The Real Lowdown on Pickleball Skill Levels

The USAPA provides a handy definition of their rating system online, but we all know those skill levels translate a bit differently in reality compared to a perfectly curated list.

Thankfully, David Mark Lopez of Pelican Landing (Bonita Springs, FL) took to Facebook to provide a bit more substance and flavor to these descriptions. Enjoy a big laugh before the weekend with these Revised Pickleball Skill Level Definitions!

For more of David’s witty writing and cheeky humor, visit www.davidmarklopez.com. He’s created a charming series of historical fiction books for kids titled Maddie’s Magic Markers.

David Lopez

David Mark Lopez of Pelican Landing

1.0 Skill Level: Beginner

Calls the paddle a racket, poops in pants, serves overhand, thinks pickleball is a stupid sport for old people, wears huarache sandals to play, is bored and wants to start drinking early.

2.0 Skill Level

Thinks the sport was named after a dog born 20 years later, walks slowly through your match, does not close gate, drinks the last beer, hits on your spouse who hates you for poaching, played last 6 months ago indoors at a Michigan Y with his cousin from Ypsilanti, smokes between matches, falls often, serves the ball into the next court.

3.0 Skill Level

Forgets score frequently, talks during rallies, explains every freakin’ point (well the ball went this way, but I meant it to go there…uh, I know I was right here watching), hits their partner with ball or racket (still) at least once a game, trips partner regularly, thinks the third shot drop has something to do with an incurable disease, has a fit-bit.

3.5 Skill Level

Frequently misinterprets NVZ rule, hits every single shot with maximin velocity, puts the ball in play roughly 50% of the time, argues line calls, laughs loudly, has new smart matching outfit, lays it up across the middle, only dinks accidentally, frowns at you when you say UP UP UP, calls the score for both teams, leaves phone on during match because daughter is expecting.

4.0 Skill Level

Sighs loudly frequently, wants you to stay for one more game, coaches you up on every single point, swears like a sailor, practices dinking in garage, pretends to be interested in your personal life, talks crap about ATPs and ERNEs, shows you new paddle (it’s not a racket, newbie), acts like a baby after losing, smashes the living hell out of your weak-ass lobs, plays at 3.5 in tourneys, openly argues with spouse during matches when supposed to be just having fun.

4.5 Skill Level

Brings 5 paddles, mysteriously disappears after playing once with mixed group of 2.0 2.5 and 3.0s, encourages you to poach so they can poach with reckless abandon, takes every shot across the middle, knows the rules but tells you to look them up so you can learn them, wears two gloves, hits you very hard with the ball at the NVZ (it’s part of the game) because your paddle was not up, subtly blames partner after loss, recommends videos, has stopped playing tennis, almost went pro, was club ping pong champion in 1987, had 3 ATPs and 2 ERNEs yesterday.

5.0 Skill Level

Knows Kyle Yates, has many many medals, post incessantly on PICKLEBALL FORUM about balls, rules, paddles and tournaments, wants pickleball channel on ESPN (cornhole wtf?), strategically hits to your backhand every shot, apologizes for hitting you very hard with ball at the NVZ because your paddle was not up, will gladly give you a lesson for $50, has 7 supercool pickleball outfits, drinks mysterious electrolyte concoction, is way younger than you, patronizes your terrible backhand, would love to play one more with you but has a dentist appointment and will see you at the clinic Saturday.

6.0 Skill Level

Shows up on the FORUM in foreign places playing pickleball, has savage tan and incredibly white teeth, can beat you in doubles as a singles player, has a cool nickname, returns your ATP like it wasn’t nuthin’ bruh, dropped out of high school to go pro, walks on water, heals the pickleball lame, has a weighted paddle, stacks with partner in fast food line, has met you several times but still has zero idea of who you are, posts videos of 73 hit rallies, wears white unitard, dink…dink…dink then backhand rocket drive that hits you in the head and ricochets off your partner’s teeth. You’re in love, fanboy.

Defending Against Slammers, Bangers and Other Power Picklers

Advanced pickleball players say that “slammers,” or those who always return the ball hard and fast, are demonstrating poor technique, lose steam quickly and reduce their precision. “Just learn to defend and force them to dink,” they might suggest.

