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Eight great ways to defeat your performance anxiety on the pickleball court.
Whether it’s before a big tournament, or meeting a new group of people, everyone has nerves—literally. Our nervous system coordinates our movements, recognizes what’s most important to us,
and is on the constant lookout for what could potentially hurt us. Having spent countless hours over the last decade with performance anxiety, I’m fascinated with how valuable and instinctual our nervous system is.
Other sources of stress come from how we think, traumatic experiences, uncertainty, or other factors
such as quality of sleep, nutrition, hydration, or other pressures that come from our lived experiences, or imagined fears. There are ways to calm our nerves when facing challenging situations in pickleball.
Most people look at anxiety as bad. It isn’t. It’s signaling something’s important to you. Of course, you want to win.
As author Joseph Campbell put it, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” Whatever you fear, you value. You’ve got to slay the dragon of fear to get the gold (medal). Gold isn’t just laying around; it’s usually guarded by something—fear.
The most common treasure we find when we confront our fears is discovering something we didn’t know
about ourselves. We are more capable than we realized. Friends, money, medals, and ranking points are nice as well. Remember, courage is not the absence of fear, but the confrontation of it.
A one-word definition of anxiety is: Uncertainty. You’re feeling nervous because you don’t know exactly how things will unfold. The goal is to realize that despite the unknown, uncertain outcomes, you can handle any of them.
Let’s say you’re getting ready for your first match of the day. What could happen? Well, you could win, you could lose, you could forfeit, someone could sadly have an injury, or you could embarrass yourself to the point that the entire community never wants to play with you again. I say this last one facetiously, however the fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or shame is one of our greatest fears.
Luckily for us, this is not the type of community pickleball is, or attracts. The pickleball community
as a whole is immensely gracious and accepting of
all different types and classes of people and abilities. That’s a big reason we play this sport in the first place: acceptance and belonging.
Pete Sampras has puked, broken down in tears, and overcome many emotions. Federer has wept. Nadal has talked openly about his anxiousness. Professional athletes have “choked” in the biggest moments, and it makes us love them even more. We can all relate. We’re all human. We all get nervous and that’s OK.
EVERYTHING’S A CHOICE
You and your nervous system don’t like feeling forced to do anything. Just watch a kid being forced to go to school where they have been bullied, or being compelled to ride an intimidating roller coaster. The nerves will kick into full gear, and they will resist.
You don’t have to do anything. This truth has a calming effect on your nerves. Nothing is forcing you to play in a tournament. There are a million other things you could do with your day. Recognizing it’s your choice activates a different part of your brain and you will feel the confidence that accompanies choosing to confront something important to you, albeit scary, rather than feeling compelled to do it.
HAVE COURAGE AND BE KIND
Learn how to be a good winner, as well as a good loser. If you can accept victory and defeat with the same level of gratitude, grace, and poise, you are much less likely to feel anxious (and are in fact more likely to play your best).
Sometimes people get fixated on “luck” and refuse to give their opponent any credit. This is a path that will just lead to frustration. They aren’t the only ones who are getting lucky, even though admittedly it can feel that way at times. It feels better to congratulate your opponent, rather than berate yourself for every tiny mistake you have made since your conception!
Giving credit to your opponents can take the pressure off of you. They are a valuable part of the process. Even though they seem to get in the way of what you want, what you want wouldn’t exist without their presence.
Be grateful that your mind and body allow you to be playing this game—there are millions of people who don’t have that same luxury. Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Be grateful our battles are with plastic balls and graphite paddles. Be grateful for the people who are engaged in much more significant battlefields so that we can play.
According to Timothy Gallwey in “The Inner Game of Tennis,” the root definition of competition is a “mutual uplift,” not a winner and a loser. Competition, in its finest form, brings out the best of all competitors and spectators alike. Sadly, there are situations where competition can bring out the worst, but that’s not in the spirit of true competition.
You want to be competing at the threshold of your capabilities. You could sign up for a lesser league so that you win every time. But this isn’t competing. You could also sign up for a much higher level. You are unlikely to feel nerves in these situations and this may be an avoidance of nerves, rather than the willingness to grow and courageously compete.
TAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF
Your thinking mind can create stories that just aren’t accurate. If you miss a dink, you aren’t “an uncoordinated loser who has never done anything right in your life.” The ball just went either too wide, too short, or too high. Don’t judge yourself so harshly.
