Pickleball Points: Tournament versus recreational pickleball

Several female readers have requested that I write about the differences in tournament pickleball versus recreational pickleball.

It’s a great question, but I have struggled with this article because, although the game is exactly the same, tournaments and recreational play are too different to describe. The best advice I can give is to play in several to get a sense of if you enjoy tournaments. Although the rules are the same, tournaments definitely have a different rhythm.

• Excitement. There will definitely be a new level of excitement if it is your first tournament. And if you are a veteran, there is still an excitement, because you have likely been training and want to see how “your stuff” compares to “their stuff.” Remember, the same time you are training, others are as well. There is also the excitement of seeing old friends for the vets, and group excitement if new gunslingers arrive on the scene who have taken the game to a new level.

• Camaraderie. The reason I always say “Competition” gets a bad rap is because there is great camaraderie among participants at all sporting events. Witness the recent World Series. If it is your first event, you will see the other competitors are happy to see one another, and sorry when the big guns can’t attend. In competition, I am not trying to beat the best players to be King of the Hill. I want to see if I can beat them because I greatly appreciate their playing styles.

• Education. Your initial thought might be that you will compete against players who have perfect games. But you probably will play against people who have a couple very good or unique shots that you haven’t experienced. They want to test themselves, just as you want to test yourself. As you sit around between matches, there is a fair amount of discussion about playing pickleball. You definitely will learn from every tournament.

• Eating and hydration discipline. There is no such thing as three square meals on tournament day. You don’t want to eat a heavy breakfast, and the remainder of the day is snacking with smart food between matches. Hydration can be a problem, so begin several days before, because on tournament day, you can’t take in enough water to replace what you will be losing.

• Format. Typically, there are different events: Men’s Doubles, Women’s Doubles, Mixed Doubles, and Men’s and Women’s Singles, and these events will likely be broken into various age groups. Most likely, you will play the best two out of three (11 point, by 2) games. The winner of each match goes forward into the next round, and the loser drops back into what is typically known as the “Loser’s Draw.”

Theoretically, as the winners move forward, they play better teams. But frequently, a very good team might just lose in the first or second round. Maybe they had a bad night, got up too late and never warmed up, or got the jitters. In pickleball, you can lose a match and still win your way back into the medal rounds.

Once you enter the Loser’s Draw, you typically play just one 15-point game. All the games normally need to be won by two points. The reason I use the words “maybe” and “probably” is that tournaments reserve the right to make changes to the norm to accommodate their facility.

In the Loser’s Draw, if you win your match, you advance, and if you lose, you are finally out of the tournament. Assuming you win every match in the Loser’s Draw, you will work your way all the way back to play the one remaining unbeaten team.

Now, you (even if your body isn’t that excited about it) will again play a two-out-of-three-game match against the last team standing. If they beat you, they are gold medalist, but if you win — surprise — that team now drops into the Loser’s Draw with you, and you will play one more 15-point game to determine gold and silver.

• Fitness. You probably will start the morning waiting around to play against less experienced teams, but as you advance, the quality of play improves. If you haven’t been training physically, you might find yourself getting increasingly tired at the same time as you face better teams. Several years ago, we practiced playing practice matches with two 15-point games so it helped us develop ourselves for long tournament days.

• Concentration. The ability to concentrate and focus is more important in pickleball than even tennis, because two poorly played games can be over before you even remember what day of the week it is. And as you become more tired, it is even harder to focus. So after a few tournaments, you need to square away how you will add practice and physical training to your pickleball bag.

• Match play tip: Forget about everything going on around you at the tournament and simply play one point at a time, and then focus on one game at a time. Forget all prior points, and encourage, not chastise, your partner.

In the next article, I plan to highlight several women players who successfully play many tournaments, and perhaps they can offer some additional commentary about tournament pickleball.

I hope this helps. I know I always enjoy tournaments. Maybe in a couple years you will find yourself in one of those epic, hair-raising matches where both sides refuse to lose and everyone performs at near perfect performance. That’s tournament pickleball.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.

By Vaughn Baker
Special to the Coastal Point