When I play competitive pickleball, I like to think of my opponents as a puzzle I need to solve. And as it is with different kinds of puzzles, you’ll need to employ a different approach depending on what you are confronted with. Sometimes a power game is in order, sometimes more reliance on dinks and drops. Your job as a player is to figure out what you need to do to ‘solve’ the puzzle in front of you.
Teaching people to play pickleball can also be thought of in this way. The puzzle you need to solve in this case is how to best get your players from where they are to where you’d like them to be. How do you help them improve their skills, understand something new and have more fun? And while it is gratifying when things fall into place perfectly, it can also be incredibly frustrating when the pieces don’t fit together the way you thought. This edition of For the Coaches is all about solving problems.
— Mark Renneson, Pickleball Coaching International
Crisis # 27 — They’re Doing it Wrong!
You’ve developed a great lesson plan, arrived up early to make sure everything is in place, and had the perfect number of students showed up for your class. After giving a terrific demonstration of the skill you’re working and the drill that will give them practice opportunities, you send the players out to the courts to get to work. You feel great about how clear and concise you’ve been, as well as about the drill you picked. But then you look up…
Sally is standing in the wrong place. Ed is letting the ball bounce when he should be volleying. Hakim and Josef seem to be playing a competitive point instead of stopping after two hits like they are supposed to. In short, they’re doing it wrong. What happened and how can this be avoided?
Say and Show
If you want your players to do a drill well, give them a great demo while explaining what you are doing.
It is my default assumption that when players aren’t doing drills or playing games the way they are supposed to, it is the fault of the coach. After all, the players aren’t trying to mess up — although sometimes I have my doubts. I assume that if things have gone off the rails it was because the instructor wasn’t as clear as she thought she was; a connection was missed somehow and the players don’t actually understand what they were being asked to do. This happens most commonly because what the instructor has in her mind (or on her lesson plan) isn’t communicated clearly enough with the players. Here are some ideas for bridging the gap.
Say and show. While the idea of ‘learning styles’ has been largely de-bunked, it is important that instructors use both visual cues and auditory ones to get their players to understand how learning activities (aka drills) should work. Instructors should show exactly how an activity should run, and describe what they are doing at the same time. Players will have a better time understanding their role in the activity if they can see someone else doing it.
Demonstrate transitions. Whether you are rotating players after a certain number of hits, or having practice partners change roles after 30 seconds, it is important to walk through these changes with your students. They need to see how these transitions take place if you want them to do them correctly.
Ask questions. Once you have completed the demonstration, ask your players specific questions about the task they are about to face: what’s your job when you are on this side? What does our game go up to? How many hits do you get before you switch? What do you need to do to earn a bonus point? etc.. This is a positive way to make sure they are on track and locked in.
Of course, there is no guarantee that following these suggestions will make for a perfectly-run drill. Players may be daydreaming when you are talking to them even though they are making eye contact. Sometimes people have trouble getting out of game mode so that they can focus on doing a drill. But as frustrating as it might be, try to remember that they aren’t messing up your drill on purpose — usually…
Crisis # 39 — Mis-matched Levels
If you run group pickleball lessons that are open to the public, you have limited control over who registers. In many cases, you won’t know who the people are until they arrive on your court. And while your wesbite, facebook page of flyer might indicate “this clinic is suitable for players at the 3.5 level” there is no guarantee that people won’t treat that guideline merely as a friendly suggestion that can readily be disregarded. Inevitably, you’re going to have lessons where the skill level of participants is mis-matched. And when this happens, you run the risk of upsetting a lot of your clientele; your stronger players are going to be annoyed that they have to ‘play down’ and the significantly weaker players are poised to be be embarrassed by their ineptitude. So, what to do?
One of the major challenges in group training is when players are at different skill levels.
Dealing with ‘The Weak Link’
Spread the pain (or take it all for yourself). Ideally, you have an odd number of players meaning that it makes sense for you, as the instructor, to ‘play in’. In this case, you should partner with the weak link as often as possible so as to limit the suffering of the other players. While this might not be fun for you, remember that it is not your lesson; it’s your students’. If playing in isn’t a possibility, be sure to rotate players frequently to ‘spread the pain’ of playing with the weak link. While nobody will enjoy it, at least nobody is getting stuck more than anyone else.
Decrease challenge. Try to adjust the degree of difficulty for the weak link. If you can arrange it so that they receive easier balls (or have to move less, have a bigger target, etc.) then they are more likely to get the ball back in play. This is good for their confidence and enjoyment, as well as that of their practice partner.
Have a talk. While there is a range of acceptability when it comes to different skill levels in a group, there is a limit. If the weak link is holding back the other players significantly, you have a responsibility to do something about it. Find some time after the lesson to have a chat with the player about their experience (there is a good chance they know they are in the wrong place, but it is not guaranteed) and see if there is something you can do. Perhaps the player was having a tough day and will be back to normal next week. Perhaps there is a different class that is more suitable. It can be uncomfortable to have this talk but it is important.
The Extra-Strong Player
Change the feed. Adjusting the kind of ball a player is receiving is a great way to increase the challenge. Having the ball come at them faster, or from closer, or requiring movement is a good way to have the extra-strong player do the same drill as everyone else but with a greater degree of difficulty.
Change the target. If you have someone who needs more challenge, give them a smaller target to hit toward. This could happen on serves, returns, volleys, drops, drives or dinks. Same drill, tougher target.
Change the goal. If the group goal is too easy for the extra-strong player, set a different one for them. Explain why you are doing this (they’ll probably be flattered) and challenge them to meet the new standard.
Use a weakness. If the player has a preferred side (e.g. forehand) challenge them to perform the same task as everyone else but with a weakness (e.g. backhand).
Crisis #14 - Kicking Out A Player
While there should be some leeway for different skill levels within a group clinic, there is a limit. Sometimes a player is so far below the standard that they are having a real negative impact on the other players — and your professional reputation. In these (hopefully very rare) cases, you’ll need to remove a player from the clinic either during the session or after it concludes. Here are a few tips on handling it.
Do it privately. Nobody likes to look like a fool. There is a decent chance this person is already embarrassed and the last thing you want to do is make it worse. After the lesson (or during a water break if it can’t wait that long) ask to speak to that person privately for a minute. While they won’t feel great, at least it won’t be a public spectacle.
Use evidence. Sometimes players will genuinely believe they are in the right place and this can lead to a confrontation. Your position will be stronger if you can point to evidence that they are in the wrong group. Playing several competitive 1-on-1 games and tracking wins and losses can make it easier for you to say: “I noticed that when we played competitively that you didn’t win any of your games”. Other tasks that are measured can support your decision: “Did you notice that the group average for deep returns was 12/15 but your number was just 3/15?”. Having some data to point to can decrease the perception that you are making an arbitrary choice.
Offer a refund. If you remove a player from a clinic give them a full refund. While it hurts your bottom line, a disgruntled student is even worse for business.