If things feel like they are going too quickly, take a time out, take some deep breaths, take a drink of water—pay attention to where you are feeling stress and bring some relaxation and compassion to that area. Count to 10, then count backward from 10, then count to 10 by evens, then backward with odds… focus on something that isn’t the score, broaden your perspective, feel the sense of gratitude that you exist at all.
Do you have a best friend, a family member, a place on this planet, or another source where you feel a
sense of security or grounding when you are stressed? Not to go too deep into the psychology of it, but secure connection calms our nerves. If you have something that you are securely attached to—a phrase, a person, a ritual—continue to use it. If you don’t, that’s something worth finding. That’s where true comfort and soothing are found.
What seemed like an impossible mountain to climb
a year ago seems like a speed bump today. Not that the fear has decreased, but that your ability to confront it has increased. You used to be afraid to go to your local community center and now you can compete at Nationals. Good for you! That’s what the hero does—gets to the point of limitation, challenges it, and then grows due to the process.
Good luck on the courts!
Practicing the Art of Surprise
Hundreds of shots are made during a pickleball match, but no two are exactly identical. They will vary in height and speed. They may bounce first or be struck out of the air. They may generate spin or be spinning when you hit them. While this variety can seem overwhelming at first, in reality, once the point is underway, most strokes are quite similar.
Creating a strong foundation of these basic strokes will enable you to adjust and handle the wide variety of shots. And the key to a solid foundation is to drill!
This one-hour transitional drill practices the basics and then puts them together to simulate a point. You will need: one friend, a hopper of pickleballs, painter’s tape, measuring tape, and a court.
The recommended time for each stage is 15 minutes.
STAGE 1 – The Dink: Use painter’s tape to mark a line 24 inches in front of the kitchen line on both sides of the net. Players standing on opposite sides of the net at the kitchen line begin dinking straight ahead. Try to hit as close to the tape as possible. Focus on keeping your grip loose on the paddle, bending your knees and keeping the ball approximately 6 inches above the net. Dink until you both can hit near the tape 10 times.
STAGE 2 – The Volley: Stand in the same spot as you did in the dink drill. With paddle out in front and knees slightly bent, begin cooperative volleying with your partner straight ahead. Hit 10 consecutive volleys that are 6-8 inches over the net.
STAGE 3 – The Offensive Lob: On one side of the court, use tape to mark a line 3 feet in front of the baseline. Begin with both players on the kitchen line and have one player feed dinks to the other. The receiver’s goal is to lob the ball over the feeder’s head, out of reach of an overhead. Aim for the space between the tape and the baseline. Hit five and switch spots. Keep doing this until you are able to hit 3-4 of these in the target area!
Extra challenge for Stage 3: Practice running down the lob. After the lob is up, the person being lobbed runs back to return the shot. Let the ball bounce, then return the ball with a slight arc over the net, as though you were hitting a third-ball dink, and then work your way back to the net. Repeat as many times as necessary until you’re comfortable.
Add them all up: Using the same half of the marked court, start at the kitchen line and dink straight ahead to each other. After you both hit at least three dinks, look for an opportunity to surprise your opponent with a lob or an offensive volley straight ahead. Play out the point until someone wins the point. First to 10 wins!
Remember, just 30-60 minutes a week of focused practice can elevate your game!
Christine Barksdale started playing pickleball in 2010, after being introduced to the sport by her dad. Joy started playing 3 years ago, after going to watch Christine play Canada Pickleball Nationals. Together they won gold at their debut in the 2013 Picklebarrel Classic. They continue to drill together and travel to tournaments around the US.
The Third Shot Drop Drill
Welcome to the first print episode of Pickleball 411. I’m Rusty Howes, the creator of Pickleball Channel and this article is dedicated to providing helpful information about the sport. To watch the complete video version of this Pickleball 411, go to www.pickleballchannel.com/third-shot-drop... and consider becoming a subscriber for free to receive weekly videos just like this one by going to www.pickleballchannel.com/subscribe.
RUSTY: This week, we’re going to give you some tips to help improve your third shot drop. Today on Pickleball 411, I’m really excited to be here with Wes Gabrielsen. He’s a top 5.0 pickleball player and tennis coach.
WES: Well, as you know, in pickleball, hitting a third shot drop is a very important part of the game. And oftentimes some of the better players have a hard time keeping the ball low on this shot. I’m going to give you some tips today on how to improve that third ball drop.
