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May 30, 2023


By Alice Tym

Tennis and Technique-Main.jpg

One of the keys to playing better pickleball is being able to manage your thought processes. You need to be able to keep the good material in your head and ignore the bad material. Sometimes that is not easy. Positive and specific thoughts are better than negative and vague ones. So, how do you train yourself to do this?


For example, the other team hits a winning, unplayable let cord. You can growl “Lucky” under your breath and lose the next two points, disrupt your focus, and interrupt your strategy. Or you can think about how you are going to play the next point. Leave the let cord behind. That point is over. Your opponents will be looking at your demeanor. You can give them a lift by reacting. Or you can demonstrate control of the match by a head held high and a “Nice shot” comment. How you deal with the situation is more important to the overall match than one lucky point.


What if your opponent is on fire? What if he is hitting screaming winners? A good mental trick is to think, “This is what he has to do to beat me.” Then find a way to disrupt his rhythm by changing the way you’re playing. Perhaps you are feeding him with too much pace. In doubles, try hitting to the other player. Change your spin. Slow down the game. Play more to the middle of the court, giving him fewer angles. But by all means be cerebral, not emotional. Do not give in to the “Well, he is just lucky today” mentality. He is playing well because you are letting him.


What if you are exhausted? You can choose to focus on how tired you are, slump your shoulders, and drag your feet. Or you can learn a lesson I learned in 1963 playing in Beaulieu, France, on the Riviera tennis circuit. I still remember. I thought I couldn’t hit another shot and a coach said to me, “Think how tired she must be.” I was so self-absorbed I didn’t see the obvious. A few drop shots later and I won the match. You cannot let yourself focus solely on you and ignore your surroundings. Keep a wide field of vision so you can see your match in its entirety.


What should you be thinking when you play a loudmouth jackass? Once again, a friend told me that “if someone shoots you the bird on the interstate, it only affects you if you allow it to get into your head.” The jackass is fulfilling his needs, but he need not affect yours. Be a class act and do not allow anyone to force you to deviate from your style. Do not let them get in your head.


What about lousy conditions? A poor court, a windy day, a distracting crowd… what should you be thinking? That’s it! You should be thinking. The wind can be a partner rather than an opponent. Use it. A poor court surface can make you watch the ball closer. A crowd cheering for your opponent can be a motivator. Remember, it is not about the conditions, it is about how you react to those conditions. You are in charge of your thoughts and your responses to those thoughts. Treat it as a puzzle to solve, not as an obstacle.


What if you are the first server? What should your mental attitude be in that situation? You want to get an early start; you want to be in the match right off the bat. Focus on the ball, head down watching the ball as you serve. Block out your surroundings. Don’t be joking with friends. You have a job to do. Take your time. Don’t rush. Bounce the ball a couple of times. Deep breaths and think footwork. Yes, even on the serve you need to place your feet properly and drive into the ball. Think fundamentals and be calm. You’ve got this.


When you are the first receiver beginning the game, you want to see the serve come off of the opponent’s paddle. Crouch so that you can spring into action. Clear the net with your return. Hit in the middle of the court if you are unsure. Start off with determination to play consistently right off the mark. Your attitude will determine the rhythm of your play. Be the player who establishes the rhythm of the match. Do not allow yourself to be rushed.


What happens when the score gets close? Keep an even keel. Conditions have not changed. Use the successful tactics that got you points. The tendency is to rush. Usually that means rushing to lose. You have to work the points. The other team is fighting hard, so you have to dig in and work mentally rather than have a blow-them-off-the-court-right here-right-now mentality. Keep the same rhythm, the same flow of play. Do not be afraid to close the point, but make sure that the closing shot is there. Grinders are usually more successful than blasters. If the opponents blow you off the court completely, they probably would have beaten you anyway and are sandbaggers! Do not beat yourself. Make your opponents bring it on.


When you sense frustration in your partner, you need to think quickly before you lose control of the match. If you know your partner well, you know his triggers. If it is a new partner, you need to listen. Have the attitude that you want to fulfill your partner’s needs. Some want to win. Some want to look good. Some want to play well. Some want to have fun. Try to find a way to make this enjoyable for him. Being calm is usually better than hysteria, but some players like the drama. Personally, I think a partner who tries hard and expects you to try hard is the least complicated. Keep it a game. It is a game of geometry. No need to try to earn a doctorate in psychology on the pickleball court.


And, finally, when you are hitting short or when you are over-hitting, how do you pull yourself out of dismal play? Have a couple of go-to mantras. If you are hitting long, bend your knees and tell yourself to stay down. Focus on your footwork. If you are hitting short or into the net, tell yourself to extend your follow-through. Practice using those mantras so that you can turn them on in a game situation. Make it intellectual to solve problems, not emotional to let the problems plague you.


Good players are smart players and vice versa. Replace negative panicking with calm precision. Give yourself time to think. Watch the mannerisms of good players. Practice a confident posture. When you drill, practice with a purpose. Analyze what you are doing well and what you need to improve. Use drills and practice matches to improve your match rhythm. Do not be sloppy when you practice. Mental toughness is a skill, and you need to know what works for you in every situation.  •

Alice Tym was ranked 13th in the world for tennis in the ‘60s. She’s been named USPTA Coach of the Year and is a USPTA Master Professional. As a 4.5 pickleball player, she won gold in Huntsman, NSGA Nationals, US Open, and USA Pickleball events around the country. Alice is an IPTPA member, SSIPA founding board member, Bainbridge Cup Originator and gold medalist in Spain, Italy, and Germany.

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