Pickleball – Fun and Challenging, with a Touch of Magic
- by Wayne Kerr
Beginners can often learn the fundamentals of pickleball and be playing matches within an hour, while enthusiasts at every level never stop striving to improve. The beauty of pickleball to me is the quirkiness of the game. How often do we see a beginner, or an expert, make two or three amazing shots only to then miss the simple one? The smile and laughter quotient of this game is quite high at every level.
When you show up at courts to play for the first time you will inevitably be asked, “What level are you?” If you are new to the sport just say so. If you have been playing for a while, but not in a club or any tournaments you may not know your skill level. The following is a guide to the levels and how to achieve the next one. The levels range from one to five. A level one player has difficulty controlling the ball while a level five player has an expert level of skill that most will never achieve.
A 1.0 player is new to the sport. These beginners are learning the rules, how to stroke the ball and may have a tough time keeping it in play. It usually takes a short time for these players to transition to level two.
2.0 players know most of the basic rules and can keep the ball in play, but little or no strategy is employed other than getting the ball back over the net as often as possible. As their understanding of strategy and ball control improves these players transition to the 2.5 level.
The difference between the 2.5 level and 3.0 is primarily placement and power. Dinking skills have improved. The 3.0 player tends to hit deep serves and returns. They also understand the advantage of being at the kitchen (Non-Volley Zone ‘NVZ’) line and can hit put away shots when the opportunity arises. Players who come into pickleball with previous racquet sport experience will often be at this level within an hour or two of play.
Moving from 3.0 to 3.5 comes with better ball control and the addition of spins. A 3.5 serves and returns serve quite well. They have learned that hitting the ball hard is often not the best thing to do. Dinking starts to play a bigger part in the game, though not as often as it could or should. Players at this level are usually adding the 3rd shot drop to their game. Strategy has become part of the game for most 3.5s. They are intentionally exploiting opponent weaknesses and targeting openings. Most players with practice and determination can achieve this level of play.
Generally, the difference between a 3.5 and 4.0 player is the ability to construct points and purposely employ soft play. Both 3.5s and 4.0s can drive the ball and dink proficiently. A 3.5 can level up to 4.0 once they routinely hit unattackable 3rd shot drops and regularly defend against opponents’ attacks. The path from 3.5 to 4.0 is filled with practice. Getting better at 3rd shot drops and defense happens through repetition. Another way to improve is to work on the weaker parts of your game while you play. Does it really matter who wins a recreational game? Try to get more balls into the kitchen. Improve by playing to the stronger player on the other side of the net. Winning is nice but improving is more important. Challenge yourself and you will improve.
A good 4.0 player can execute all the shots. So, what then is the difference between a 4.0 and a 4.5? The answer includes consistency, ball placement and anticipation. Plus, a 4.5 is able to routinely reset the point back to neutral when their opponent has the advantage. They play smart pickleball, almost always hitting the right shot at the right time. This doesn’t sound that difficult, but it takes discipline. Pickleball is a complicated game at the upper levels. There is a lot going on during a point. Keeping the ball deep when your opponents are back, then keeping it low and short when they are up at the NVZ. Noting where the forehands and backhands are and whose paddles are up or down. Paying attention to your opponent’s court positioning while keeping track of where your partner is. Watching for openings while protecting the vulnerable areas on your own side of the net. Being aware of opposition tendencies, while staying alert for surprises. All of these things and more, plus being ready to attack or counter the next ball.
If a 4.5 can pretty much do it all, what makes a 5.0 player? A very high level of skill, obviously. These players have put everything together in their games: power, placement, patience and have seemingly added a little touch of magic. They see the whole court and instinctively seem to know what their opponents are capable of doing with any given ball. I added magic to the mix because physical assets such as long limbs, being fleet of foot or possessing amazingly quick hands are definite assets, but not all 5.0s have these. In fact, some 5.0 players have none of these gifts. Short, tall, athletic, or not, anyone can play and even master this quirky sport.
Very few of us will reach the 5.0 level and that is okay because pickleball truly is fun at every level.
Boise Area Pickleball Association is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Meridian, ID 83646