The third shot drop is when a player is at the baseline trying to hit the ball from deep in the court into the kitchen. One challenge that people face when they hit this shot is they often hit it too far. Today, I’m going to give you some tips to help you make sure that you hit a good third shot.
A DIFFERENT STROKE
It’s important to know that when you’re hitting this third shot drop, you’re not hitting a soft forehand. You’re actually hitting a different stroke. The challenge of hitting a soft forehand is that it’s difficult to actually drop the ball in the kitchen. The trajectory of the shot is a flatter shot, and it’s more difficult to control. What often happens is that people hit their forehand too hard, because they’re trying to hit it over the net. What happens as a result is it usually goes right to their opponent (to volley).
STAY LOW AND LIFT
When you’re hitting a third shot drop, it’s important to follow a few key steps in order to be successful. First of all, when you hit the shot, you want to make sure that you get low to the ground. Stay low through contact. You do not want to pop your body up too early. This is going to allow you to hit the ball up and drop it effectively in the kitchen.
Next, you want to make sure that your paddle face is open. As you’re hitting this shot, it’s important that the ball goes up giving you the arc you want to hit a good shot. The motion of the shot is going to be a lot like a serve in pickleball or a softball toss as you’re coming through in an upward motion.
THE 3RD SHOT DRILL
WES: Here’s a very simple drill to help you work through the key elements of hitting this shot. What you’re going to do first is you’re going to go back to the baseline. You’re going to put your paddle down. You’re going to grab a ball, put it in your paddle hand, get low, and go through the motions of trying to toss the third shot drop into the kitchen.
After you do that 10 or 20 times and you feel comfortable lifting the ball and staying low, you’re going to pick up your paddle again. You’re going to drop the ball, let it bounce, and then actually hit the third shot drop with your paddle. As a result, the trajectory of your shot should be very similar to the toss you just had.
Remember, when you are tossing or hitting the ball in this drill, the trajectory of your shot should be an arching motion. To quote Brian Staub, “The apex of your shot should be on your side of the net.”
RUSTY: So, that’s your Pickleball 411 for today. Everybody, we really hope this has been helpful. And now there’s only one thing left to do, and that’s go play!
Special Thanks to: Wes Gabrielsen, Steve Paranto, Brian Staub, Matt Staub and The Villages.
Third Shot Drop
Pickleball 411 is one of the most-watched shows on Pickleball Channel because of its commitment to providing helpful information about the sport of pickleball. However, we know that it is often nice to have an article you can refer to as a companion to your instruction and training.
This article features two great pickleball players and instructors, Matt and Brian Staub of Poach Pickleball. They are top 5.0 players and teachers who also happen to be father and son! While Pickleball Channel was in central Florida at The Villages, Matt and Brian did a fun video about how to improve your mechanics and get up to the net. Included in this video is a great drill for the third shot, which can help improve your game. After you have read through the article version, be sure to check out the entire video on Pickleball Channel so you can really see the drill in action.
THE THIRD SHOT
Brian: The third shot is the third ball that’s hit in the point process. The first ball would be the serve. The second ball would be the return, which would be the receiving team returning the ball, and the third ball is nothing more than the transition shot from the serving team to be able to get to the net.
THIRD SHOT DRILL
Matt: We’re going to give you a drill that will help you work on your third shot as well as practice transitioning through No Man’s Land as you gain the net.
To set up this drill, you should have a person at the net and a person at the baseline. The person at the net is going to hit the ball as deep as he/she can to the person on the baseline. Meanwhile, the person on the baseline is going to work on that third shot technique where the ball reaches the apex before the net and lands into the kitchen. The important part of it is you don’t want to hit the ball short and miss into the net. You want to see the ball go up and over the net as much as possible, rather than miss into the net and end the point.
THE SPLIT STEP
Once you’re comfortable hitting your third ball drop and you can hit it consistently, we’re going to start working our way to the kitchen. We do this by using our split steps. We’re going to hit our third ball, split step, hit a fourth ball, split step, maybe even a fifth ball, split step, until we can work all the way to the kitchen.
Something to remember when you start working your way through No Man’s Land, those shots are not going to be exactly the same as the third ball shot that you hit from the baseline. You might have some at your feet that you’re going to have to short hop. You might have to take some out of the air. The main point is that we need to get that arch so that the ball is descending into the kitchen, forcing your opponent to hit the ball up. Whether they have to let it bounce or hit it up is going to protect you as you work your way through No Man’s Land.
