One of the best ways to improve your pickleball game is to play with better players. It forces you to play at the top of your ability, makes you pay for your mistakes, and puts you on the fast-track to a higher skill level.
All of that is GREAT for you, but how about for those “better players” who are playing with you? It does almost the OPPOSITE for them – playing with you keeps them from having to play at the top of their ability, keeps them from paying for their mistakes, and keeps them from improving their skill level as quickly. But everyone’s gotta start from somewhere, and even the best players in the world were beginners at one point.
The culture of pickleball has always been very welcoming and inclusive of new players, but as you become more intent on improving your game, you DON’T always want to play with less-experienced players. So the question is: as a newer player, how can you graciously get to play with better players so as to improve your game? And as a better player, how do you “remember your roots” and play with lower-level players, and when is it fair to ask them to step aside so you can get a higher-level play?
Here are some general pickleball etiquette guidelines, which address these questions and more.
When you want to play with opponents who are STRONGER than you are:
- Politely ask if they mind you joining, and give them an out. For example, “Do you all mind if I get a game in with you, or would you rather play on your own?”
- Ask at the beginning or end of the day, when they are warming up or cooling down. DON’T go when they are in the midst of a streak of higher-level play.
- If you do approach them in the midst of higher-level play, ask “Hey, do you mind if I get a game in with you all before you quit today?” so that they can continue playing another few games, but will hopefully commit to playing with you.
- If they do play a few games with you at the beginning of the day, be conscientious about giving them a chance to play with other higher-level players. Let them KNOW that you’re being conscientious, so that they will be more likely to want to play with you again in the future. You might say, “Hey, I see you can get a good game in against those guys, I’ll sit this one out and maybe we can play again later if you have a chance.”
- If you ask a stronger player to join a game with you, HIT TO THEM! Especially in a recreational game, no one likes to sit on a court watching their partner hit all the balls. The higher level player is doing you a favor by playing with you, so hit the ball to them at least half the time. It will make you a better player, make it more fun for them and make it more likely that they will play with you again next time.
- Don’t be obnoxious if you beat a stronger player in recreational play. We all play our best when we play with better players. When we play with weaker players, it can be challenging to stay focused, so remember that they may not be playing at the top of their game. (Or, if your opponents read the rest of this article, they may be focusing on improving their own shots, rather than on winning.)
- If they give you feedback on your game, have an open mind and be appreciate of them taking the time to play and help you.
When you agree to play with opponents who are WEAKER than you are:
- Remember, someone took you under their wing when you first started playing, so pay it forward and make a point to regularly play with players who are weaker than you. Perhaps you regularly play a warmup game with them, or once a week you decide to dedicate the last half of your play to playing with them.
- If players ask to play with you, and you opt to play a higher-level game, let them know when you WOULD be willing to play, perhaps later in the day, or later in the week.
- When you do play, let them know in advance how long you’re planning to play, you might say, “I’d love to play with you all for a game or two, but then I’d like to get in with those other players.”
- Don’t be patronizing — or overly aggressive. Instead of focusing on who wins or loses, find a way to make it challenging for yourself. Pick a shot you want to improve upon and focus on hitting that shot. Or, try to reduce your number of unforced errors. Focus on keeping the ball in play rather than slamming every put-away shot.
- If you notice something they could be doing better, give them feedback on one aspect of their game during the play. Giving them too many pointers can overwhelm them. Plus, they’re probably already a little nervous about playing with or against you, so don’t be too critical. After the game if you want to give them more background info on your pointer, or give them one additional pointer, go ahead.