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Pickleball Mental Game – How to close Out a Match

It’s happened to all of us, no doubt. And nobody is exempt – not even the PPA’s third ranked mixed doubles team of J.W. Johnson and Jorga Johnson. Like so many other pickleball competitors, we, perhaps unknowingly in the moment, take our foot off the gas and transition our mental game from playing to-win to playing not-to-lose. 

My guess is we can all relate to possessing a commanding 10-4 lead with five opportunities on serve to end the match, only to see “loose errors” and the lead slowly and methodically evaporate as the opponents take advantage of this changing mindset. Shots and a strategy that were executed to near-perfection as the 10-4 lead was built now become a distant memory.

Make no mistake about it. Scoreboard pressure is real. Your 10-4 lead becomes 10-5, 10-6 and then 10-7. Yikes. You can feel yourself getting a little tighter. Your dink shots and drop shots become more difficult. You become passive, not doing the things that gave you the lead in the first place. The score now becomes 10-8, 10-9 and, gulp, 10-10. Timeouts aren’t working. Or, perhaps, you forget about  halting the momentum with said timeouts. And in a blink of an eye, it becomes all but inevitable. The match you had firmly in your grasp is seemingly stolen from your clutches – your opportunity wasted. What seemed like a “sure thing” is now a what-could-have-been as you end up on the losing side of the ledger, 12-10.

This scenario is certainly not unique to you. Nor is it unique to J.W. Johnson and Jorga Johnson when they let Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters off the hook at the 2024 Select Medial Orange County Cup in San Clemente, California, after building a 10-4 lead in the decisive 3rd game of their semifinal match-up. Rather, I’m quite positive we can all relate.

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Tips on Closing Out a Match

So what is a team to do when on the verge of victory? How do you close out a match? Here are just a couple of tips that will help you get to the finish line.

1. Don’t Forget Who Brought You to the Dance

In the context of sports, and, pickleball, specifically, keep doing the things that created the lead for you in the first place. Dance with the person who brought you to the dance. If you were dinking behind the best player from time-to-time to keep him/her honest, continue to do so. If you were winning hands battles, continue to engage in firefights at the non-volley zone. All too often, we tend to become passive and “hope,” instead of being aggressive in these high-pressure situations. 

For those of you who played or watched basketball before the shot-clock era, don’t be the team that squanders their lead by going into a passive, four-corners strategy to run-out-the-clock. Don’t be the football team that plays “prevent-defense” in the waning moments of the half or game only to see this prevent defense prevents your team from winning. You’ve, no doubt, seen these “play-not-lose” strategies backfire. Play to win!  Don’t play “not-to-lose.”

2. Play Aggressively, But Remain Patient

It may seem that I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth when I tell you to “play aggressively, but remain patient.” It’s human-nature to desire to “quickly” score that final point of the match. Afterall, with one final [winning] shot, the victory is secure. 

It’s tempting to go for an overly ambitious shot to end the match.  However, don’t rush it.  Continue to play smart.  If you were winning because your team was coming out-on-top with lengthy dink battles, continue to grind. Whatever got you the lead in the first place, continue doing that.  Be patient.  

3. Learn to Love the Moment

During my freshman year playing college tennis, I dreaded the pressure-cooker of tie-breakers. I let the pressure get to me and affect my play. That summer, however, after every practice I would play tie-breakers with whomever would oblige. I started to actually want to get into a final set tie-breaker. I was confident that I was the player best prepared for the pressure because I had practiced this pressure all-summer-long.

Be confident. Give me the ball. Embrace fear, live for that moment, and hope the ball comes your way when it matters most!

Final Thoughts

Finishing off a match is one of the most challenging things to do on the pickleball court. Point number 11 tends to be the hardest point to earn. However, by not forgetting who brought you to the dance, maintaining aggressiveness (while still remaining patient) and learning to love the moment, your chances for success in the big moments will be enhanced. Keep in mind, this is all easier said than done. Just like perfecting your technique takes practice, being able to close out a match also takes practice.

What has best helped you in your pickleball journey as it relates to closing out a match? We would love to hear from you.

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Coach Todd
About Todd

Todd is the talent behind PickleballMAX. He knows pickleball and demonstrates it on the court as a 4.5 – 5.0 player. In addition to creating content and running the PickleballMAX business, Todd is IPTPA Level II certified. As an instructor at the Ohio Pickleball Academy, he instructs students and runs adult and youth clinics. He also manages tournament desks throughout the tri state for tournaments ranging from 100-500 participants.

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