The third shot technique is one of the hardest parts of the game of pickleball. The thing to remember is that these are drills, and this is the perfect time to make mistakes. So, have fun doing them, and I promise, if you stick to it, your game will improve immensely.
Special thanks to: Matt Staub, Brian Staub, The Villages.
Rusty Howes is the Executive Producer and creator of Pickleball Channel. Rusty worked
for the likes of Warner Bros and Disney before creating Pickleball Channel to develop and provide fantastic, professional video content for the pickleball community. He is deeply involved in promoting the sport of pickleball at home and across the country.
Before you play a match, you have your obligatory “warm-up.” Too often, players waste this time hitting shots that they probably won’t be using during the match, and effectively won’t help them. Don’t waste your time wasting your time! When you get your warm-up time, have a routine. Everyone can personalize their routine, but I would recommend practicing the following:
• Forehand dinks to the middle of the court, to the middle of your side, and to the sideline of your side – about 3-5 dinks to each spot. Repeat with backhand.
• 3rd shot drop. I use a “slinky” drill, where you and your partner start at the No-Volley-Line (NVL) and hit 2 dinks. After that, one of you takes a step back after each dink, until you have stepped all the way back to the baseline. This helps you practice your 3rd shot drop from various spots on the court, and also prepares you for a 5th or 7th (or more!) shot drop, as you work your way to the NVL. After getting to the
baseline, hit 3-5 drops into the kitchen then hit a 3rd shot drive. After the drive, take a step in and start working your way back up to the NVL, one step at a time, dropping each shot into the kitchen. Once you have gotten back up to the kitchen, have your partner do the same thing. After some practice, this part of the warm-up should only take about 2-4 minutes.
• The following warm-ups should be done on a needs basis, and only for a short time (30 seconds maybe): “fast volleys” prepare your reflexes and get your volleys solid, overheads, serves and returns, 3rd shot drives.
Altogether, this routine should only take about 6-8 minutes, which leads to the importance of listening carefully for your match to be called, since the “warm-up” time technically starts when they call your match. So be ready, have a routine, and listen carefully when your team is close to being called.
Do you want to improve your pickleball game but you don’t have a partner to practice with? No problem! There are actually quite a few ways to practice your pickleball game all by yourself. As an only child I found that I was attracted to sports that I could excel at without having practice partners. Sports and games like billiards, bowling, golf and even basketball were ones where I found great enjoyment with solo practice. In high school when I took up tennis, I figured out many ways that I could practice tennis even if I didn’t have a practice partner. As a pickleball player I have used many of the same solo practice methods that I used when I was a kid learning tennis. In this article I will share many of the ways you can improve your game even if you don’t have a partner.
Most players know what a good ready position looks like, and what good stroke production looks like, but oftentimes you just aren’t doing it the way you think you are. Just by facing a mirror and taking a look at yourself during important components of the swing can be very beneficial. When I work with new students and I have changed something about their mechanics, I like them to go home and practice in a mirror to see if they are making the correct changes. Using a mirror can be great visual feedback!
Just as tennis players do, hitting against a wall can be very good practice. It isn’t very hard to find a wall somewhere that you can bang a pickleball against. Just put some tape on the wall at net height and you even have a target area. You can practice serves, dinks, volleys and drives using a wall. I find that practicing full groundstrokes is a good way to also get some conditioning and work on footwork. If you want to get farther from the wall to get more of a feeling of hitting hard but you still want the ball to come all the way back, try using a foam training ball or the light felt training ball that is used for junior tennis. I’ve found that using a foam ball works great in my garage. There are also commercial rebounders made just for pickleball that are just starting to hit the market!
If you have access to an actual pickleball court but you have nobody to practice with, this is a great way to work on many of your individual shots. To do this the most efficiently it is best to have a large bucket of balls. With drop hits you just drop a ball onto the ground and practice hitting a groundstroke or even dink from various spots on the court to target areas on the other side of the net. A good practice session might include the following.
