Why I’m Not a Certified Pickleball Coach
A Personal Essay by Mark Renneson
“My approach would definitely differ from Mark's 100%” wrote one evaluator. “This type of crap really is upsetting” wrote another. These comments were in response to a video of a private lesson I taught in 2016, as part of my application to join a pickleball coaching certification program. If you care to, you can see that video here.
The head of the organization acknowledged my ability to communicate well and to be a leader on the court, but he did not appreciate the content I presented. Specifically, he didn’t like that with a new player my focus was on having them learn to start the point effectively: hitting deep serves and returns, solid volleys from the net and low third shots from the backcourt. In his mind, the emphasis of this lesson should clearly have been on dinking and third shot drops.
I was told that I would not pass their test until I had “a better understanding of the strategies, shot selections and stroke developments we expect all [of our] professionals to follow”. He concluded: “I hope you view this as a learning opportunity to adjust your coaching philosophy and skill set to meet [our] coaching standards”. He wasn’t interested in my argument for why the serve, return and third shot are more important for new players than dinks or drops. He had his view and that was that.
If there is one thing that is true about teaching and learning, it is that it is complicated. Theories of education evolve over time and what may have been fashionable in years past can become out of step with what we understand today. I have some experience in this. I’ve been coaching professionally for more than 20 years, have worked for a national sporting organization in their instructor training program and I have advanced degrees in both Education and Philosophy of Education.
Some readers will be familiar with my work at Third Shot Sports. In 2014 founded the company and started teaching pickleball across North America. I set aside my career as an elementary school teacher to do so which was necessary to run the business. This full-time switch to pickleball also enabled me to compete regularly at the 5.0/PRO level. Between our clinics and couple hundred YouTube videos, people seemed receptive to my approach to coaching and that, of course, made me happy.
Viewers and clinic participants have been generous with their feedback and often tell us that they appreciate our willingness to challenge some of the conventional wisdom in pickleball (e.g. that you don’t always have to play a third shot drop; that your serve and return can be offensive shots; that the soft game isn’t inherently better than the power game, etc.). In short, we disrupted some of the traditional notions about pickleball and our audience — both online and on the court — mostly liked it.
As much as possible, I have tried to use a student-centred approach that is fun, safe and effective. In the example lesson above, I was teaching a 38 year old woman who was fairly athletic and who wanted to be able to play at her local gym without embarrassing herself. She was brand new to pickleball and she didn’t have ambitions about being great, she just didn’t want to appear foolish in front of the others.
I reasoned that if she was going to have fun on the court and not stand out as a newbie, she wasn’t going to need dinks or drops as much as she was going to have to be able to start the point effectively, be able to handle volleys, and be able to hit low balls to her opponents so that she didn’t immediately lose the point with a ball in the net, or set up her opponents for winners (both are common outcomes when you demand that beginners to play drops, something I have written about here).
My lesson reflected what I believed would be most valuable to her the next time she stepped on the court, not what she would need to do if she wanted to play at an advanced level — I figured we would save that for later. She did well in the lesson and had a great time the next day. She became a regular student after that.
There continues to be a segment of the pickleball world that rejects the perspective that there are different ways to play the game well. Traditionalists have pushed back to the point that some even argue that it doesn’t matter if you win the game, if you are hitting hard and using power, you are doing it wrong. By extension, these traditionalists believe that if you are coaching and teach your students that they don’t have to play according to ‘old school’ ideas, you must be coaching poorly. In fact, in the subsequent emails related to my coaching video, I was accused of doing a disservice to my student because I dared to introduce strategy to a new player.
And herein is the reason I haven’t pursued instructor certification. I have not yet found a certifying organization that has demonstrated that it is open to divergent ideas about pickleball. I have not seen clear examples of coach training programs that prioritize a player’s well-being over adherence to some Platonic notion of what pickleball ought to be. I have watched as certified instructors who are held up as expert coaches put 15 people in a single-file line and feed balls to the first person while commenting on their grip or their followthrough. Meanwhile, the other 14 people stand around doing nothing besides wondering why they paid good money to wait in a line. If this is what it takes to become certified, count me out.
Don’t get me wrong — I want to learn more. I want to become a better coach. But I want to do it in a way that doesn’t force me to compromise my commitment to putting the needs of my students first. While there are individual coaches that I admire and with whom I have rich and lively conversations, I have not yet found an organization in which I have found a coaching ‘home’ that feels authentic, innovative and based on the principles that I value. I’ll keep looking for such a place but in the meantime, I’ll keep doing my thing and let the chips fall where they may.