As NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson once put it: "Practice? We're talking about practice, not the game!" As much as we'd all like to have Allen Iverson-like talent to compete at the highest level without fully going through practice sessions, in this great sport of pickleball that we love, unfortunately most of us in the pickleball universe aren't blessed with the gift of supreme natural talent. As a former college athlete, and a high school and college tennis coach, I understand first and foremost how important good practice is to one's success in pickleball. As I've progressed through my pickleball career and have encountered the new and burgeoning talents of youngsters like Kyle Yates, Ben Johns, and Tyson McGuffin to name a few, I have realized the importance of focused practice to maintain my level of skill, and be able to compete with these future hall of famers in our great sport.
For this edition of the blog, I'm going to take you through the 3 essentials in my practice philosophy, and the structure of practice I use to maintain my skill level and compete at the highest level possible in pickleball.
1. 4:1 - it all starts with this ratio. When approached by fans and fellow competitors at major tournaments, the most common question I am asked is "how much do you drill?" In all honesty, while I prepare for tournament play, I prefer to drill any day of the week over playing practice games. The ratio I use is 4 days of drilling for every 1 day I play practice games. With that said, in a typical week of preparation before USAPA nationals every year, I will spend most days drilling for 2-3 hours, 4 days during the week. On the weekends, I will schedule one day of practice games or matches. This allows me to hone in my skills all week, and then put them into practice during match play on the weekends.
2. Dinking and Drops - 90% of my practice involves these two types of pickleball shots. Since hitting a solid and effective 3rd ball drop allows a doubles team to successfully and aggressively make it to the kitchen line in our sport, I practice this shot in a variety of situations. In addition, I will spend the first 30 minutes-1 hour of my drill sessions working solely on my dinks. These dinking drills work on dink accuracy, efficiency, and test my physical and mental endurance, As an athlete always pushing myself to improve, I realize that I need to put myself in uncomfortable situations to test my adaptability and force me to think outside of the box during these situations. As NBA great Steph Curry put it once, "if you don't feel uncomfortable while you are working out, you are wasting your time." I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, and put myself through uncomfortable situations to prepare me for anything that may come may way during tournament play.
3. Balance in Match Play - the key to maximizing the most out of your practice matches is to maintain a balance between fun and focused games. I realize the importance of having fun with this sport while also making sure I get some focused, intense practice games in as well. When I do find those weekend days to take part in practice games, I make a conscious effort to toggle between days of fun and focused play. If I decide to make it a fun day, I will try to assemble a solid group of players who are not afraid to banter a bit during our games, try new creative shots, and to keep things light. As a result, this relaxes all players on the court, and some excellent creativity will come out in everyone's shots, in addition to some great laughs during our games. On the other hand, when I decide it will be a more focused day, I again assemble not only a group of players who are skilled, but play in a similar style in order to ensure the best practice possible for us all. Typically we'll assemble a group of four players, and play for 3-4 hours. The format will usually be that each player will play 3 games with the same partner, and then we'll switch partners, etc. This works on chemistry with your partner, but also makes the scenario more match like, and will also help work on my mental and physical endurance - which will prepare me for those long tournament days. Remember that whether you are drilling or in match play, to put yourself in uncomfortable situations that will push you to improve. As basketball coaching legend John Wooden eloquently stated as part of his coaching philosophy, "adversity is your asset." Bottom line: use adversity to make you better and realize the skills you need to fine tune in this sport.
In conclusion, my 3 essentials for effective practice are the 4:1 ratio, focusing on dinking and drops, and maintaining balance in my match play. These three areas of practice focus have allowed me to maintain my level of pickleball skill as the competition is getting tougher and tougher each year.
I hope these tips help you as your pickleball journey continues, and happy pickling!!!!!!!!