As numbers grow, how to we accommodate everyone’s ability to improve?

Subtitle: I may be a pickleball right winger.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are my own and might not reflect the views of others. But that’s why I have my own blog!

As a new USAPA Ambassador, I have taken on the responsibility of helping to grow pickleball.   I have helped out in a number of ways such as helping to start a new pickleball club, heading up a task force and making a presentation to my community recreation department for the building of new pickleball courts, helping teach pickleball in the schools, and by helping newer players learn and improve their game.  I enjoy all of this, and look forward to doing more.

We are seeing a fairly constant flow of new players to the game.  This is happening all over and it’s exciting!  We are experiencing record numbers of players.  Many would say that’s a good problem to have and I agree, to a certain extent!  We are lucky in the Toledo area to have several venues to play, and can find a place to play six days of the week, sometimes two time blocks a day.  However with a limited number of courts at those facilities there are often 30 or more players at a session, creating lots of waiting between games.

It seems to me that “good problem to have” is creating an increasing gap in skill levels.  Generally I think a majority of players are intermediate or below.  (My opinion is based on International Pickleball Federation rating requirements, not as a comparison to the other players at each venue.)  While most seem to be having fun (and yes, fun is what it’s all about) many players aren’t improving to the next level.  I think that is a result of insufficient training right from the start with new players, and a lack of follow up training.

Thus the dilemma.  With overcrowded courts, how do we teach new players much beyond the basics without trading playing courts for training courts?  This is more easily accomplished in the summer by adding “training times” to the schedule but in the winter, to assign one court for training makes the wait time even longer for everyone else.  (Note to self: think about beginner clinics outside of regular open play this summer.)

In the meantime, how do we best teach the beginners, help to improve the recreational players and intermediates, but also provide an opportunity for the higher skilled players to improve as well?  How do we accommodate everyone’s ability to improve?

There are many players better than me, but when games are assigned by paddle stacking (which most are) I am almost always in games with at least one or more lower skilled players.  That means I can’t play at my fullest potential in order to “make the teams fair.”   I’m happy to offer advice, but I can’t assume that everyone wants to be coached, nor do I want to coach in every game I play.  My only other option is to hold out my paddle until I have three other similar skilled players, but now I spend more time waiting than playing.

It is my opinion (note disclaimer above…my blog, my opinion) that skill based court assignments are a MUST in today’s pickleball environment.  Often it is not done to avoid upsetting or alienating anyone.  I often hear people say they can’t improve if they don’t play with better players.  I agree 100%!  But that applies to higher skilled and advanced players too.  How do they improve if they can’t play within their own skill level or better?  Skill based play allows everyone to play with and against others close to their own skill level.  Some games you learn from those better than you, and sometimes you are helping those not quite as good as you, but it’s all done in a game situation where you can play to your fullest potential.  I believe it creates a heathier environment in general.

Please don’t misunderstand my point.  This is not a plot to segregate the advanced players from the rest.  On the contrary, I believe that players can best help those closest to their own skill level, and it needs to trickle-down from the top (note my subtitle.)   In game situations, intermediate players can learn from advanced players.  Similarly, recreational players can learn from intermediate players, and everyone gets better.

As for beginners, it is vital that they learn the basics early in order to set them on the right track.  How about setting up a team of advanced volunteers to teach beginners and also to reinforce the basics with recreational players for the first 30-45 minutes of each session.  After that, everyone plays within their own skill levelI’m usually in coaching mode more than playing mode, but that’s all part of being an ambassador.  However, I am also a player and I need be able to play with those who can help me to improve too.

In another blog, I will outline the skill based court assignment plan I helped implement at the Silverthorne Rec Center in Colorado.  There were a few bumps the first day, mostly due to some not receiving or having read the notice with the program details.  Ultimately, most were happy with the results, and had quality games.  Time will iron out the wrinkles!

Last note:

  • Holland (OH) Pickleball Club is way ahead of the curve, having established skill based court assignments when they first started their club. This carries over to their indoor court arrangement too.  Hooray for them!
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10 thoughts on “As numbers grow, how to we accommodate everyone’s ability to improve?

  1. As a relative beginner, I like the idea of separating people according to skill level. It makes me feel bad if I am playing with people of a higher level and not doing well. I feel like I am holding them back, which usually makes me play even worse.

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    • MA,
      I’ve been there too, and I know how you feel. It’s good to play with people a little better and learn from how them. Then when you are in games at or perhaps a little below your skill level, push yourself to work on the things you learned. You’ve already come a long way!

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  2. here in sun city west Az with 18 courts we have just gone the opposite way from skill and open play to just open play. the same results as skill play and as you suggested the “good” players just put there 4 paddles down at the same time. sooooo nothing has changed. I have played at several clubs including Toledo and Holland and the “good players” are protective of themselves and who or (whom) they play with

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  3. I’m liking a system they use here in Naples, Fl. A sign up board is divided into three columns; advanced, intermediate, beginner. Four players of the same skill level sign in and are given the next sequential number to play no matter what skill level. All courts are open to all levels. Seems to move games along while insuring competitive play.

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  4. It’s not incumbent on better players to necessarily help weaker players. What is incumbent is that players continue on their own to get better. The internet is a great place to seek out advice on what skills are necessary to get better. And there are many videos available demonstrating these skills. So no one should have an excuse to understand what they need to get better. Once they start winning consistently at their level, then they will know it’s time to advance to the next level.

    To me the biggest challenge is for players at the 2.5 to 3.5 level. That is where it seems we have the most struggle with players. Once you are a solid 3.5 player, you are playing very competitive PB. You also understand that the jump to 4.0 and above is huge.

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  5. Welcome the Pickleball blogger world.. Great job!
    Skill based courts YES.. but now you have to break the news and say the nasty to people.. You’re not what you think you are? We need to have more rating committees and get non tourney players rated like they do down in the Sun belt. My opinion.. Be well.

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    • Thanks Claudia!
      That’s the fear everyone has……having to tell people they aren’t as good as they think they are. Well, IMO that will work itself out. Everyone is able to play their best game. If a lower skilled player comes to a court they don’t probably belong on, they will likely be beaten easily and quickly. Before long they will realize they should move down a court. I believe that all works itself out, and will rarely call for anyone to direct someone to another court.
      YES! I agree with more rating committees for non tourney players. Ratings based on IPF standards not on the average skill of the club.

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    • We explained that we were starting 1 competitive court thereby leaving 2 courts for recreation play. I was surprised that most of the players chose recreational play…leaving the 8 or so competitive players to play against each other. At least for right now in our club people are picking exactly where they should be.

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  6. Love this article. We are having these problems big time within our PB group. We have decided to try a competitive court to keep our better players engaged. Thanks for such a timely article.

    Liked by 1 person

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