How to Motivate Your Players

I’m lucky to work with pickleball instructors across North America. I get to talk with, share ideas and learn from teachers who are motivated to develop best coaching practices; they care about their players and want to give them the best coaching they can. I’m often asked to share ideas about new drills or games that the coaches can incorporate. Usually, this is because they are worried that their standard activities are getting a little dull and they are looking to spice things up. When I dig down a bit, I often learn that the instructors’ real fear is that their lessons as a whole are becoming a little dull. They are worried that their players are losing motivation to take lessons and the teachers are looking to reignite that fire — and in many cases, that revenue stream.

In this edition of For the Coaches we take a look at factors that might cause a drop in motivation and how you can turn things around. We address issues of challenge, enthusiasm and boredom. And, as usual, we provide some practical examples of things you can do to keep your lessons feeling fresh. Enjoy.

Mark Renneson, CEO Pickleball Coaching International


mo-ti-va-tion. noun.

the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

Motivating Factor #1 - Why Something Matters

People tend to experience a drop in motivation when they don’t see the benefit of what they are being asked to do. Think of the cliche of the kid in high school who raises their hand and asks the teacher: “When am I ever going to need this in real life?” This question is a prime example of the connection between a person’s desire to do something (i.e. motivation) and their understanding of its value.

Let’s think of a pickleball analog. One of the things that drives coaches crazy is when their players return serve and only half-heartedly (if at all) move toward the NVZ. It feels like you can tell the player a million times to run to the net after they hit the return yet they still hang out around the baseline. Or even better, they dutifully return serve and run when the coach is watching, but hang back as soon as the instructor has turned her back.

In most cases, this is because the player doesn’t fully grasp the value of running forward after the return. They are told endlessly that they should do it, but if they don’t clearly understand why it matters, they aren’t very likely to commit to it. When coaches take the time to clearly articulate the value of what they are asking their players do do, and when the players really ‘get it’, the motivation almost always improves.

Note: if you want to brush up on your own understanding of why certain things matter, you can do so in the PC websiteI section called Selling the Topic in 15 Seconds.

Motivating Factor #2 - The Degree of Difficulty

A major factor in motivation is the degree of difficulty of the task at hand. Imagine playing horseshoes. If you only had to throw the horseshoe from 12 inches away, it wouldn’t be very long until you stopped playing. Why? Because success would be so easy it would be meaningless. If, on the other hand, you had to throw to the target from 100 feet away, you also wouldn’t play for very long. The impossibility of the task would be apparent and you wouldn’t waste your time on pursuing an unrealistic goal. If the task is too easy or too hard, motivation suffers.

Coaches should generally aim to have their activities challenging enough so that success happens between 60% and 70% of the time. Any less and you risk the task being too hard and minimizing learning. Any easier and the task is too easy and not likely to motivate effort.

It is important for instructors to remember that there are a few things they can do to adjust the degree of difficulty. These include:

  • Changing the goal (e.g. 10 serves to backhand in a row vs 10 serves to backhand total)

  • Changing the target (e.g. return must land within 3ft of baseline vs. must land in the court)

  • Changing the feed (e.g. must return a hard-hit drive vs. one hit at medium speed)

  • Changing the movement (e.g. hitting on the run vs. hitting standing still)

  • Changing the consequences (e.g. no penalty for failure vs. return to 0 points upon failure)

By becoming adept at adjusting the degree of difficulty, instructors can maintain optimal challenge in any given activity. This means that drills and games aren’t inherently interesting or boring: it is the details added to them that determine this.


Motivating Factor #3 - Competition, Challenges and Contests

Imagine two pickleball courts, side-by-side. One instructor says: “Please hit dinks back and forth with your partner. We’ll do this for three minutes”. The second instructor says: “Let’s have a contest: each set of 6 dinks earns your team a point. Let’s see how many points we can get as a group in three minutes”. Which do you think will have more focused, motivated players?

Turning something into a game, competition or contest can be a great way to take a task and make it more interesting. Instructors have enormous flexibility with using these external motivators. It could be an individual challenge to see who stands out as the best. It could be a team effort that highlights which pair has the superior skills. It could even be, as in the initial example, a challenge that the whole group shares (and succeeds) in. Of course, instructors need to be weary about possible negative outcomes like having one person always being ‘the loser’ or putting so much pressure on people that they underperform. But assuming that they are being thoughtful about how they integrate them, competitions, challenges and contests can be a great way to keep people interested in your training sessions. Try doing this with PCI Training Activities.


Lessons Learned: Don’t Assume Your Motivation is Their Motivation

People play sports in general — and pickleball in particular — for a wide variety of reasons. While some do it because they have a genuine desire to learn new skills, others take part because they want to join a community. Some people play pickleball because they want to improve their fitness while others do it because they are trying to make changes in their life and pickleball provides a fresh start. Why does this matter? Because if you are in charge of teaching people how to play better pickleball, it is valuable to know why they are working with you in the first place.

If you are doing a lesson — and this especially true if teaching an individual or small group — start by asking them what they are hoping to get from the lesson. Sometimes people will be very specific (i.e. “I want to learn how to hit an around-the-post shot with my backhand”) while others will be more vague (i.e. “I don’t know — you’re the coach!” or “I just want to run around a little”). Knowing what your players are trying to get out of the lesson means you can steer it in a direction that best suits their needs. So next time you are on the court, don’t assume you know why your players are there — ask them.