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How to be a Closer

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Have you ever had a strong lead, only to have your momentum stop just short of finishing the game? Your stomach is in knots as your opponents get point after point, clawing their way back into the game and, before you know it, you’ve not only lost the lead, but the game.

This is an unforgiving description of having "closing" or "finishing' problems. Closing problems are defined as “not being able to get the final points to win a game (or match), after having momentum.”

How or why this happens is often circumstantial (who you’re playing against or with, what you ate for breakfast, a wind picks up, the sun comes out, fatigue, etc.). It’s really anyone’s guess, but let’s explore a few possible scenarios.

1. Premature Celebration
Syndrome (PCS): You’re more than doubling your opponents’ score and you start getting excited about your imminent win, or you start thinking about who you’ll play next. Fatal mistake!
2. Partner Blame Folly (PBF): Your partner makes a couple of unforced errors, and suddenly you don’t trust him or her. Your partner senses this and the partnership unravels before your eyes.
3. Complete Collapse of Confidence (CCC): You’re playing a team that you’ve
never beaten, and the victory is within your grasp! But, you’ve never beaten them before, and they just got a side out. Uh-oh, they just got a point. Ah! They just poached my favorite volley shot for a winner. How can we beat this team? We’ve never beaten them before. (I doubt Henry Ford ever played pickleball, but if he had, he might say, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”)
4. Beating a Dead Horse (BDH): You have a strong lead, and you must have done something right to get that lead. Maybe your strategy was hitting two to opponent A then one to opponent B, and that rhythm caused them to make an error every time. But suddenly they stop making the error, and now they’re forcing errors on you. Two points go by. You call a time out and confer with your partner, "Pat, we have to hit two to A then one to B. That was working so well!” Back to play. Another two points go by. The strategy that had been working isn’t working anymore!

So how do we deal with these issues? Let’s look at some possible solutions to each of the scenarios.

1. If you find yourself or your partner suffering from Premature Celebration Syndrome (PCS), remind yourself where you are right now. Ask your partner what the score is before you serve, call the score, and then forget the score! In tournament play, you want to win as quickly as possible because you only have a finite amount of strength and your shoes only have a finite amount of rubber tread! For the sake of your body and equipment, don’t dillydally. Play each point like it’s the first and last.
2. It’s a sad thing to see, but Partner Blame Folly (PBF) is not uncommon. Someone makes a mis- take or two and his/her partner loses faith. Things typically go downhill from there. Luckily, the answer is simple—play each point like it’s the first and last. Forget the last point; forget the last 10 points. If you’re confident enough to play with your partner from the get-go, why not give him or her that confidence at the beginning of each point. It’s easy to say, “Let me get that one next time.” But it may be more beneficial to say, “You’ll get it next time, and I’ll move forward to look for the poach.”
3. I’ve seen many players perform very well—at the top of their game—and then suddenly, without any specific reason, their shots become shaky and they fall into Complete Collapse of Confidence (CCC). If this happens to you or your partner, it’s time to try something radical. If you missed your last three third shot drop attempts, maybe it’s time to try a drive. Or even more radical, how about a deep lob? Find yourself afraid to hit to one or the other opponent? Overcome that apprehension by always hitting your first ball to them; you direct the play, you’re not the passive player!
4. Sometimes you have a great strategy and it’s working well; you’ve scored six unanswered points! But suddenly it stops working, and you don’t know why, so you keep trying for force it. If the strategy that was working doesn’t work anymore, you may have to make an adjustment. Remember, no matter how good a shot or strategy you have, if your opponents know what’s coming, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

In general, here are some good tips to avoid falling into a "finishing" problem:

1. Use time outs! When your opponents just scored three or more points in a row, it’s safe to say they’re getting hot. Let’s ice them! Just like
in football, when coaches call time outs to ice the kicker, calling a time out can knock your oppo- nents’ rhythm off and stop their momentum. It also gives you some time to strategize, but it’s only 60 seconds so don’t waste time trying to think about what you’ve done wrong. Instead, think about what you’ll do on the next point to win.
2. Have a notecard for reference. Not everyone has a coach available, so you may have to be your own coach. Before the tournament, jot down a few questions to ask yourself: Am I getting all the way to the kitchen line off my return of serve? Are my serves and returns deep? Am I keeping my eye on the ball when I hit? Am I drinking enough water? Simple questions to keep you on track may go a long way.
3. Change it up. Try stacking one time. Try vary- ing your serve or return. If you’ve been playing consistent soft balls, try a hard one. Changing something, even if only for one point, forces your opponents to adjust.
4. Don’t get down on yourself or your partner— this will only make things worse! Play each point like it’s the first and the last. And have fun!

Now go out and close those games!

*Special thanks to Diane Baumgartner for helping
with this article. •

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