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January 23, 2023

Pick on Someone Your Own Size

By Rick Cipes

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I was playing rec ball with an 83-year-old on my team when a younger opponent lobbed over my teammate’s head. All the more shrewd because we had the sun in our eyes. When I called her out on it, she said she thought I was going to get it. To which I was thinking, “Hmm.” In any case, let’s face it, pickleballers, we all do it! We all pick on the weak. And I’m here to suggest maybe there is another way. A way that will be more beneficial to us in the long run. And that’s to attack the stronger player to make us stronger.


Note: This strategy goes out the window in competition. Do whatever it takes to win. As Alice Cooper sang, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”


But back to rec play and devouring the weak. What’s that about? It’s about winning at all costs, and our animal instinct to kill or be killed. Brutal, but true. The general public may see pickleball as a “soft” sport. However, those of us who play it know how far from soft it is.


I get that sometimes it’s about winning because we want to stay on the court when players are waiting to come on. To this, I say fine. But there’ll come a time when your game is in a rut, and you’re challenged to get to the next level. At that point, my advice is to start going up against stronger players. You need to learn how to take down the giant before you can become the giant. And you can’t do that if you’re consistently avoiding them. “Fi, fie, fo, fum. I smell the blood of the picked-on one.”


Is that you? If so, I ask, are you playing on the right court? I often see players trying their luck too many levels above their own. I think it’s best when you play up by a half point. For example, if you’re a 3.5 player, play with the 4.0s. But if you’re a 3.0 player? No, you’re on the wrong court, and it won’t be fun for anyone. When playing up, it’s important not to get discouraged, and instead analyze how you’re getting beat. What shots are besting you? What techniques do the better players employ? Once you recognize them, you need to do what those better players once did, and that’s to practice. You may get to 4.0 without practice, but unless you’re the greatest athlete in the world, you’re never going to beat a 4.5 without a good deal of drilling.


How about if it’s your partner getting picked on? What should you do? Definitely something other than satiate your ego after the fact, “Well, they picked on my partner the whole time.” Instead, learn to create chaos. That means poaching, stacking, controlling what you can control (e.g., an effective serve), and keeping your opponent constantly worried about where you’ll be. It gets easy to intercept a bullying pattern once you get the hang of it.


But back to the giants. Take a few points from them and watch your confidence soar! With time, and effort, you’ll be able to look the giant in the eye and exclaim: “No more Mr. Nice Guy!”  •

Rick Cipes has written for more than 40 publications including ESPN Magazine and the L.A. Times. Follow his popular Facebook group Bite Size Pickleball, and check out the YouTube site of the same name.

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