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‘In My Defense’

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As a student of the game of pickleball, I’ve attended numerous boot camps and clinics, taken private lessons, and watched nearly every instructional video on YouTube (you know, the ones posted by Scott Moore, Pickle Pong Deb, Jason Brinoes, Sarah Ansboury, Daniel Moore, Simone Jardim, Coach Dave, Rusty, Tony, and, well, you get the idea). I desperately want to improve my pickleball game, but as an athlete of only modest natural talents, improvement comes at a maddeningly slow pace.

I also wish to see gradual improvement in the level of play in my local community because I assume most other players also wish to get better (which I realize is not a universal mindset) and, more selfishly, because playing against better competition will make me a better player.

Being a student of technique and strategy, I often notice simple things other players could do to improve their game. Sometimes these players are more talented than I am, but believing that a rising tide lifts all boats, I frequently ask for permission to speak anyway.

After a recent game, I asked my partner if I could share an observation I thought might improve his game. He said yes, so I told him I noticed that whenever he was forced to run from the back line for a ball in the kitchen, he always lobbed, which resulted in our having the ball crammed down our throats every time.

I mentioned the strategic principle “When in trouble, dink cross-court,” and explained the rationales for doing so (i.e., that it would make the ball un-attackable, would give him more room for error, and would give him more time to get back in position before the opponents hit the ball again). His reply: “Well, in my defense, most people would have never gotten to those balls.” I remained silent, but thought to myself: “What’s that got to do with anything? And why on Earth would you feel the need to ‘defend’ yourself?”

I know from 40+ years of playing competitive volleyball that some people hate being coached by other players. I’m just not one of them. If a teammate sees me falling into a bad habit during a game, like not dropping my inside shoulder when I pass a ball that’s off axis, I want them to tell me so I can make an adjustment, and I thank them for doing so. Unfortunately for me, I sometimes ignore the fact that not everyone thinks like I do.

In a recent match, my partner kept stepping into the court after serving, and the opponents kept returning deep, forcing her to back up. After plopping her thirdshot drop short of the net for about the sixth time, I said, “You’re stepping into the court after your serve and they are pushing you back. It’s hard to make a good shot when you are moving backward.”

She replied, “I know what I’m doing,” and let me know that she didn’t appreciate my comment. I later apologized for not asking permission to speak—but found myself wondering how any of us, myself included, can ever hope to improve if we practice making the same mistakes over and over.

If you ever play with me, know that my motto is: “If you see something, say something.” Even if I think you are wrong, I will simply say, “Thank you.”