If you are serious or even semi serious about your game and improvement, a new calendar year is often a time to reflect, refocus and refine your goals for the next twelve months. All players will have different goals, whether it’s to increase the fun, the volume of play or the outcomes. It’s useful to reflect on a wider core set of goals or purpose to feed into your specific pickleball requirements.
For me personally, 2024 will be focussed significantly on physical conditioning: some legacy injuries are being more “grumbly” as I age, so I’ve already spent December fully engaged in rehab. It’s painful, boring and dull but I’m trusting the process and I’m seeing improvements. I hate my Therabar for my elbow with a passion but I know I have to use it.
My other main new goal is to structure my availability more tightly. As demand has risen through 2023 and seeing substantial demands on coaching/coach education into early 2024 already, I’m aware I will need to block time out to ensure I keep a good balance between my other business, family time, my volunteer roles, playing, having some time for myself and training/recovery.
Otherwise, my focus, and where I would recommend anyone wanting to get better, is on the balance of play, drilling, training and coaching. I already have a loose programme that fluctuates based on other life factors and you may need to employ a similar strategy. The most important factor in game improvement is drilling. There should be a substantial weighting in the favour of drilling, although I prefer the term skill development work (I’ll explain why later on). Ben Johns barely plays and spends the vast majority of his time drilling with his brother Collin. For any skill development to truly accelerate, you need to be working on the skill away from matchplay: solo, with a partner and with a coach. Matchplay is where we can implement the new skills we have worked on.
The biggest problem with skill development in the UK is the issue of supply and demand. Demand for pickleball courts and sessions far outweighs the supply currently so court time is a premium. People just want to play the vast majority of the time. There are a few ways to solve this dilemma and I use all of them in one form or another.
Find a wall. My regular men’s doubles partner Andre Strachan went through a phase of drilling against his bathroom wall. My house (and my wife) isn’t compatible to that or hitting a wall in any part of my home. Luckily, I can access a barely used squash court which is perfect for training against. An indoor pickleball is soft enough to not damage a surface and I spend a fair bit of time trying out new shots and refining current ones.
One big benefit of wall work is that all the reaction times are a half to a third quicker. The ball comes back at the net line rather than from the opponent. There’s a loss of ball speed in the rebound so it’s not exactly half but is still substantially overtraining your reactions. It also doesn’t require a partner. You can also look at solutions like my fellow commentator Richard Millman’s RallyWall if you don’t have handy areas to work against a wall. If you buy one, tell him I told you to get it!
Find a “Collin”. Ben Johns has the advantage of having a brother on tap to train with and together, they have honed Collin’s skills into a dedicated “right” for doubles: Collin Johns, the king of the counter and Ben is the most successful player on the tour! Having regular skill development partners is so valuable: the Johns brothers are proof of that. I’m lucky that both my men’s and mixed partners love to drill, as well as a few others in my circle. Certainly, as your game progresses, you tend to spend time with stronger players who all have a development mindset. It’s no accident that the best players all put the work in away from the matchplay. It’s highly likely that there is at least one like minded individual in your club or setup: even if it’s just an hour a week on a court somewhere, that’s a substantial block of time to work on your game over a year. It could be a third of your time if you just do one two hour play session a week.
Fitness. Whatever your age or level, there are always benefits to cross training and finding time to work on other aspects of your fitness away from pickleball. Building some cardio into your schedule, whether it’s a walk, run, row or cycle, will help your stamina on court and general conditioning. As the weather improves, outdoor exercise also has great benefits to your health. Don’t discount HIIT classes or dance fitness group instruction either.
Flexibility and mobility is also useful so time spent stretching is beneficial before and after sessions. Yoga and Pilates are great for increasing your balance and flexibility: it can really help you reach lower and wider balls. These are great activities for active recovery days and for relaxation too. I’ve not been practicing yoga anywhere as much I did in 2020-2021 and I’m certainly noticing that I’m not quite where I was. I’m going to add it back into my schedule where I can and get back on the mat.
Find a PT. The other thing to explore is strength/resistance work. This means bands, weights and machines. The biggest tip I can give you is to engage with a professional if you can. If not, at least follow a plan from a reputable source and start with low weights or resistance, ideally with machines, if you have never done this before. Using machines in a gym rather than free weights (dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells) means that it’s harder to use poor technique, which is where you can easily injure yourself. Engaging a personal trainer, even if for just an intro at the gym to learn the equipment, will help keep you safe. Many gyms induct you for free in the equipment to make sure you don’t hurt yourself.
Engaging with the gym and a PT was transformative for my fitness and game. Detailing my goals with a professional meant that I could work on a very specific programme and make progress tailored to the areas I needed to focus on. I was able to work safely in the “dark side” of the gym with free weights. Motivation was plentiful as someone was keeping me accountable. I could play four days with at least one “complete run” to a medal match within those and top level men’s/MLP without having fatigue or injury issues. It means I can directly tie fitness preparation to outcomes.
Find a coach. If you want to round out your game, you need to ensure enough regular input from an external voice you trust. You may get enough from your skill development partner if you can have open and honest conversations with each other and you have smaller growth goals. To truly grow, you need to have a skilled knowledgeable person to input on how to grow your game. That’s where engaging a coach comes in. As one of two people who signs off all the IPTPA coaches in the UK, I have a strong insight into the coaching community in the UK. People always want the best coach but you need to get the best coach for you. Geographic availability, personality fit, coaching skill set and experience are all factors that will alter your choice: if you want to work with me, distance is a substantial factor. However, I’ll travel if it works financially. Luckily, the coach base is growing fast so choice will be easier over 2024 and future years.
Film. This is a two fold idea. I referred to focussed skill development rather than drilling earlier. That’s because growth and skill development doesn’t have to happen with a paddle in your hand. Regularly committing to reading blogs like this one, looking at YouTube content (picking the quality from the questionable can be tricky) and watching matches online are all ways to develop skill away from the court. By working on the mental side of the game through strategies and mental resilience, you are drilling your mind and growing your game. Video content is great for this: Jordan Briones’ and Tyson McGuffin’s content are well worth a watch. Watch this space as I’m hoping to generate more coaching video content in 2024.
The other film aspect to game improvement is to film your own play. A cheap tripod from Amazon or eBay for your smartphone is all you need to record your training, drilling or matchplay. It lets you see reality, not what you think or feel in your body that you do. You can pick up quirks in technique, strategic errors and start to self correct. It also creates reference points over time where you can see the growth over time of your game. You can even send over to a coach and get them to remotely analyse your game for you. It means you could work with me, even if you are a long distance from me that makes in person work impractical.
Fun. It’s important when setting new goals that we don’t lose track of the love of the game amongst all the things we feel we want to change. It might mean playing your first tournament, taking a competitive break, visiting a new club or trying a different session. I truly love coaching people and growing their games so it’s important that I keep a regular diet of coaching across skill levels. Seeing those early games and growth in players is fuel for my soul so I regularly still support brand new and developing players
In summary, there’s a lot of ideas and tips up above: at least one is likely to apply/to you. To keep it simple: drill more than you play, do something away from pickleball that you enjoy to keep you healthy and get recording/watching footage of yours and other’s games. If you are looking for coaching for your club or personally, please reach out to me via email, Facebook or Instagram.