball journeys.
You start playing and because you’re new to the game and playing consistently you’re seeing improvement.
Then after a bit you plateau or even go backward because you can only get so far with just playing. Because trying to improve by playing alone is a slow painful process.
We’re not going to talk about practice versus playing in this post but if you’d like to know why click this link.
If you want real improvement, you’re going to have to make a plan and devote some time to it.
We also know that creating a plan isn’t easy (by the way, that’s our jam!). It’s compounded by what players told us on our most recent survey. Finding someone to practice with is a challenge for many of you. You might be surprised that not everything you can do to improve your game requires a partner. And not everything needs to be done on a pickleball court.
Below we share with you several techniques for you to improve as a pickleball player, from self-study and drilling all the way to a pickleball camp.
Before proceeding, let’s get one thing out of the way. There is only one way to see meaningful improvement in your pickleball game: you have to put in the work. This includes:
- Drilling – the only way your body will learn how to hit the ball CONSISTENTLY.
- Game study – what is the most optimal way to play a pickleball game?
- Body and mind – you need both to perform on the court.
We call these the Three Pillars of Pickleball™: the Mechanical (How to hit a shot), the Strategic (What shot to hit when) and the Athletic (Mind/Body connection)
If you’re still reading, then you are serious about improving and you know you will have to put in the time and effort required. That out of the way, let’s dive into different ways you can improve as a pickleball player.
The best way to improve your mechanics (the Mechanical Pillar™) is through repetition: drilling. It is critical, however, that you are drilling with correct technique. Drilling the incorrect technique will simply result in further grooving the bad one – no bueno. You are better off watching a movie than drilling the incorrect technique. A few drilling options:
Have you ever noticed what the pros do between points or games? Many of them bounce the ball on their paddle. Why?
First it helps to improve your hand eye coordination, something that many of you especially those of you who didn’t play racquet sports struggle with.
It can also make you aware of your grip pressure. Grab a ball and paddle right now. We’ll wait.
Bounce the ball on the paddle with your normal grip pressure, the one you use most often while playing. Notice how the ball comes off the paddle.
Now increase that pressure two-fold. Now four-fold, then as tight as you can hold the paddle. Did the reaction of the ball change?
Now decrease the pressure. Hold it as lightly as you can without the paddle twisting. What happens to the ball?
The same thing happens when you’re out on the court, but most players are unaware of the change in pressure or what it does to the ball.
You, your paddle, and a mirror or just some open space. Swing the paddle. Ready position. Move towards that stretch backhand dink. Ready position. And so on. The possibilities here are endless. You can work on dinks, serves, volleys, lateral movement, every shot or movement you make in the game.
The advantages are that you can do them at your leisure, day or night, rain or shine, pandemic or no. You can do as many or as few as you have time for. All you have is 5 minutes? Great. That is 5 minutes more than you had done before. If you are not sure what mirror drills to do, we have a great Drills Library inside our WeArePickleball Success Path™.
We all have a friend who is always ready to drill with us; wants to drill with us. That friend is the wall. The wall does not judge us and is prepared to give us as many balls as we want to hit. And the wall is there, day or night, always ready to go.
You can practice tons of stuff on the wall. Groundstrokes and volleys. Serves and returns of serve. Dinks with lateral movement. Lots of stuff.
Paddle bounce, ghost drills, the wall, and the next section, Solo Drilling, all share one thing in common: you can try whatever you want to try, without worrying that your friend or your group is growing antsy because you missed the last 15 shots.
And you will also not have to worry about judgment – the wall does not care what you do. If you are really new to the sport and want to work on your game, the wall is awesome.
Grab a bag of balls. Can be 20 or so (more if you want, but 20 are fine). Head over to the courts when they are open and hit. And hit some more. Pick the trajectory of your shots and hit them. Didn’t work? Then try something different.
Drop the ball and practice your serve, return, drop shots any shot you need for your game. Some of you are thinking, that’s all well and good but dropping it and the pace at which my opponent hits the ball to me are two different things. How can this be real practice?