This is solid advice, but hearing it summarized in a sentence or two doesn’t really illuminate all the skills needed to achieve this. Slammers are a real threat to many picklers who are still working on their own positioning and placement, and having to deal with supersonic speeds on top of everything else makes it harder to keep these things in mind.

Here are a few methods for dealing with bangers that go into more depth so your defensive abilities will be a sight to behold:

Soft Grip

It’s only natural to feel flustered when you see a slam heading your way, so players have a tendency to seize up and squeeze their paddle in anticipation of impact. However, this is the exact opposite of what you want to do! By tightening your grip you’re creating a stronger connection between your paddle and your arm.

This not only causes the vibration from impact to uncomfortably travel up your arm, but it redirects the power in the shot back toward your opponent, causing the ball to pop up so they can return yet another slam.

If you instead loosen your grip while holding the paddle steady, the power from the slam will be diffused exactly where you want it—through your paddle—before returning to the other side of the court with much less steam. This prevents your opponent from attacking again, changing the game into a more finesse-based affair.

(Credit: Darryl Kenyon)

Lob It

If you really want to annoy a dedicated banger, return their shot with a leisurely lob that travels all the way to the base line. “But this will make it easy for them to slam again!” This is true, but craning your neck upwards and banging over and over is tiring work and will cause your opponent to become drained faster.

Not only that, but being stuck at the base line is such a huge disadvantage that you may find one of their slams comes in at a less severe angle as they tire. At that point you can direct it right behind the kitchen line so they either desperately fling themselves upcourt to try and make the return or lose the point altogether.

Note that this strategy can be frustrating for those on the receiving end… but if someone is incessantly banging, then sometimes turnabout is fair play!

Keep It in the Kitchen

The most obvious advice is to keep the ball in the kitchen because players aren’t allowed to volley in this area, but how do you achieve this when a slam is coming directly toward you? While using the “soft grip” technique described above, try placing your paddle close to your chest and using your backhand to return the shot, with your paddle facing slightly upwards. No need to swing as you do this; simply hold your paddle in place.

The purpose of keeping the paddle close to your chest is because slams often come directly toward your body. Using your backhand is less awkward than trying to strain your wrist to reach the same position with a forehand. And the angle gives the ball a bit more time to lose momentum before dropping into the kitchen.

It takes some time to work against the instinct of tightening up during the approach of a slam, but keep practicing these techniques and you can be sure that bangers will be surprised as the wind is taken from their sails!

A How-To Guide on Predicting Pickleball Spin

One of the most difficult aspects of pickleball for beginners and even intermediate players is learning how to handle spin. At higher levels players are usually familiar with different strokes and can easily predict where the ball is going to move if they’re unable to catch it in the air. However, when you’re still learning how to place your own shots, much less keep an eye on your opponent’s, this can be a tricky skill to master.

This helpful table from Pickleball Ontario provides a reference on the different types of spin and what reactions they cause against a paddle or the court. You’ll also see how to best respond to each type of spin.

Types of Spin

Spin is not as prominent in pickleball as other racquet sports, but it’s important to note that it will change the arc of pickleballs in the air in addition to their trajectory after hitting the ground. As shown in the table, topspin and sidespin will eventually drop downward which means they tend to be more difficult to return. Harder shots fall more quickly and necessitate a faster reaction. With extremely precise placement, topspin can even allow a pickleball to jump over the top of a net cord and drop mere inches into the kitchen.

Backspin might seem less advantageous since it rises in motion and then bounces high, but another factor to note is that its forward motion is less intense. If the opposing player is waiting for the ball to “spin out” and fly towards the baseline like a more powerful hit, then they may need to rush and fix their miscalculation, returning an unbalanced shot.

Here’s a great video of Sarah Ansboury demonstrating the “slice” which adds backspin to a ball:

Note her positioning and the high to low stroke which create this motion. When you first try adding spin to your shots you may be less precise since you’re not only attempting to hit in the sweet spot of your paddle, but changing the path of your swing as well.

