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September 16, 2022

Compete, Learn and Honor Your Way to Better Play Through a Stronger Mental Game

By Martha R. Roper and
Peter C. Scales (Coach Pete)

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Let’s cut right to it—you’re spending way more time on your technique, and maybe on strategy and tactics, than you are on your mental-emotional game.


You’re not alone. Almost all pickleball and tennis players—and pickleball and tennis teaching pros—do the same thing. And, at every level, from rec to world’s best, the ones who have their mental and emotional game more solid end up playing better, and they win more often.


But here’s the key: winning can’t be your focus. It’s judo. It’s Zen. You’ve all heard it—focus on the process, not the outcome. And that ironically gets you to the outcome more often. But it’s hard!


I (Pete) was a racquet thrower when I started tennis at age 42, as well as a psychologist. Oops. Only when my wife, Martha, finally said, “I’m out for mixed dubs unless you clean it up” did I start confronting how deep this went. And it took one of our tennis pros to get me over the line, finally, when he was watching me melt down one day and said, gently but firmly, “Peter, you’re just not good enough to be that upset!” He’s still a family friend, thank goodness!


I eventually became a certified tennis teaching pro and high school tennis coach, and Martha’s now a pickleball teaching pro and player. We still play together, winning a silver in pickleball at last year’s St. Louis Senior Olympics. I came up with the Compete-Learn-Honor (CLH) approach to the mental game to help my high school tennis teams, but it had been forming for years—to help me!


Now it’s helping thousands of tennis and pickleball players, including us, redefine success to be improving as a player and a person, with the result that you play better ball with less focus on the outcome. No guarantee, ever, but doing CLH can ramp up the odds of your getting the outcome you want—victory—by focusing on things you can control, not on what you can’t, which is the outcome of a W or L.


So how does CLH help in pickleball, whether in dubs or singles? Here’s how I (Martha) use CLH with my students, opponents and dubs partners in competition and my pickleball friends in recreational play. I keep returning to these ideas to anchor me.



Solve the puzzle. The match is a series of puzzles. Solve them alone or with my partner, if willing. Sometimes my partner is part of the puzzle to solve!


Have a game plan. If my partner won’t talk strategy or tactics, I focus on what I’m trying to improve that day and do not get distracted from that plan, even if partner communication isn’t going great.


What matters is right now, this shot, this point. Breathe, look up, feel your paddle face—that keeps you in the present.


Be humble, smile, and drink water to de-stress. Everything that is happening, whether going well or not, is part of my pickleball journey to remember and learn from.



Lose my “self.” Remember how lucky I am to be standing here and now, playing a game I love!


Adjust–adapt–survive. Be willing to learn something from everyone, even if it’s that I need to work on my game and my attitude.


Take notes and then study the notes. I have notes on yellow pads written in large handwriting to be able to see without reading glasses.


Improving is a better goal than winning. Say it. Just say it.


Mistakes are necessary to improve. Be willing to make mistakes while figuring out my partners and my opponents and my game that day.



Respect all. Regardless of the level they play, be willing to talk with and play with any pickleballer before or after I give a lesson or do my own rec play at my real level. I learn something every time and it grows the game.


Do not strive for victory—strive for gracefulness, balance, patience, and clarity. Those components are what effective shots are composed of time and time again.


Make no excuses. This is hard but it’s effective. I’m a winner when I take responsibility.


Give my all to the moment I’m in. Breathe and look around and up at the sky or ceiling. Say “It’s OK.” Smile. Feel the gratitude. Get ready for the next shot.


Do all this and your dubs partners will more often want to talk strategy and tactics because you’re focused on love of the game and improving yourself and not on criticizing them—they’ll feel more accepted and less defensive. It will be more fun!


Mental skills like these often get left to chance, or maybe your pro will give you a few ideas here and there. But sport science tells us that this approach isn’t enough to develop true habits that can be counted on under match pressure. For players AND pros, you’ve got to be systematic and consistent about teaching and learning these mental and emotional skills. Otherwise, they won’t stick. Commit to CLH and you’ll be happy with the results, on and off the pickleball court!


All this helps you focus on the “why” you play, the purpose, so that you love the game—the competing, the learning, and the honoring—more than you love the wins or fear the losses. Focus on CLH over a serious amount of time (not one game or one tournament!) and you will play better, which will maybe get you more wins. Even more, doing Compete-Learn-Honor will get you and your dubs partners—and your life ones if they’re your dubs ones—more joy in playing the game you love. Isn’t that why you play?!  

Martha Roper is a nationally known high school teacher and author, and just four years after taking up pickleball became certified as an IPTPA II instructor and PPR pro. She competes regularly and teaches beginning and intermediate pickleball at several local community centers. Coach Pete is an internationally known developmental psychologist, USPTA teaching pro, high school boys and girls tennis coach, and mental game columnist for Racquet Sports Industry magazine. His new book from Coaches Choice, “The Compete-Learn-Honor Playbook: Simple Steps to Take Your Mental & Emotional Skills in Tennis & Pickleball to a New Level,” has been called a “masterclass” in the mental game, and is available on Amazon.

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