Coaching Model: Play-Practice-Play

Pickleball instructors often spend considerable time thinking about what they will teach their students. And while this certainly is important, equally (or perhaps more) important is how that content will be delivered. How will you get your students to develop a great drop? How will you help them to control the direction of their returns? How will you work on volleys?

The lesson format that we find most useful follows the structure of PLAY-PRACTICE-PLAY. Let's look at how it works and why it works.

PLAY. Pickleball is a game and (presumably) what your students are learning should be able to help them to play the actual game of pickleball better. But how will you know what they need to work on unless you see them actually play pickleball? Sure, you can assume what they can or cannot do, but wouldn't it be better to actually observe it?

In this phase of the lesson (which generally takes place after a meet-and-greet and general warm-up), the students are asked to go and PLAY A REAL GAME OF PICKLEBALL. Your job as the instructor is to observe and encourage, but not to teach. You are watching and taking notes (either mental or written). 

PRACTICE. Once you have watched your students in action, it is time to tell them what you saw (this should be a single, focused teaching point) and why it matters. You might say something like: "I was watching and saw that 20 out of 25 serves were returned with a forehand. Since they are generally weaker, wouldn't it be great if we could force our opponents to hit backhands?" At this point, you can teach them what they need to know and set up a drill to help your students develop the desired skill. Having achieved your desired level of proficiency, it is time for the next phase.

PLAY. Your students have worked hard to develop a new skill but since they are learning things to help them to play the actual game of pickleball better, you should give them a chance to put their new skills into action. Have them play another real game using what they have just learned. You may choose to let them play a game au natural or you might add a special rule to incentivize the use of their new skill (e.g. two points if you force the returner to hit a backhand and you go on to win the point).

Play-Practice-Play and Then What? 

After the second play phase, the instructor has a decision to make. One option is to move on to a new topic altogether. The coach might say something like: "That was great. I saw many more serves being hit to the backhand and causing a weak return. That brings up a new question for us: how do we hit great backhand returns of serve?"

A second option is to revisit or refine the current topic. The instructor might say "I could see you all trying to get serves to the backhand. And while you went from 20% success to 50%, we still have some work to do to make it more consistent". 

In each case, the next phase is again PRACTICE. The instructor teaches something, sets up a drill or practice activity and then sends the students out to work on it. When that practice phase is complete, the students return to play again. The PLAY-PRACTICE-PLAY model continues until the end of the lesson, hopefully finishing with PLAY since that is the most fun and best way to have your students leave your lesson happy.

Why the PLAY-PRACTICE-PLAY Format Works

We think that this model of coaching is more impactful than others (i.e. "Today we will learn how to...") for a few reasons. First, it is fun. With the PLAY-PRACTICE-PLAY model your students get to play real games of pickleball! The game is inherently fun and knowing that your lessons are filled with not only drills but actual games, will help keep your player excited to join you.

Second, it gives your students a sense that their lessons are about them. When you say something like "I was watching you play and noticed..." it makes the learning about them and their needs, not you and your agenda. It is a way of grounding what they are learning with their lived experience, not just your theory about what matters.

Third, it connects the skills being learned to the actual game. Rarely do people want to learn things just for the heck of it. Rather, they want to learn practical skills that they can put into action. The PLAY-PRACTICE-PLAY model emphasizes practical learning and encourages players to apply their new skills in game situations. This makes the learning meaningful since they can see the relationship between what they are working on and why it matters.

Timelines

How long you spend on each phase depends on a number of factors including how much time you have for the lesson, how much court space you have (if players are constantly hitting balls they will move through the PRACTICE phase more quickly than if they are sharing space and have to wait their turn) and how challenging the new skill is to acquire.

As a general rule, we have found that each PRACTICE phase should be somewhere in the neighbourhood of twice as long as each PLAY phase. Let's say after your meet-and-greet, warm up and accounting for a short debrief at the end of the lesson, you have 40 minutes to work with. We could imagine something like:

PLAY (5 mins)

PRACTICE SKILL #1 (10 mins)

PLAY  (5 mins)

PRACTICE SKILL #2 (10 mins)

PLAY  (10 mins)

Notice that the final PLAY phase is a little longer than the others. This is so that the players had sufficient time to integrate what they learned throughout the lesson. Again, these are guidelines only and instructors should adjust according to how well the skills re being acquired as well as levels of enthusiasm for different sections of the lesson.

Finishing Thoughts

The PLAY-PRACTICE-PLAY model is certainly not the only one to choose from. Some instructors may decide to eliminate real games from lessons altogether. Others may decide to interrupt play and introduce teaching points as soon as they see a problem. We, however, believe that these models are inherently flawed because they either fail to connect the student's learning to real observation of what the players actually do, or they jump impatiently from topic to topic without taking a broad look at the participants capabilities. We prefer a consistent structure that is based on observation of students in 'real-life' and the desire to connect what will be learned with how the participants actually play.