The point is muscle memory. You need to put in the reps to be able to execute the correct shot mechanics consistently. When you are learning or changing a movement pattern it’s more beneficial to the ball coming to you at a slower pace so you can focus on creating the correct motion.
Drilling with a Friend or Group
This is the most fun form of drilling, provided you have a supportive environment that will not make you feel judged if you miss a shot or are feeling uncomfortable with a new shot. There are countless drills, mini-games, and activities you can enjoy with your friends while you learn. If drilling with friends is hampering your improvement, consider the above drills for a while so you can groove your shots.
It is difficult (if not impossible) to see how you are hitting the ball without videoing yourself. If you own a cellular phone, then chances are you have a camera with you every time you step on the court. Put it on a $20 tripod, hang it from the fence, or lay it on your backpack. Whatever you do – take some video of yourself hitting or playing. Then compare it to what you understand to be the correct form. Adjust as necessary.
Drilling is amazing to help you hone your mechanical skills. You will be able to hit the ball to anywhere from anywhere. And that is awesome.
But … you still need to know what do when or what we call the Strategic Pillar. Even if you have the best third shot drop in the world, there are times when hitting that shot is an error. Not because you missed the shot, but because it was the wrong shot to hit. So wrong that it rises to the level of a “e” error. (
To play your best pickleball, you need to know what shot to hit when. You want to understand the framework of a pickleball game so that you can craft a strategy and an approach to the game that is effective but still works for you.
The only way to do this is through game study. Watching videos of games and studying what works – and what does not. It is the same as any activity or endeavor – you are learning to “see” the game. This Strategic Pillar Study is critical to your improvement. Not sure how to do it, check out this video. Technique is necessary but we love to talk Strategy. It’s our specialty at WeArePickleball – no one does it better.
You can have the best third shot in the game AND know when and why you are hitting it. BUT, of what use will those be if your legs are giving out after 2 or 3 games? Or if you lose focus because of a shot you missed (the mind starts going sideways on you)?
You need to spend time on your mind and body. Read books, listen to podcasts (our Pickleball Therapy podcast – available on all platforms – is designed with just this in mind), workout, and stretch. The Athletic Pillar is the third pillar of the Three Pillars of Pickleball and is just as important as the other two.
The best news is that most of this is done away from the courts and can even be incorporated into other activities. Working on these very areas that are so critical to your performance on the pickleball court, as well as in life in general.
Lessons or Clinics
Every day there are more and more pickleball instructors throughout the country. A knowledgeable and effective instructor can be a valuable asset to you in your quest to improve as a player. Here are a few criteria to help you select the right instructor for you.
Is the instructor certified or can I otherwise determine knowledge and effectiveness?
You want to work with an instructor who can help you – in other words, has the knowledge and skills necessary to provide you the instruction that will help you improve. Instructor certification is one way to determine that an instructor is qualified to help. Certification is not, however, the only way to vet an instructor’s qualifications – you can rely on your knowledge of the instructor as well.
Remember, not all good players are great instructors and not all great instructors are top notch players. Teaching is an acquired skill. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take your time making sure it’s the right fit for you.
Can the instructor provide you the instruction you need at your stage on the path?
While certification is helpful, it is not dispositive. You need to ask yourself if the instructor is the right one for you. Say you are a 3.0 player still working on the fundamentals of the game and your instructor suggests that you spend some time learning the Erne (a fancy jump over the corner move most young-uns feel is important to the game). If you ask us, that instructor may not be the right one for you.
Have other players had good results with this instructor?
A great indicator of an instructor is how other players have fared with that instructor. If others have had success, there is a good chance you can have it as well. If others have not – or have had off-court issues with the instructor, particularly fulfilling obligations – then consider walking away.
What am I looking for from an instructor?
Lastly, you want to know whether the instructor can provide you with what you are looking for. Think of your first lesson with them as an interview. Write down the questions you’d like to ask or points you want covered. If they ask you to do something and you’re not sure why make sure you ask them about it. Good instructors should be able to give you a clear understanding of why they want you to perform a certain task.
The last thing to keep in mind is that most in-person instruction, unless it’s a game play situation with you and 3 or 4 other players is focused on mechanics.
