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Pickleball Tournaments: What to Expect and How to Prepare

by Jason Flamm on

Every weekend, thousands of pickleballers pack up their cars with snacks, water bottles, and a fully charged massage gun and travel to pickleball tournaments worldwide.

It's a chance for players of all levels to compete, improve their skills, and connect with other passionate pickleball enthusiasts.

But if you're new to the tournament scene, it can be intimidating and overwhelming. We got you. We take an inside look at what to expect and how to prepare for your first (or next) pickleball tournament.

Tournaments are Challenging

Yes, they're a challenge; it is a tournament. But that's not exactly what we mean. Yes, they are competitive, and some people want to send you home with fresh pickleball-shaped bruises. But these aren't the only challenges you should expect during a pickleball tournament. You need to be prepared for other challenges that exist on and off the court.

The Tournament Atmosphere

From the moment you arrive at a pickleball tournament, you can feel the energy in the air. It feels like being a kid again. Only your parents aren't there to tie your shoes and register for you.

People are chatting, warming up, and using their peripheral vision to size up the competition. It can be a lot. Whether you like to sit alone with your thoughts or check in with anyone else you might know there, it's good to plan out what you'll do when you arrive to ensure you immediately get into the best mindset possible for the day.

These Aren't Your Rec Friends

Even if you're participating in a local tournament that features people you're used to playing with, these are not your rec friends. These are stone-cold killers looking to take home the same trophy or medal as you.

They will use your weaknesses against you and tell their playing partner to do the same. At your weekly game, you're friends. In a tournament, show no mercy.

Be Prepared for a Long Day

If you make the finals, you can expect to play 10-15 pickleball games (depending on the number of entries and tournament structure). "No problem," you might think. You play that many every day, anyway. Well, that's your first mistake.

These are not typical games. Each is highly competitive and far more stressful than you're used to. Plus, in open and rec play, you might wait 5-15 minutes for another court to open up, but in tournaments, that wait can expand to 30-60 minutes between matches. At my last tournament, I waited over an hour two separate times between the quarterfinals and the finals.

The Case For the Middle Dink
The middle dink ain’t flashy and it won’t land you on any highlight reels, but it’s almost always a smart play.

The toll this takes on your body cannot be overstated. Even if your tournament only has a handful of teams, be prepared to spend most of the day at the facility and plan accordingly. If you get done early, find a good lunch spot.

The Mental Game

Tournament days can be physically draining, but the mental strain can be even more intense. If you're not playing up to your ability or your partner is off his or her game, you must be able to stay calm under pressure. Your highs can't be too high or your lows too low. One match won't win you a tournament, but it can lose it for you.

Whatever it takes for you to get out of your funk and back into the game, be prepared to do it over and over again.

How to Prepare for a Tournament

We've discussed challenges to expect at a tournament. Now let's talk about how to overcome them.

Plan Ahead

First, ensure you have everything you need for the day. This includes extra paddles or shoes, snacks, water, sunscreen, and appropriate clothing (layers in case of weather changes).

Bring a foldable chair in case there aren't seats and a refillable water bottle to stay hydrated. If you're a fashionably late type of person, tell yourself the tournament is an hour or two earlier than it actually is so that once you arrive, you can comfortably wait instead of being in a rush to find your court.

Register First and Then Find the Bathrooms

Registering can be a long process, especially with a large turnout. So register first. Once that's over with, find the bathrooms – you never know when you’ll appreciate knowing that information.

Bring Snacks and Hydrate

Keep your snack game on point. You need food that will provide energy and not make you feel weighed down. Keep it light with granola, nuts, energy bars, or protein. After you win, you can have your fill of whatever you want. During the tournament, though, keep it light and portable.

Keys To Go From a 4.0 to a 4.5 With Your Pickleball Game
If you are looking for more specific things to work on to take your pickleball game to the next level, here are three keys to help you progress from a 4.0 to a 4.5 player.

Expect to lose lots of water while you play, especially if the tournament is outdoors. Consider adding electrolytes to help you during matches and while you wait between them.

Be Your Own Cheerleader

Tournament days are like a rollercoaster. It's easy to become anxious, frustrated, or discouraged. But it’s also easy to get really high on yourself and feel overconfident. It’s essential to be your own cheerleader and therapist (if needed).

A pep talk between games can go a long way to staying level throughout the day. If your partner is having a rough day, be their cheerleader, too. Though it’s a long day, it can seem over instantly. Getting swept up in the emotion of it all is easy. Try your best to take a few deep breaths every once in a while and remember you’re there to compete but also to play a game. 

Play Your Game

Tournaments are not the time to try new things or work on your backhand flick. Skill preparation should happen well in advance, and on the day of, you should focus on just playing your game.

Of course, if you see an opportunity to change your strategy or discover something about your opponent, do it. But, ultimately, you want to play your game and go home feeling like you gave it your best.

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