From time to time, pickleball players ask me for guidance or suggestions on becoming mentally tough. Painting with broad strokes, I am not a fan of the term “mental toughness” as the term is vague, suggesting an ethereal notion that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. More on this later.
Rather than getting bogged down in the term, let me provide a concrete tip that may help next time the odds are stacked against you. I will set the stage.
You are at the U.S. Open pickleball tournament. You lost the first game and are now down 10-6 in the second game. Less than optimal – I believe we would all agree. This is a true story, by the way.
How do you frame the to maximize your chances to climb out of this mess? In hindsight, spectators may frame it as “mental toughness,” but it is nothing quite as fancy as that. It is just a few specific things:
- Trust yourself (and your partner). Down 10-6 in the second game, my partner and I took a time out. We assured each other that we had each “been here before.” Implicit in this statement: being behind in the deciding game was not going to affect how we played and we just had to keep playing.
- Focus on the next point. There is no silver bullet or magic shot you can hit to even the score. You are down and down big (especially in an evenly matched game). All you can do is try to win the next point. And even more specifically, all you can do is hit the next shot as well as possible. That is it. All you can do.
- Get another serve. This one is critical. You obviously want to score points on serve. But if you do not, you do not lose the match (remember this whenever you hear about the idea of moving pickleball to rally scoring and say “NO!”). The key is not to allow your opponent to score. When your opponent has the serve, you have one objective: to serve again. All you want is another chance to serve. I do not recall exactly, but I know our opponents had at least 2-3 service turns (meaning 4-6 serves) to close us out.
- Remember that your opponent is human. Keep sticking around and your opponents will start to wonder. What is going on? We should have won by now. Score a point or two, say 10-8 or 10-9. Now your opponents will switch from wonder to worry. Can this really happen? I cannot believe we are going to lose this game. You are not the only fallible creature on the court. Your opponents are equally subject to human emotion.
- Make it interesting. Whenever I am down something like 10-8 and serving, I will tell my partner, “let’s make it 10-9, that is interesting. 10-8 is boring.” And so we look at it as a mini challenge: just get to 10-9 is all. Once you make it 10-9, then 10-10 is more interesting, no?
This last tip is one that we should apply all the time: you are standing on an arbitrarily lined court holding a plastic paddle hitting a plastic ball. Relax, you are not trying to save lives or cure a disease. The fact that you popped up that last dink does not make you a bad player or, worse, a failure. We are all imperfect beings who will, indubitably, hit that easy dink into the net.
Final score: 10-12, 13-11, 11-5.
Good luck out there
Thank you to John Hain for the graphic (Pixabay).