We’ve all experienced it in varying degrees on the pickleball courts — some more than others. As we exit the stress-free laboratory of the practice courts and enter the pressure-cooker of a “real” game or tournament match, we don’t play in any way that remotely resembles how we practiced and drilled.
Our heart rate quickens. We struggle to catch our breath. Our muscles tense and tighten. Drops that we were successfully executing at an 80%-90% clip on the practice court, plummet to a 30%-40% clip on the “real” court. Routine volleys that we thought we could execute in our sleep are dumped into the bottom of the net.
And the errors snowball from there. Two unforced errors in a row on your opponents’ serve and 20% of the game is already done! We begin to panic and — 10 short minutes later — we are walking off the court defeated and deflated. Can you relate?
Playing & Practicing — Make Sure they are not Completely Different
So how, as a player seeking to improve pickleball results (and mental toughness) in “real games,” does one bridge the performance gap between practice play and game play? In practice play, I frequently observe players (and I’m guilty too from time-to-time) that are just randomly hitting balls back and forth to each other. There is no purpose or intention behind the repetitions. They are just hitting to sustain a rally.
The “real game,” however, is much different. It requires a heightened focus and intention if winning is the objective. You focus more intently on precise ball placement and hitting the ball (hopefully) to the weakest player’s weakest shot. So, if you are not training and practicing with a similar focus and intention, how can you possibly expect to perform that way when it really counts?
Target Practice 101
So, what does focus, intention and purpose look like on the pickleball practice court? Quite simply, instead of hitting random shots as you practice, try hitting purposeful shots. Set up targets. Grab some cones. Use your water bottle. Any target will work.
Position the targets where your opponent’s weakest shot would be located — perhaps a couple of inches off your opponent’s left foot (as the backhand is generally the weaker shot for those right-handers). Practice hitting that target. Again. And again.
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As you work on hitting the target, you will notice that each repetition provides instantaneous feedback. If you’re practicing your drop shot, for example, are you missing it wide of the target? Are you hitting it too far? Too short? Is your grip pressure too tight, too loose? Is your paddle face too open? Too closed?
Don’t Forget to Create Pressure & Accountability when you are Training
As you drill and train on the physical execution of hitting targets, it’s also important to add in a “mental pressure” component. It’s this mental pressure component that most people just don’t train. Without adding mental pressure, there’s no accountability or consequences from “not performing” in your practice session.
You definitely want to train with mental pressure because you’re sure to experience it — heaps of it — in a “real” match. In a “real” match, you hit a bad shot and you lose the rally. Hit enough bad shots and you lose the match. Lose 2 matches and you’re packing your bags early.
Similarly, pressure (and accountability) must be created when practicing so that — when you are on the “real” courts — that pressure is much easier to deal with.
To add an element of mental pressure to your practice time, you may opt to engage in a “competition” with your drill partner or instructor. See who can hit the target (a cone, for example) 5 times before the other person can. Hold the loser accountable. In some way. There must be consequences during practice — just like there are consequences in a “real” match.
What Types of Accountability (and Consequences) should you Incorporate into your Practice Sessions? I would love to hear your thoughts.
That’s the million-dollar question. I’m not sure what the accountability (consequences) looks like on the practice court. Perhaps the “loser” will have to do a physical challenge such as 10 push-ups — or run a lap or two around the court(s). With each missed shot now having consequences, a bit of pressure will be created. After all, you don’t want to lose and have to perform the physical challenge. I’m not sure if a physical challenge is most effective. Nevertheless, there must be some form of accountability.
I would love to hear your thoughts. As you purposefully train and practice, how are you adding an element of pressure that would mimic the pressure of a “real” match? Taking it a step further, how are you held accountable (what are the consequences) when succumbing to the pressure in practice?
Pickleball Max — I don’t think there is any substitute for experiencing the pressure, living through it, learning from and forgiving ourselves for our failures of underperforming, and going back to try again. Performing under pressure is, for most of us, a learned experience. Some people do seem to come by it naturally, but performance anxiety is not a personality flaw.
I do think it helps to try to have fun, whether it’s a casual match or a “serious” one. Try smiling instead of fist-pumping. And work up a sweat before the match starts — that helps get rid of the small-muscle hyperactivity and tension that seem to impede performance (even worse if you are a pianist!)
I’m also an archer and bowhunter. We often work an entire season for one opportunity to shoot a deer — and no amount of practice assures that we won’t screw it up. We try to simulate the pressure, as you have suggested. First, run up the hill a couple of times, get your heart beating fast, then try to make a calm shot. We used to have an iron ring with about a four inch diameter — we would shoot at it’s center from 20 yards — and the “consequences” as you say, were that if you missed by a little bit you would hit the iron and destroy a $20 arrow. And of course we had contests near the end of each practice session, in which the loser had to buy — in our case it was chocolate milk! But I’m not sure any of these measures helped when the “moment of truth” arrived.
My only other comment is that thinking about stroke mechanics during a match is a bad idea. Imagery of the shot you want to hit is paramount. And hit one shot at a time. Focus on strategic fundamentals, which will work out in your favor if you give them time.
I have only one other comment — sometimes when you think you are playing poorly, it’s just because the other team is playing well. If they are constantly putting you in awkward situations, you are forced to make defensive and suboptimal returns. It makes you feel like you’re playing badly, even though your aren’t. On the other hand, when your opponents keep playing right into your strength and you are putting away shot after shot, you feel as though you are playing well, even though your play may be ordinary.
Hi Lynn, Good stuff. Thanks for taking the time to share great tips with us. Much appreciated!
Sharon Hall says
Yes! Mental toughness is the key for being successful in tourneys !!👏
It sure is. Thanks for chiming in, Sharon.
Bernadette Montgomery says
Thank you, this has happened to me. We do drills and then when we go play our games, the drop shots are not working. This post really hit home for me. I will work on the mental pressure during drills.
I enjoy reading your posts.
Thank you, Bernadette, for your kind words. I really appreciate that encouragement.