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Why You Play Better Pickleball Against Good Players

by Jason Flamm on

Earlier this week, during open play, I overheard someone mention something that, at first, I thought was a ridiculous take. They said, “I don’t know why, but I always seem to play better against good players and worse against bad ones.” 

At the time, I simply rolled my eyes and kept playing.

On my way home, I thought more about what he said and wondered if it could be true or just something people tell themselves to justify inconsistent play.

The following is the answer I came up with.

Better competition makes you more competitive

When playing against someone of a similar or higher skill level, we tend to rise to the challenge. It’s human nature to want to prove ourselves and show that we are just as good, if not better than, our opponents.

This competitive drive can lead us to play at a higher level, putting more effort and focus into each shot. As a result of that focus, we play faster, more confidently, and have fewer unforced errors.

When we play against those we deem to be lesser-skilled opponents, we lose those competitive juices, try shots we're not really great at, and typically just care less about the outcome.

You aren't trying to prove anything, which leads to feeling like you're not playing your A-game that day.

Skills can be complementary

Pickleball requires a wide range of skills. Everyone on the court has different styles, techniques, and shots that make up their individual games. When playing alongside a good player, they might have skills that complement yours.

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For example, if you're good at dinking and your partner is good at speedups, these complementary skill sets can lead to some great points for your team. Similarly, if you are playing against strong opponents who can also dink and counter well, each point feels more earned.

Against weaker opponents who can't handle a speedup or dink the ball into the net every time, you may lose interest in trying to play the soft game. So now, instead of dinking, you're driving more, which might be less fun or interesting for you.

Longer rallies equal more touches

Pickleball is as much a game of rhythm as anything else. Short rallies have a way of killing momentum, and if every point ends before it really begins, then finding that rhythm can be difficult.

In football, you'll sometimes hear the announcer say that the wide receiver needs to "get his touches early" to feel like he's part of the game. I find this to be true of myself in pickleball as well.

If I have a partner who's constantly being targeted and I'm rarely getting to hit the ball, then it feels like when I do get a chance, I need to do something special with it. Unfortunately, this often leads to silly mistakes or taking more risk than the situation demands.

Better players tend to have longer rallies. Those longer rallies lead to more touches by each player, which helps you get into the game's rhythm.

Losing a long rally that featured a lot of skill can feel like better pickleball than winning a bunch of short ones.

Good players make their partners look better

Good teammates know how to set each other up for success. You might have an amazing third-shot drive, but if your eager partner (who is halfway to the kitchen) keeps taking return shots to his feet every time you do it, you should probably make a third-shot drop instead.

Similarly, if you have a partner who likes to Erne, you can set them up by hitting wide dinks.

Recognizing in-game adjustments like this can make a huge difference in how the game plays, but it requires a certain skill level to notice them and then make them.

Bad players don't know how to set up their partners, and instead, they often get their partners killed by leaving dinks and drops too high or hitting poor drives cross-court.

The final verdict

So, was the guy at open play correct? Do we play better against good pickleball players?

Yes. I think this idea actually has some merit.

However, I think it's important to point out that we can always find ways to play better against weaker opponents – as I share below:

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Also, this is not an excuse to shun or treat lesser-skilled players poorly.

Because to someone else, you might be the weak one.


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Jason Flamm

Jason Flamm

Jason is a writer from St. Louis. He’s been a coach in several sports and is currently working on his pickleball coaching certification. He loves to teach and share his passions.

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