Why Am I Not Improving . . . Drill Baby Drill
I know what you’re thinking, and many students come to my bootcamps feeling the same way. In fact, so many of you have the same concern that if I had any musical talent I’d write a blues song called, “I’ve been playing pickleball for so long, why ain’t I a 4.0?”
Most of my students have a background in some racquet sport. It is usually tennis, but there’s a fair number of racquetball, badminton, and ping-pong players who find the transition to pickleball to be seamless. Sure, you’ve got to learn that when someone yells, ‘dink!’ they’re not insulting you. Other than that, pickleball is easy to learn and some of the most fun you’ll have playing a sport.
But then it happens. Friends are suddenly playing better than you. Your serve used to be good enough but now your opponent’s blast every return right at your ankles. And pickleball is starting to become a little less fun. You’re beginning to doubt yourself and your ability.
Breath . . om . . om
Okay, time to take a deep breath. Because here’s the thing, as frustrated as you might feel, you’re already on the road to playing better pickleball. Go find the nearest mirror and give yourself a pat on the shoulder. Sure it sounds silly but congratulate yourself because admitting you need to fix something is the first step to making it happen.
I don’t like to classify people by their pickleball rating. We’re more than an arbitrary calculation. For the sake of discussion, most rec players are in the 3.0 to 3.5 range. The thing is, the actual skill levels of a 3.5 and 4.0 player are not that far apart. Both players can hit a variety of shots with the correct form. The difference is that a 3.5 player hits more unforced errors than a 4.0. If you want to cut down your unforced errors and boost the consistency of your game try to focus more time on drilling than gameplay. To learn more about your rating, please see my Ratings and Goals Guide.
Players at the highest level practice at an 80/20 rate of practice to games. If you adopt that kind of mindset, there’s no reason you can’t be playing at the 4.0 level and more importantly, having a lot more fun on the court.
Here are some of my favorite drills to make you a more consistent player.
Pickleball is won or lost at the NVZ. Having a consistent dink is vital. It looks so simple to hit a soft shot that travels only a few feet. But we all know it takes control and precision to hit an unattackable dink.
You might want to try the windshield wiper drill. Don’t worry, I don’t mean windshield wipers whipping back and forth at high speed during a hurricane. Think more like how your wipers steadily move during a drizzle. You and your partner start at opposite sidelines and dink cross-court to each other as you slide across the NVZ. When you get to the other side of the court, head on back and try hitting only forehands or backhands for each trip across the court.
Once you get your dinking groove on, the next shot to work on is the drop. A drop shot is an option anytime you need to reset the point or buy yourself TIME to get to the NVZ. For my number one rule in pickleball, see my bestselling book, Smart Pickleball.
What makes the drop shot tricky is unlike the dink that you hit from the NVZ, drop shots are attempted from different areas of the court. That means you need to work on grip pressure, backswing, and follow through depending where you are on the court. Smart Pickleball suggests that when they bang hard, we hit soft with a well-placed drop shot that gets you to the NVZ. In my bootcamps I talk about being a crouching tiger – patient and poised to strike. Hitting a great drop shot allows you to defuse a banger, get to the NVZ, and dominate the point. The drop shot lets you change the tempo (buys you time!) and allows you to place the ball so that your partner can finish off the point.
When you play with more confidence you also play with more enjoyment and the pickleball court becomes a party. And you can’t party if you don’t have good footwork. Deploying good footwork includes moving smoothly to NVZ rather than camping out in no person’s land and minding the gap between you and your partner.
One piece of fancy footwork to get down is the split step, which enables you to quickly adjust and make a clean shot and then be in position for the next ball. A small hop onto the balls of your feet gets you in balance so you can move easily to whatever ball is hit your way. When you and your partner get your footwork down, it’s like a party as you move in unison and cover the court with ease.
Mind, Body and Soul
Pickleball is a total body experience. We talked about the feet and now it’s time to go to the head. And by head I mean keeping your focus. Pickleball games can turn on a dime, and if you get overconfident or the opposite, mentally check out, a 10-2 lead can quickly turn into a 12-10 loss. Being focused means only tuned into the current point. The last point and the last games are history and all you have is now. Try to remember some controlled breathing exercises – especially through your nose (pranayama breathing) between points to help refocus and short-circuit negative thoughts and overthinking.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
Achieving more consistency in your game is all about muscle memory. On the surface, drilling might not sound like too much fun, but use your imagination to spice up practice into something enjoyable. Try to adopt a student mindset and be open to the experience to build the consistency you desire. Remember when you were learning to drive? You thought about everything: How much pressure to apply to the brake? How far should you stay behind the car in front of you? When to activate the turn signal? Then one day you’re behind the wheel and you aren’t thinking about any of that. You’re just driving.
Drilling in pickleball is the same experience, without the risk of crashing your dad’s car. Drills become part of your muscle memory and soon you won’t have to think about what to do, you just hit the shot. The more confident you are, the more consistent you’ll play and the fewer unforced errors you’ll make. And reaching 4.0 or higher is only a matter of time.
What drills have worked for you? And if you want to learn more about playing Smart Pickleball, awesome drills, and our popular Bootcamps check out https://pickleballguru.com.
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