Teaching pickleball and improving in pickleball

Date Published: 
Dec. 8, 2017

Pickles are not grown but cultivated from cucumbers, and they can’t be rushed because it is all about the balance between salt, acidity and natural sweetness. Ditto pickleballers!

Teaching racket sports and learning racket sports need to be phased or synchronized. If the teacher gets ahead of the student, or vice versus, it is just wasted time.

Much of learning, for many folks, just takes time to overcome muscle memory from other sports. I cultivated my first pickles, metaphorically speaking, 61 years ago, at the age of 14. My county hired me to start a summer tennis program, and since then, I’ve spent a lifetime in different aspects of racket sports. I have had the fantastic opportunity, because of my job, to watch and discuss teaching racket sports with some of the most famous coaches and players in the world.

If you visualize the learning curve as the length of a football field, that first pickleball session only gets folks out to the 1-yard line. As they play with others over the next six months, pickleballers learn on their own and advance to the 20-yard line.

This seems where so many seem to go astray. People come to me at this point with the strangest pickleball questions that some “expert” has told them, about the rules, or how to hit the ball. Much of what they were told, or possibly heard, is just plain wrong. I am going to begin calling them the “Twenty-Yarders.” At upcoming clinics, perhaps we can answer those questions.

Periodically, I have been asked to conduct clinics where we attempt to advance players from the 20- to the 50-yard line. I will be doing a clinic for beginners at Northside Park in Ocean City, Md., on Wednesday, Jan. 10, at 1 p.m. This will be designed for both beginners and the Twenty-Yarders.

Be sure to sign up with Ocean City or send me an email (vaughn@pickleballcoast.com) if you want to be included, because this limited-participation clinic has already started to fill.

But the real question for many serious pickleballers is how do they get from the 50-yard line to the end zone? Well, if they do nothing, the field is likely to move faster than them, and they will soon be back on their own 35-yard line, because everyone will bypass them. Therefore, doing nothing is not an option.

The key to getting in sync with your instructor and advancing your game forward is first understanding where you need to improve. The better players always seem to have a very accurate self-assessment of their own games. But simply going out and playing week after week can lead to bad habits that get so deeply ingrained that you may never get them corrected.

The days will soon become longer, and before you can say “fried pickleball pickles at Fox’s Pizza” five times, there will be plenty of pickleball being played across the entire area.

If you are one of those pickleballers interested in improving your game from the 50-yard line toward the end zone in 2018, now is a good time to organize a plan. Your plan should include some specifics. An example might be in 2018 “to lose 20 pounds, start weekly stretching exercises, develop a correct backhand volley, reduce service errors to one per session and reduce service return errors to two per session.”

Simply laying out your objective is a good beginning, but there is more. For example, how much weight loss per month, and your diet and exercise plans to achieve it. Next, what kind of stretching or strength training do you plan? Get it down on paper. If your goal is to reduce service errors, when, where and how do you plan to improve your serve, and how will you track your improvement?

This might seem too simple, but it works. This past summer, as an experiment, I organized a small group of a dozen players of different levels to play once a week. Initially, I would quietly point out their individual errors, and they would show slight improvement each week. Then, I insisted that every third session they do nothing but practice serves, or return of serves, or volleys, and then the group began to advance at a much faster rate.

There are some pickleballers — particularly among the fairer sex — who sometimes tell me that they like pickleball but don’t want to compete.

If you are older than 50, I have a newsflash: Competition in pickleball is not among one another, but against your own body, by making it do things that are good for it but that it wants to resist. Have you not noticed that the thing your head is balanced on has radically degraded over the past few decades? The benefit of targeted exercise is not only pickleball, but a healthier body, which might even become once again recognizable in the bathroom mirror.

One final thing: If you are a cucumber and want to become a pickle, please avoid becoming too pickled!

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.