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How to prepare for a tournament Part Four

The final part of this series is the actual activity you do on the day. It can be broken into two phases: before your first match and before each match. Before hitting any kind of ball, you really need to do all of the preparative work first. That means stretching, bending, jogging, stepping, gunning, loosening and all the other “-ings” before hitting. Your own personal warmup will be different to anyone else’s but I’m happy to share mine for you to adapt. 

Dynamic warm ups are the recommended start for players: that means moving before stretching with movements common to what you will be doing but at lower intensity and pace. Common dynamic warm ups are focussed on moving the legs, core and arms in preparation for matchplay. 

A common series, if there is space, is to jog around a court performing different movements on each circuit. Start with a gentle jog, with the second lap slightly faster. Then on the long axis work on “high knees” so they reach your waist level: the short axis, continue the slow jog. On the next circuit, work on heel flicks/butt kickers: as the name suggests, flick the heels to try and touch your backside. Then do side steps along the long axis, first facing into the court, then facing out of the court on the next circuit. On the seventh lap, work on a grapevine/Carioca step. Face into the court: moving sideways, cross left foot over right foot, step your right foot out to uncross your legs, cross your left foot behind you, step again with your right foot to uncross again. Repeat the sequence maintaining rhythm and balance avoiding twisting your core too much. Face outwards and cross the legs in the opposite order, right over left. On the final ninth lap, sprint the long axis. This will really get your heart pumping. If time, do cross over steps and swing with an imaginary or real paddle as two extra laps. 

If space is tight, pull out your skipping rope and use this as a means to elevate your heart rate and get your coordination going, whilst activating arms and legs. Skipping is a great training modality to enhance your general fitness and foot speed. Jumping rhythmically in response to a moving object is a perfect analogy for a split step.

If you’ve bought a percussive massager, you can use this to cover a huge amount of the stretching you can also do after the dynamic warm up. If you use the process of ten seconds across the muscle where it is nearest/joins the torso, ten seconds where it is furthest from the torso and then ten seconds along the muscle, you can pretty much cover all the core areas needed for pickleball in around ten minutes. When going along each muscle, move the gun at a pace of around 3-5cm per second. If not using a gun, you can use a resistance band to help stretch those core shoulder, elbow and knee/hip muscles. 

If you are going old school, or not downloaded my checklist so you’ve forgotten your equipment, you can stretch by starting “ground up”. Tip toes, heel balances, ankle rotations, calf/hamstring/thigh stretches, lunges, trunk rotations, shoulder rolls, shoulder shrugs, arm swings, gentle neck rotations  are all good stretches to do. You can also search for the “world’s greatest stretch” which activates huge amounts of the body in a chained series of moves in an efficient way. Older or those newly active players may want to do stretching first before any dynamic warmup: you will know your own body and fitness levels. 

Once fully activated, you can then finally get bat on ball! If you can find a spare court, any hitting you can do with a partner is a great way to get going. I’ll go through the exact warmup that follows for pre-match routine but potentially for a little longer, before maybe doings some skinny singles or specific drills. If you have the luxury of a warm up slot on court, then really maximise that time by getting activated first so your slot is fully working on shots and not wasted doing a physical warm up.

There is a maximum five minute warm up for any match and can sometimes be even shorter, so every second counts.  I define the warm up as five blocks of work with your partner: dinks, drops, volleys, transition and serve/return. These aren’t always in an equal weighting of time. For the upcoming Open, it’s just two minutes warm up so getting maximum value will be hard. From the list below, just dink a bit, drop a bit and volley. It’ll be super fast reps that are needed. Maybe five of each per person in a team

Dinking is best done down the line initially and cross court if you can swap sides to groove both cross court sides and down the line. As we hope to be dinking lots, this could be a ninety second or two minute slot. For drops and transition, these can be combined in a slinky/concertina style. One player starts at NVZ and moves back hitting drops; the pattern stays at this NVZ and feeds deeper each time, with a gentle feed pace to enable success. When the retreating player has reached the baseline, hit a few thirds into NVZ, they then advance, resetting a harder hit ball into the NVZ. When reached the NVZ, the roles switch. This should take another minute to ninety seconds. 

Once both back at NVZ, volley collaboratively to each other at first, slowly increasing pace and then agree one partner will block and one speed up. Halfway through switch rules. Finally, hit serves diagonally from both sides. If your opponents won’t switch to diagonals at any stage, make sure to dink diagonally in your box, serve diagonal corner to corner on your half of the court width to get a deeper range in than straight ahead. Then it’s action stations, you are ready to play. 

This five minute cycle needs to be followed for every single match you play to ensure you groove every common stroke every time you play after a break. But warmups aren’t just for tournaments, they are for rec play. Warming up effectively at the start of every session isn’t grabbing your paddle, hitting five dinks then going to play, which is a common sight across the land. Arriving five or ten minutes before a session to get the body moving and taking just five minutes to mindfully groove the strokes you’ll spend the next few hours hitting should be a norm. Having this practiced, defined behaviour can help nerves before a match by simply doing what you always do before you play: it can lower anxiety down a notch or two.

The athlete Michael Johnson was asked how much of successful performance is mental and how much physical. He answered that he couldn’t put a number on either but that the best athletes treat both with equal importance and worked to improve on both equally.  Pickleball especially is a game of thinking, strategy and willpower, due to the slower nature of the dink game: you can out think and out game plan your opposition. The mental side of the game is a huge area to explore and one thing that is as unique to an individual as their physical attributes. I’ll do a more extensive post on this in the future but for this series, I’m going to throw out some really simple basics to consider. 

You may be playing with a new partner for the first time that day: tournaments can be a bit speed dating like that. As a baseline, you should have a conversation about if your team is going to stack to maximise your strategic advantage, who is going to take the middle balls, who starts left and a very basic gameplan of what you are trying to do. I have the privilege of playing with three or four regular partners in leagues and tournaments: knowing your roles and communicating beforehand makes communication and decision making on court much easier. If you know your “brand” of pickleball beforehand, even better: are you a dinking team, a driving team, a resetting team, a counter punching team? What do you do best? If you can try to play your favoured style, great but even more importantly, you need to play the style that your opponent doesn’t want. You may be a less aggressive team as a brand but if you find one of your opponents cannot handle a drive at them, play that style until it stops working. It may not be where you are most comfortable but you want your opponent to be even more uncomfortable. 

It’s also useful on the mental side of the game to have routines and process. Think of tennis players preparing to serve with the same ball bounces or habits, a footballer lining up for a free kick on penalty.  Create your own simple repeatable preparation for serving, returning and after a point is over.  Read my blog on paddle tapping for a simple way to build connection with a partner. Say “Next point” every single time, win or lose the point: use it as a mental reset button. Explore mental mantras: little phrases you can say to yourself to maintain focus and intentions. I love POMS personally: Play One More Shot. When it’s getting tough and tense, these automatic processes can keep you focussed and in control.

So there you go, four parts done and you should now feel empowered to go compete, having covered everything that matters outside of the 44×20 of the court. If that’s where you want to improve, explore other content in my blog, drill more than you play and consider engaging a coach for some lessons. I’m willing to travel away from my normal patch so reach out if you’re interested in working with me. 

Don’t forget to download your Tournament Bag Checklist below. I’m asking for your email in exchange but I won’t spam you constantly. Please make use of it but don’t republish or modify it without reaching out to me first and attributing back to me here. Go out and have fun competing: try not to let the intensity and challenge spoil the enjoyment of playing pickleball. 

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