CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

Pickleball Training-Improve Your Mental Focus

When you want to improve your pickleball game, it’s easy to get hung up on technique, but should that be your only focus?

Typically when we start a new sport, or we want to get better at it, we focus on our physical technique, but if you’re not working on your mental focus, you’ll probably fall short of your goals. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner who wants to win a couple more rec points, a seasoned tournament player, or somewhere in between. Being able to focus on the task at hand and to eliminate outside distractions will help you play better pickleball.

As a multi-sport professional athlete, I’ve learned to use visualization, breathing techniques, and mental focus to excel in those sports. Yet no matter how much I practice, there are times when I’m skiing a steep run, hitting a tough approach shot into a well-bunkered green or stepping on the pickleball court that I forget to use those tools.

Elite Competitors aren’t immune to feeling emotion, stress, and distraction that most people feel under pressure situations. It’s just that they have mental focus tools that they’ve practiced to help them navigate those challenges more successfully.

That’s why I’m always excited to pick another athlete’s brain and to understand the mental focus tools that they utilize. Here’s your chance to get into the mind of four-time pickleball US Open gold medalist, Laura Fenton Kovanda.

Laura is an all-around athlete and holds national titles in basketball, softball, tennis, and racquetball. Many don’t know this, but Laura was one of four women in the Pro Finals at the very first US Open Championships in 2016 at the age of 54. Over the past 35 years, she has taught college courses in biomechanics, kinesiology, exercise physiology, biophysics, sport psychology, nutrition, and athletic training.

Laura, you are an experienced tournament player. You played on some big stages, not just in pickleball, but back in your racquetball days. Do you still get the butterflies, and if you do, what do you do to calm them?

First of all, yes, I get butterflies. Most of the time, people get butterflies because there’s something on the line, the bigger the stage, the more pressure.

What do you do to calm them? First of all, you have to ask yourself what is at stake. On a mental side, people tend to worry about how do I look to other people? Do I look stupid out here? They’re thinking about all of the things that they shouldn’t be thinking about.

When people have the butterflies, everything tends to tense up. All your muscles, your brain, your back, and we’re like kind of like pushing the ball. We’re afraid to swing through it.

You need to learn what your body does as you start to play a match. Usually, it takes about 12 to 15 minutes for motor memory to kick in and for the endorphins to kick in. When you play more and more matches, you realize, okay, I feel my body is tight, but I know it’s going to go away eventually.

At times people have those butterflies, even the night before, they feel like they’re going to throw up cause they don’t want to let a partner down. Or am I going to play the same way? We start doing what we call negative self talk.

The more that you play in pressure situations, the more you start understanding yourself and what to expect.

Laura, when we start to get those negative thoughts in our head when we’re thinking about letting our partner down, or I shouldn’t hit this shot or how other people are interpreting my style of play. What’s something that players can use to eliminate those negative thoughts?

That takes practice. Before a match, people will put headsets on and music to block everybody else out. Some people like heavy metal music, others use classical to relax. Some people even say, Oh, I’ll take a shot of tequila. Whatever it takes to try to relax your body before the match.

When you’re on the court, someone will think I don’t want to let my partner down. That’s negative self-talk. Instead of that, you need to focus on one specific thing. The next point, or focus on the ball or your footwork, let the outcome take care of itself.

Whether you’re at rec play or a tournament play, what can you do to get back on track when nothing seems to be working?

We all have those days. There are a few things I utilize.

I learned this from my assistant coach when I was on the US racquetball team. She said, “I want you to take hold of that ball, look at the ball, and say, focus only on the ball.” That intense focus helps to block everything else out.

If I’m making mistakes, let’s say my drop shots are a little short or I’m hitting balls, right and left, I have to go back to the basics.

Another thing is sometimes I need to get out of my comfort zone to play better.

Maybe I’m in a match where two players are driving every ball at my partner and me, and we agree, we’ve got to slow it down. We’re hitting our shots into the kitchen, and yet they’re still ripping balls at us, and we’re just not scoring points at all. I may finally have to turn that around and start driving balls at them first. Because sometimes, they’re great at driving shots, but maybe their reaction time or their blocking is not as good.

If I could score one point, I can score two points; I can score two points, I can score 10 points. That occurred in a match. I don’t want to use their names, but it happened about two years ago at nationals in our senior pro division where my partner and I got beat 11-0 and were down 5-1 in the second game when it finally hit me. Nothing we were doing was working, and I said, we’ve got nothing to lose. We started ripping balls at them.

We came back and won that game, and we ended up winning the third game 11-9, and I was totally out of my comfort zone. But it told me that was something I had to work on because you have to be able to do anything in any match. You’ve got to keep adding and adding to your game.

Laura, what’s your favorite mental focus tool to use when you’re under pressure?

I’m kind of strange in that the more pressure there is, the better I play because it makes me focus. And I think some people will understand this. When you play a better team than you, it pulls your level of play up. When you play a team that’s not as strong as you, you don’t play as well, and you’re thinking, we should be killing these guys. Those are the wrong thoughts.

I always go back to the ball, focus only on the ball. I have to bring myself back to one focus instead of focusing on other things. Play within the moment: that one point and only the ball.

Conclusion

Playing your best pickleball is like an orchestra. When multiple musicians blend, they make beautiful music.

Here’s how to start improving your mental focus. When you’re under pressure, be a conscious observer. How does your body respond? Is your grip tight? Are your feet moving, or is your footwork flat? Do you clench your teeth? Is your breathing short? You need to answer this question; what do butterflies feel like to you?

Then try Laura’s primary technique. Grab a ball, look at it, and say out loud, “focus only on the ball.” Mental training requires repetition. It’s not one and done. Do it between every point until you feel yourself focusing on the ball. Then check in with your body. Has your tension diminished?

It’s easy to fall into a trap and focus solely on developing your shot mastery, but good pickleball requires more than technique. You need a fit body and a focused mind. Those components are formed through practice on and off the pickleball courts.

6 Comments

  1. Janet Allen on January 4, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks for sharing your years of experience. I’ve played in PICKLEBALL tournaments, as well as Racquetball and Volleyball tournaments. Because there are so many newbies, rookies, first timers, non athletes involved in Pickleball, we have seen some crazy things happen at PB tournaments. Players trying to take advantage of others who do not even know the rules yet they are entered in a tournament! Very strange stuff. But, all in all, still great fun. I think the butterflies, nerves, adrenaline all can be used to your advantage with the great suggestion you made, the bio feedback approach as to feel how your body is reacting to the stress and adjust. Wonderful advice.
    Be well. Thanks Laura and CJ.

  2. James R Crane on January 4, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    this was an excellent video . one of the best because it focused on the intangible, something that does no get enough attention. I could totally relate to what she was saying. Thanks for sharing

  3. Mary Clor on January 5, 2020 at 8:10 am

    I always find value in advice from Laura Fenton Kovanda. She has a no-n0nsense way of presenting material that is spot on! The example of “we have nothing to lose” to be most interesting, because it is often true. Yesterday, during rec play, I had a partner who could rip any ball, but I noticed that he did not block well. That observation came in handy later in the day when he was my opponent! Thanks, CJ for providing interesting, and thought provoking, content.

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