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.
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?