An example of topspin can be found in this video from Third Shot Sports, showing how to use topspin during a serve:

When practicing spin, don’t overthink it too much! Like any other skill it takes practices to learn, but once it feels natural you’ll be able to keep your opponents guessing. Not only that, but it will help you in understanding the types of spin headed toward your side of the court so you can properly counter them.

Do you have a good idea of how to use and handle spin? What techniques have improved your game the most?

Easy and Effective Pickleball Hand-Eye Coordination Drills

A wide variety of techniques go into pickleball skill development, but as much as areas like footwork and ball placement matter, at its core pickleball is still a sport centered around hand-eye coordination. No matter how ingenious a play is in your mind, if you can’t get your paddle to connect then you’re out of luck!

On the Edge

To develop your coordination there’s a simple technique you can use that you may have already done unconsciously while waiting to play a game. Here Coach Claudia Fontana introduces the drill as “On the Edge.” The goal is to practice bouncing a pickleball up and down on your paddle. You want your wrist to remain firm while controlling where the ball makes contact.

 

 

Once this feels comfortable, you can turn your paddle so that the ball is bouncing on the side/edge guard. This obviously narrows your target area and makes the movement a bit trickier to position. If that gets easy too, you can switch between the front, side and back of the paddle while moving to see how well you can keep the ball in motion.

If it helps you to get a clearer image of the action, here is another video of Coach Lavery performing the drill in real time. He makes it look simple!

 

 

Wall and Ball

You can also do a series of exercises simply using a pickleball and a wall. It’s an ideal exercise when you don’t have a lot of time or space to practice but want to get in some training.

Here Jack Cascio is using a tennis ball, but you can do the same with a pickleball. Simply by changing the position of your hand, type of throw and amount of vision available, you can train yourself to more quickly respond to incoming shots.

 

 

Pickleball “Juggling”

Lastly, to test your current hand-eye coordination and give yourself a challenge, try this array of exercises from Third Shot Sports. You’ll be using a wall again, but this time more than one pickleball will be involved in the rotation. It’s a bit like juggling, but using a paddle instead of your hands!

How controlled can you keep the speed and direction of your hits?

 

 

Playing actual games is, of course, a great way to improve your abilities too. But by honing in on more precise exercises like this, you’ll often find that your movements gain more precision, more quickly.

If you have any favorite drills or exercises for developing hand-eye coordination, let us know in the comments.

Should You Want to Win in Rec Play?

Recreational play means a variety of things to picklers depending on who you ask. Almost everyone would prefer to win even in rec games, but individual goals range from simply wanting to have fun, improving one’s skills, enjoy some exercise or taking an opportunity to review habits.

Are any of these aims more legitimate than the others? We personally don’t believe so – everyone has unique reasons for playing pickleball, and so long as your focus is making you happy and fulfilled, that’s all that matters. Of course, when your goals come into conflict with those of a partner or opponent, that can make things more complicated.

Pickler taking a swing

(Credit: Darryl Kenyon)

It’s generally for the best if you find a doubles partner with a similar mindset so you don’t get frustrated with one another outside of competitions. If your partner just wants to “zone out” and hit some balls without really focusing on bettering their skills while you want to talk strategy and adapt to the other team in the midst of things, it will be more difficult for everyone to leave the court saying they had a good time.

Beyond making sure you’ve found someone on the same page, the fact remains that you can only control your own mindset and feelings. If another player is joking around and only playing at 50% of their ability while you’d prefer they put in max effort, a competitive league might be a better fit. Or you could always focus on being consistent, perfecting your own shots and looking at the game as a sort of extended drill rather than a chance to prove your abilities.

Winning is almost always fun in rec play – but it can be important to look behind everything that went into a win and decide if it was really worth it. Did you have fun throughout the game, or were you stressing the whole time? Did you pay attention to your decision making, work on getting better and remain considerate of your partner’s well being?

Sometimes winning isn’t worth the sacrifice if it means everyone leaves frustrated due to poor sportsmanship, but perhaps you’ve been taking it easy and want to focus on more opportunities to improve. Whatever your goal, keep it at the forefront of your mind during rec play and you’ll be sure to get more out of every game.

What sort of outlook do you have when playing rec games? Is winning your top priority or something else?

