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Tips on Improving How Players Practice

How long have you been playing pickleball? 6 months, 3 years, 10 years? As you all know pickleball is such a wonderful game that almost anyone can play. Because anyone can play coupled with positive health and social reasons, the sport continues to grow in popularity among expanding age groups.
If I ask the following question to most players: How often do you practice? Or, how many times have you practiced since you have been playing? Based on my experience the answers would be quite different than answering the question- how long have you been playing? Those players who enjoy playing and are happy with where they are in the game I say are great and enjoy! But, for those players who want to improve their playing ability (both mentally and physically), I would like to suggest some things to do to help maximize players' valuable time to improve how to practice.

Practice Makes Perfect

As all sports continue to evolve and get better, many sports instructors now prefer the phrase, "Perfect Practice Makes Perfect". Whether it is just a phrase or a motivating factor, I prefer practicing as "perfect" as possible to gain the most in the least amount of time and energy spent.
So, the question changes to how do I or how does my group get more aligned with perfect practice.
  • Set aside certain days and time periods for a small group of players who want to improve their skills. This will disable the tendency to always play instead of practice. Once you have a small group (four or five players) and set aside time to practice (3 hours suggested per practice session for non-pro players), now you have created the environment to potentially improve. This is very important because your group must be on the same page with all participants having the same agenda.
  • Have a leader run the practice session so everyone knows who is running the particular practice. The leader should preplan and communicate three or four skills or tactics to focus on during the 3-hour session.  Having too many things to work on in a given session will dilute the ability to really embrace what is being worked on and the potential to implement the new skills will be minimized.  The leader should schedule out the timing of each skill or tactic and stick to that plan making sure not to rush things.

Build a Progression of Drills

In all cases, players should treat practice as real games, and the more the group can simulate the pace and the pressure of real games the better. I have seen many practice groups spend the time at the courts but they do not build progressively and they do not put the pressure and pace of the game into the mix of drills they do. For instance, if you are practicing backhand drop shots, I would suggest starting with good technique from various places on the court having the ball returned to you at medium speed at first. Then, as soon as possible, have the person at the opposing NVZ line hitting the ball back to you treat it like a real game where the ball gets slammed back to you if your drop shot is not good. The player who is working on their drop shot should treat every single drop shot as if it were the last one they may do and the "game" depends on a successful one. In other words, my suggestion is to not just casually hit drop shots but do so with the challenge of game pace and with someone giving you instant feedback on your drop shots so you will learn in real-time how to get better.
I organize my own practice sessions and we work on different parts of the game each session starting from technique and then moving quickly to game pace and direct competitive feedback. This has worked really well for myself and the players I practice with. I consistently find I feel much more confident after a great "perfect practice" session transitioning what I learned into competitive game situations when I have already practiced a particular skill after challenging myself at game pace and under pressure.  When doing so, I find it much easier to be confident during games because I have already been there and done that. Implementation is much easier and you maximize your time working on efficiency and effectiveness rather than just time and repetitions.
Go out there and challenge yourself to get in the habit of "Practicing Perfect". Enjoy this great game!

By Marc F. Austin, Team GAMMA Ambassador, PPR Pro, USA Pickleball Association Ambassador in Maryland


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