A little while ago (actually over five years ago!!), I wrote an article on how to ‘play up’ and ‘play down’ during rec play’ (and there’s even a printable version!).
Everyone wants a good competitive game. Personal schedules outside of pickleball are packed, and court time is limited – you want to maximize your available pickleball time!
On most courts, there’s a wide range of skills and athletic ability. Some games will be competitive; some, not so much!
So let’s revisit this issue about when you want to play up and when you’re playing down. Trust me, you’ll still be having fun regardless of who is playing on the other side of the net (or standing next to you!)!
First Things First – It’s Only Pickleball!
On my podcasts and webinars, you’ll often hear me use the line, “It’s only pickleball…”
You know I LOVE pickleball! And you know I’ll play with anyone – it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a 3.0 rec player or a 5.0 pro, I love pickleball that much!
I’m not tracking my wins and losses, and you’ll have to trust me on this, no one is tracking your rec play wins and losses either!
Is it a big deal if you lose a game? A bunch of games? Have an off day?
No, No, and No!
It’s also not a big deal if your games aren’t as competitive as you would like!
Yes, you want a good competitive game, but no matter what, you want to play pickleball. Imagine that you’re off to the courts and you’re planning on playing a bunch of games with three other similarly skilled players.
But the fourth player doesn’t show up!
You’re probably hoping that any player, no matter the skill level, will be a part of your foursome!
So Someone Wants to ‘Play Up’ with You…
I’m pretty sure no one started playing pickleball for the first time on a Friday and then showed up on Monday as a 5.0 player!
Drills and practice will make you better, but you probably need to play with and against better players to really improve your game.
When a lower-skilled player wants to play with you, my main piece of advice is to be nice and encouraging.
And unless it’s asked for, don’t try to coach!
This player knows when he made a mistake or an unforced error – rolling your eyes at a missed shot or a drop into the net probably isn’t going to help, nor is informing the player why he or she made a mistake!
This player is probably nervous about wanting to play well; sending negative energy toward your partner certainly will not help!
When the player makes that good shot, let him or her know it! A bad shot? Talk about how the player across the net made a good shot, or let him or her know that it was a nice try or that it was the ‘right idea’!
And if you’re playing against the lower skilled player, remember, no one is going to care how you dominated. Spread the ball around to the partner, focus on placement (in other words, don’t try to tag him or her in the chest every chance you get!), and work on making your game better.
…and If They’re ‘Playing Down’ with You!
Now you’re playing with the better players!
This suggestion may sound strange, but it will probably work!
Don’t try to do too much!
In other words, don’t try to hit a winner on every shot, don’t try to overpower the more skilled players, and take the easier, more strategic, shot instead of that hard angle that will probably go out!
Don’t try to prove yourself to the other players!
I’m not saying to not play your game, and I’m certainly not saying to let your partner take almost all the shots! But I am suggesting to focus on keeping the ball in play and make smart shots!
A Personal (and Recent!) Example
Earlier in January, I took a friend to the Pickleball University courts in Vero Beach where there’s some pretty high-level play. While I was on another court, one of the players came up to my friend and invited him to come play.
Nervous, my friend said, “I just want to let you know, I’m not a 5.0 or anything like that.”
The other player, with a huge smile, said, “That doesn’t matter! C’mon! Let’s play!”
After my game was done, I went over to his court to watch the rest of his game.
I never saw him play better.
And he was playing against some very, very good players. (His two opponents are coaches at Pickleball U.)
After the game, his partner remarked how my friend made only four or five unforced errors throughout the whole game.
See, there was no pressure to perform, his partner was encouraging throughout the game, and my friend was loose and relaxed.
In other words, he was having fun!
My friend was playing up, the other three were playing down, and everyone had a great time and a great game!
Yes, be competitive, but also remember that it’s supposed to be fun.
And, of course, it’s only pickleball!
Stephen Feldheim says
Great article thanks. I’m posting this immediately to our club.
Kirk Webber says
Some great thoughts here, and definitely worth repeating. Our community (and probably every community) has a few small problems with over-competitive folks as well as new players who are afraid of being embarrassed (or harassed). Thanx for this article, I posted the link on our community Nextdoor social media site!
This is something for EVERY pickleball player to adopt and apply!!!
I think that you need to mention that if you are playing up you at least have to attempt to play smart pickleball and techniques of the soft game. Show some respect for people that have advanced. Everyone makes mistakes trying to hit the smart right shot, but if you are playing up and think your gonna become a better banger, lober, pop every ball up for an easy smash into your partners face, now you will know why your partner is rolling their eyes. This happens alot in rec play until you get pickleball religion!