We get this question all the time: “Will going to pickleball camp help my game?”
The answer, as is often the case in real life is “It depends.”
Here are some considerations to help you determine if a camp, any camp, is right for you.
Is pickleball improvement your No. 1 objective in attending?
If you are still reading this article, it is likely that you are motivated by improving as a pickleball player. If this is you, then here are a few things to consider:
What is the curriculum taught at the camp?
All pickleball camps will, by their very nature, be about pickleball. So that is not the question. The actual question is what parts of pickleball will be covered?
Players considering a camp generally have in mind an immersive pickleball experience that they will emerge from as better players. If you expect that attending a camp will improve your game, then check the curriculum against your expectations.
To give you a concrete example of what I mean by curriculum, at WeArePickleball camps we cover all Three Pillars of Pickleball™: the Mechanical, Strategic, and Athletic. Our objective is that by the end of camp you are empowered as a more knowledgeable and capable pickleball player. We want you to have the information and tools that will help you continue along your improvement path.
Before you select a camp, ask for the camp curriculum. Make sure it is in line with your expectations of what you want to learn at the camp. If your No. 1 objective is pickleball improvement, look for a camp that will give you the knowledge and tools you need.
Who will be teaching me?
As important as what will be taught at the camp is who will be teaching you.
Some players attend a camp because they want to be on the court with a superstar player. There is nothing wrong with wanting this for yourself, just do not confuse being on the court with a superstar player and accomplishing your objective of pickleball improvement. To be clear, we are not saying that there are no superstar players who are also good teachers (there are). What we are saying is that just because a player is a great player does not also make that player a great instructor.
You should also ask yourself if the instructor will understand your body and skill set. A 25-year old instructor may not have the same appreciation for the body and skills of a 60-year old player as would an instructor with a few more laps around the block.
Again, a concrete example to illustrate, from the camps I know best: WeArePickleball camps. Our camps are taught by Tony Roig and myself, CJ Johnson. When you come to a WeArePickleball camp, you know who your instructors (all of them) will be.
Before you sign up for a camp, ask them who the instructors at the camp will be – all of them. Do you know the instructors who will be at the camp? Do you know their teaching style or experience? Camp is a significant investment. Give some thought to the learning experience that you will have at that camp and make an informed decision about whether a particular camp is right for you.
Is pickleball improvement NOT your No. 1 objective in attending?
If pickleball improvement is your No. 1 objective, then knowing what you will be taught and by whom are both critical to your decision making process.
You may, however, be looking for a camp as a vacation or being near family or such. There is obviously nothing wrong with those being your primary motivators. If this is the case, then location and timing of the camp will drive the train. What we recommend here is to enjoy the experience as you would rec or open play, without expectations as to the outcome – perhaps you will improve, perhaps not, but you will have some pickleball as part of your other experience (vacation, family, etc).
Are you traveling with your significant other?
If you are traveling to a camp with your significant other and you wish to experience the camp together, consider a camp that is flexible enough to have you stay together. Some camps are broken up by level, in which case a 4.0 player and their 3.0 partner player will not be on the same courts.
Is a camp worth the investment?
This is a tricky question. Camps require an investment of time and money (not just the camp, often the travel and accommodations). That said, if you have done the above analysis and concluded that the camp you have selected meets your selection criteria, camps can be a great launching point towards improvement and, importantly also be lots of fun. You will be on the courts with players who, like you, are there to learn and grow in the sport we all love.
On the cost front, ask your camp whether it offers any sort of guarantee about the quality of its camp – as we do at WeArePickleball (not happy with your camp experience, for any reason, camp fee is refunded, no questions asked).
A pickleball camp can be the sort of thing to really jumpstart your game. But before you book the camp, make sure that it will meet your expectations and, if you are unsure about something, ask the necessary questions to find out.
As we said above, improvement is a process. If it is something you want, it will not happen by itself. Rather, it will require your time and dedication.
Add the above suggestions to your improvement regimen and put in the work. You will likely see dramatic improvement in your game, including all the way to 4.0+ (perhaps higher). And if we can help you along your journey, come join us at WeArePickleball – stronger together.
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