Work on Your Follow Through to Develop More Accurate Shots

Now that we’re nearing the end of the first full week of January, it’s time to analyze how well you’ve been sticking to New Year’s resolutions. Have you been able to maintain consistency or are things starting to look messy?

To piggyback on this topic, today we’re going to discuss a handy “follow through” trick for your pickleball shots using a video from Joe Baker. If you want to improve your accuracy and consistently hit pickleballs where you want them to go, this demonstration will be a huge help.

In the video, Joe shows how both timing and the positioning of your paddle determine a pickleball’s trajectory. A lot of beginners misuse “wristy” action that causes balls to fly out of control. To show which direction your shots will go, Joe uses some great visuals to demonstrate how even small movements can completely change the course of your hits.

Give it a watch if you’d like to learn how to properly position your body and dominant paddle hand to ensure a reliable aim.

The video refers to this technique as a “linear stroke,” which involves players following through on their hits and moving their arm along an invisible line. Make sure you’re bending your knees, setting your paddle hand, guiding your shots with your shoulders/upper body and maintaining a long “swing zone.”

Pretend you’re trying to hit four balls in a row, keeping your wrist locked through the strike.

This concept is just about the same as the technique used in tennis, which is likely why so many tennis players end up doing well in pickleball too. You need to “elongate the contact point” to make sure you consistently hit your targets.

Try these tips and see if you find your game improving with fewer misdirected shots.

You’ll see some 5.0 players using this very technique in the video. Some common (and important) shots that can be improved by using this strategy are your serve, third shot drop and smash.

Reduce your curved hits and try out the linear stroke in your next game. Let us know how it goes!

Are Pickleball Beginners “Owed” Time with Stronger Players?

The debate is one that’s been raging in the sport for years: Should high level picklers “play down” with other members of their club?

The simplest answer is, “If they want to,” but with a bit of digging many different opinions come to light. Some feel that “open” play is just that, and believe it should be an opportunity to play the game and have fun heedless of skill divides. With this mindset, open play is an opportunity for picklers to mix things up rather than always sticking to their own.

Some clubs or communities have open play scheduled for a set period of time followed by rank-specific games at others. This allows high level players to choose whether they want to mingle among the intermediate crowd or stay with their peers, largely eliminating the feeling that they’re being “forced” to play with those outside their bracket. Unfortunately there aren’t always enough players or court availability to make this happen, which can lead to both parties feeling wronged.

Pickleball Station Class

An easy way to learn from the pros without taking time away from their open play is to invest in a class, like ours at Pickleball Station!

The best way to handle this situation uses qualities popular across the sport: respect and communication. It helps newer players feel included when pros generously take the time to play down, but they also shouldn’t be expected to constantly lower the playing field for the sake of others.

If a 4.5/5.0 says, “No, not right now,” because they have a competition coming up, haven’t had much opportunity to play with their peers or simply don’t feel like it that day, they shouldn’t be penalized. Newer players are not entitled to play with higher skill opponents unless they’re taking part in a class, and should be able to accept “no” gracefully.

In addition to this, it’s not even beneficial for average players to hit above their weight all the time. Does the pickler in question actually have the ability to “read” the game and determine areas they can improve, watch their opponent’s techniques and apply them, and focus on skill acquisition? Or are they just going to end up frustrated when they get beat, unable to understand where their own weaknesses lie?

Unless a player has the ability and awareness to pick these things out, playing above one’s skill just becomes an exercise in frustration. Playing someone of the same rank would’ve provided more fun, opportunity for improvement and reasonable challenge.

Green Valley Pickleball

A game at the Green Valley Pickleball courts

The Green Valley Pickleball Club in Arizona has a unique and organized way of addressing this topic by using monitors that show players if they’re in the wrong group. Each player is moved up or down depending on their performance. When someone wants to jump up a level, they must set up a ratings session and play with three picklers in their goal bracket, earning a total score of at least 21 points to progress.

This means that picklers can compete with opponents of a +- 0.5 skill level. It’s a small enough gap to avoid frustrating high level players while being reasonable enough to give the lower level player a proper challenge (without getting trounced).

How does your club handle skill imbalances? Do you prefer skill-specific brackets or enjoy the fluidity and community that open play provides? Share your thoughts in the comments.