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December 8, 2022

How Can I Learn vs. Train to Improve My Game?

By Sonny Tannan

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Things continue to look promising when it comes to pickleball. With so many more players picking up the sport and an increase of places to play around the world, it’s safe to say that it is indeed an exciting time to be a part of the pickleball craze!


From those who are just stepping onto the courts for the very first time, to those who have aspirations of competing at some level (be it a local or regional tournament or a pro-style event), there are many more opportunities to get involved in this sport.


As a coach, one of the most common topics or themes that I have heard from every level of player—beginner, novice, intermediate, advanced, or even tournament-level players—is this: “How can I really develop my skills and see improvement in my game?!”


If you really dig into this question, there is an underlying thought and driving force for many: “How can I learn vs. train in order to really achieve growth in my game?”


Learning can be defined as the ability to improve a skill that you have not yet mastered by creating the right habits and muscle memory (i.e., How do I learn to hit a third shot drop?).


Training is the repetition of a skill that you have already learned and are continuing to master (i.e., I want to work on getting better at hitting the third shot drop in my games.).


You can even add the next level of training to this: understanding when it’s best to use that third shot drop and why it can provide a strategic advantage at the most opportune times.


It’s important to note that both learning and training are important pieces of development if you are looking to achieve improvement and growth.


Some things to consider based on your skill level:

  • Beginner (1.0–2.5)—I am working on building a foundation in my technique so that I know that I can attempt to hit a third shot drop at least in a practice or drill session.

  • Intermediate (3.0–3.5)—I feel comfortable with my technique but need to start improving on aspects of my third shot drop so that I feel confident using it in a game.

  • Advanced (4.0+)—My technique is solid more than 80 percent of the time and I’m ready to start adding some real variations to my third shot drop to create advantages for my team.


Three tips to consider:

  1. Don’t try to train a skill you haven’t learned yet. This may sound simple in theory, but if you haven’t learned how to hit that third shot drop yet, it’s very difficult to train on hitting it without the proper technique.

  2. Being taught and learning takes time. I cannot stress enough that each player learns at a different speed. Don’t try to rush the process, because all you end up doing is frustrating yourself when you don’t see results produced immediately.

  3. When is the best time to learn? There is no better time than the present to start learning the right way to develop a skill. If you are serious about improving, set yourself up for success before jumping to the training portion.


By understanding how to create habits and building muscle memory, you can really start focusing on developing your own game and learning how to train in the future.


Practice with Games/Drills

With many things in life, we don’t want to just learn. We want to have some fun while learning. So here are three games/drills that you can practice, either on your own or with a fellow pickleball enthusiast, that utilize players practicing at the NVZ (Non-Volley Zone), transition area and baseline.

  1. 7-11—This is a great game to practice both your drop as well as the defense of the drop. One player starts at the NVZ; the other player at the baseline. The goal is for the player at the baseline to work their way through the transition area to the NVZ and win the point. Since the player at the NVZ is in a position of advantage, they must win 11 points to win the game. The player starting at the baseline is in a defensive position to begin this game, and so must score 7 points to win the game. Once one player has either scored 7 or 11, the players will then switch positions and begin a new game.

  2. “Slinky”—This is a fun drill that has both players starting at the NVZ. One player will continue to hit drops, but after hitting two successful (or decide how many you want) drops into the NVZ, they will then take one step back into the transition area. They will then have to hit two successful drops into the NVZ from there, then take another step back in the transition area. The same player will continue this process until reaching the baseline. At that point, they will reverse direction and move forward through the transition area until they once again reach the NVZ. The player must remain in the same position in the transition area until successfully dropping two shots into the NVZ before moving again. Once that player is back at the NVZ, the other player will start the same process on their side of the court. Some coaches prefer to only conduct half of the Slinky (starting at the baseline and working forward through the transition area) just to help reinforce good forward movement, rather than any backward movement. Drill at your own discretion!

  3. Tug of War—This is a combination of 7-11 and Slinky, except each time the player at the NVZ wins the rally, they score a point. However, if the player starting at the baseline wins the rally, they then get to start at the NVZ. The other player must now start at the baseline. Only the player who starts at the NVZ can score a point. Play to whatever score you both decide you want to play to, or drill at it for as long as you can last!


So how can you learn versus train to improve your pickleball game?!

It is probably one of the most important things to consider as you continue to develop your own game—learning versus training. Ultimately options and variations are what’s important for you, especially as you continue to improve your game, and we all know that each player is just as unique as the next. Remember to keep working on a solid foundation and creating those habits and muscle memory in your technique, which will allow you to continue to build your own confidence no matter what your starting skill level might be.

Sonny Tannan is a Team JOOLA sponsored player, PPR Clinician & Certified Teaching Professional, and USA Pickleball Ambassador.

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