• 100 serves using various speeds, heights and placement
• 50 down-the-line forehand drives • 50 cross-court forehand drives
• 50 down-the-line backhand drives • 50 cross-court backhand drives
• 100 dinks to various spots inside the kitchen using both forehand and backhand
It was only a matter of time before pickleball ball machines hit the market. So far there have been two main companies manufacturing ball machines used exclusively for the sport of pickleball. If you have access to an empty pickleball court, you might think about purchasing one of these machines. I’m fortunate that my backyard is a pickleball court, so it is very convenient for me to set it up and start hitting. One big problem with these machines is using them outdoors in wet weather. I live in Oregon and most of the winter my court is damp. I’ve found that when the balls get wet they will not shoot out of the machines. This is the time of year that I do a lot of drop hitting and wall practice. These machines can be adjusted for speed, placement and height. You can even purchase a machine that will oscillate. You can basically practice every shot in pickleball by working out with a ball machine. I have found that this is particularly effective for players practicing their singles game. Again this practice will be most effective if you have the machine loaded up with a lot of balls, and also using a ball picker-upper will speed things up.
Practice Drill: Dink, Lob, Drop, Reset
We practice and practice our dinking shots so we can neutralize our opponents’ ability to attack us. At the same time, a properly disguised offensive lob can be easily executed from a seemingly harmless dink shot. Here’s a great drill for three people to practice dinking, lobbing, hitting a successful drop shot and, finally, completing the exchange with a good fourth shot kitchen drop.
Although a young, energetic team can do this drill with two players, most find it easier to complete with three. Here’s the proper three-player sequence:
• Player B dinks the ball with Player A.
• When properly set and balanced, Player A executes a disguised lob over Player B. The goal is to hit the ball high enough that Player B cannot reach it, and deep enough that it falls in the back 3 to 5 feet of the court.
• Player C will then hit a drop back to Player A in the kitchen.
• Player A will complete the sequence by re-dropping the ball back to Player B in the kitchen.
• Repeat and be sure to rotate so everyone gets an opportunity with each shot.
When done properly, these shots will allow you to practice your dinks, lobs, drops and reset shots in a controlled and cooperative setting.
Dingles is a fun drill game that helps to practice your dinks, blocks, and shot selection. All you need is four players on the court and two pickleballs.
How it’s played:
1)The drill is started by having two balls fed at the same time and dinking cross court with the opponent diagonal from you. The objective during this part of the drill is to keep the crosscourt dink rally going as long as possible.
2)After one ball is missed during the dink rally, the word ‘dingles’ is called out. This alerts the four players that the remaining ball is now live and can be hit anywhere. The four players will play out the point with the remaining ball. The objective at this point is to win the point!
3)The team that wins the point with the remaining ball gets a point.
What not to do:
1)After dingles is called, do not chase the ball that was missed. If it's at your feet, you can simply swipe it away. The point is now live so you want to focus on the remaining ball in play.
2)After dingles is called, try not to get overly excited and slam the next shot. Remember to choose your shots wisely.
Christine McGrath, sponsored by Franklin Pickleball, is one of the top 5 in the world for women’s professional pickleball. She is a US Open Pro Champion, 6x Tournament of Champions medalist, and 8x Nationals medalist. She also enjoys traveling, good food, tennis, and snowboarding.
What do you do if one or two extra players are sitting out the usual 15 minutes waiting to get on the court for the next game? Why not bring them into the Mortimore game? According to Las Vegas teaching pro Pat Carol, Mortimore (Mildred if a lady) is that invisible third player who plays doubles while positioned in the middle of the court... and he/she is really bad. So hit the ball to Mortimore. This is excellent for 2-on-1 games (Image A).
\Two Louisiana ambassadors told us about getting more playing time by playing three on a side. So, here in Casper, Wyoming, a real life “Mortimore” starts out playing behind the baseline and in the middle of the court, moving up a step or two when his teammates get to the kitchen (Image B/Player E). And the fun part is, other than not receiving serve, Mortimore can play any ball, but usually ones hit down the middle. The kicker is that when one of the non- Mortimore players hits the ball into the net or out of bounds, he/she trades places with Mortimore. It’s as simple as that.
The Mortimore game forces you to play better mentally so that you don’t get stuck in the middle. Also, as Mortimore, it gives you a chance to “read” the offense, observe the game, and see if you
can get into position to return an otherwise sure passing shot. It’s a good experience all around and you also get time to rest if you’re in the Mortimore position.
Next time there are one or two people waiting to play, just invite them to play Mortimore and see how much you will love this take on our wonderful game.