CJ Johnson Headshot
CJ Johnson
Tony Roig
Tony Roig

You Will Become a Better Pickleball Player by Playing More-Right?

You love the game, and you want to play your best pickleball. So you carve out time in your schedule to play more. Before you know it, you’re playing 4-5 days every week. But will more time playing help you become the pickleball player you want to be?

We asked you – and a thousand other pickleball players – a series of questions about the game and their paths to improvement.

A large number of players told us that they wanted to improve and that, in order to improve, they needed to play more. So let’s talk about this notion.

Is playing more the best path to becoming a better pickleball player?

As you may already know, there are Three Pillars of Pickleball™. The Mechanical Pillar involves stroke mechanics, a solid foundation to hit from, and improved footwork. The Strategic Pillar is knowing what shot to hit when and where to be on the court – the strategy of the game. Finally, the Athletic Pillar is your mind/body connection; having the sharpest tools out on the court.

When most players think about improving their games, they are actually referring to the Mechanical Pillar.

In the survey, most players talked about specific shots needing work. Maybe it is their third shot, or their serve, or their volley, that needs work. These are all mechanical parts of their games.

So, can we improve our mechanical shot-making (or movement around the court) simply by playing?

The short answer is “not really.”

Improving your mechanics requires training your muscles to do a thing over and over. It is a question of muscle memory, and muscle memory requires repetition. And, oftentimes, when we are trying to learn a new stroke mechanic we are trying to change the memory that our muscles have when they are hitting that shot.

Let’s take a specific shot you are working on: the third shot drop. And let’s assume that the mechanics for your third shot drop are resulting in your balls going deep and being attackable. Is it reasonable to expect that you can change the mechanics of this shot during real-time play? We would suggest no.

The first and most obvious limitation is the number of opportunities you will get to hit that shot. It is unclear at the beginning of any session how many third shot drop opportunities you will get during a game. And as we noted above, to re-wire your muscles’ memory, you need repetition; lots and lots of repetition.

Assuming you get to try 10 third shot drops in a game, after 8 games, you will have hit 80 third shot drops (still subject to the limitations outlined below). You can hit 80 third shot drops in about 10-15 minutes of focused drilling. You can then use the next 45 minutes to hit another 240 third shot drops. Way more in 1 hour of drilling than you would get in 3 hours of play.

Another limitation to trying to improve by playing is the conditions under which you are hitting the shots.

There’s a lack of consistency in the type of shots, as well as large breaks between the shots. You will be hitting volleys, serving, and doing all sorts of things between one third shot drop and the next. Each “feed” will also vary widely.

Of course, it is good to be able to hit third shot drops from different places, varying speeds, and different sorts of shots, but you are learning a new shot. It is better to have some commonality between the feeds you are hitting. In this way, you can focus on the differences in your shot rather than trying to overlay that with changes in the ball you are hitting.

There is also a significant mental difference between practice and playing.

Hitting third shots during practice and third shots during games – particularly a third shot mechanic that does not yet feel natural to you is mentally challenging. When you are drilling, you are, well, drilling. You are working on the shot, and it is ok to miss and keep working.

Even if we say we’re not focused on winning the rally or the game, there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to let our partner down. We don’t want to disappoint them. That often makes us go back to the familiar shot or mechanic.

When you are in a game, there are all sorts of variables going on in your head. “OMG, I popped another one up!!!!” “Cannot miss this one” and so on. There is a reason why even the best players in the world practice. It is because practice and game are different in so many ways.

So how can you practice when no one in your group wants to practice?

That’s another common theme we heard in the survey. Many of you were having a hard time finding someone to drill with or finding a place to drill.

Here’s where a little creativity will help you find some practice time and achieve your objectives.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a drilling partner is the only way to practice. Would it surprise you if we said good drilling can just be a bag of balls and you?

Again, the purpose of drilling is to change something mechanical. Since that requires repetition, all you need to do is bounce the ball and then hit the shot you want to practice.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t simulate the speed that you might experience in a game. The purpose is to create a repeatable motion. That’s more easily accomplished if we slow it down and pay attention to the body’s movement. Once you are making the motion consistently, then speed it up.

Another phenomenal practice tool is a wall.

It’s nice to have a tennis wall but it’s not needed. Any wall will do. Is there one at your house? Inside or outside?.

Snow on the courts? Not to worry. Foam balls and a solid floor will do just fine. No floor? You can still practice volleys.

Tony lives in sunny Florida, but I (CJ is writing this part) live in Lake Tahoe in the mountains. I cannot play indoors regularly in the winter, and the nearest outdoor courts without snow are more than 45 minutes away. At home, my practice is hampered because I don’t have wood floors.

But…what I do have is a small tile entryway. I put a little piece of tape net height (34 inches) on the closet door and use the foam ball to hit dinks and volleys for 10 minutes almost every day. Does it help?

I recently went to Tampa to teach our WeArePickleball Camps and even I was hard-pressed to notice that I hadn’t been on a court for almost 8 weeks.

If you have a little more room indoors, you might do what two of our WeArePickleball members who live in Nova Scotia did. They had a small space in their kitchen, so they set up a three-foot-wide piece of string to simulate the top of the net and practiced their dink shots. It didn’t take long for both of them to get more proficient at moving the paddle from the shoulder. (the wrist is a major cause of pop-ups)

Let’s go back to the original question, can you get better by playing more?

If you want to see significant improvement in your game, you will need to dedicate some of your court time to drilling. Add drilling to your weekly schedule, even a few minutes a week, and you will see definite improvements in your game. As always, we are here as a resource to you along your path to improvement.

Stronger together.

CJ & Tony

5 Comments

  1. Jim Kerschen on January 23, 2022 at 1:47 am

    CJ, Tony,
    My buddy Walt and I were absolutely destroyed on Friday by a team that was able to lob over our heads and just nick the baseline. They did this six times during the game. When one of us would go back to reset into the kitchen, the other one of us would play half-way into ‘no-man’s land’ to guard against the short dink into the kitchen or the hard angle shot. What would a more effective strategy be?

    Oh, and you’re right — I have a wall and I can dink for hours against it. It has greatly improved my dinking consistency.

    • gania Barnes on January 23, 2022 at 6:03 pm

      I have the same problem in The Villages, Fla. Good players, some 4.5, that are lobbers. Their lobs are consistence and places well. They also have other good shots but their main weapon is their lobs. What to do to neutralize their lobbing advantage and where is the best place to hit ones overhead. They also have a very good blocking partner at net.
      I don’t know the solution just have to deal with the issue.

      • Tony Roig on January 24, 2022 at 12:21 am

        Hello Jim and Gania. You can adjust your shots to make them harder for the lobbers. It is not easy, but you can hit them shorter lower balls. Those are generally harder to lob. It is not usual strategy, but is a counter to a lobbing strategy.

  2. Judy French on January 23, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    Can you recommend a product that clips an iPhone (different sizes of phones), at different angles, to the inside/playing side of a chain link fence?

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