Drill, Skill, Fulfill
By Lynn Paarmann
Pickleball players obviously love to play the game. But not all pickleball players love to drill for skill improvement. I personally have found it difficult to connect with people that will purposefully and regularly drill with me, at least among the folks I typically play with. Yet pros and other high-level players stress the importance of drilling.
A dictionary definition tells us a drill is “an activity that practices a particular skill and often involves repeating the same thing several times“ (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/drill). It sounds sort of boring compared to playing a game, but I actually love to drill. Drilling doesn’t have to be boring.
I like to define fun as voluntarily and eagerly working hard at something that doesn’t really matter. When it matters, at least in a financial or obligatory way, it becomes work. What makes pickleball fun? And why work hard at something that doesn’t matter? Why is this activity, whereby you sweat, breath hard, sometimes get beat, sometimes get beat up, so much fun?
Humans (in fact, many of God’s creatures) love challenges, and meeting increasingly difficult challenges requires improvement. How fun would pickleball be if one never got any better? The real challenge is not to best someone else. Unless you are Simone Jardim or Ben Johns (and there are many that seek to dethrone them), one can always find someone better and someone worse. The challenge is to discover your own current strengths and limitations. And then go further. A challenge met results in growth.
I recently reached out to the instructors at Pictona to elicit their thoughts on pickleball drilling and if/why they recommend it. I will let them tell you in their own words:
The old maxim in my “tennis days” was that you should practice more than you play. The same holds true in pickleball. You will only move up to the next level by drilling so that the shots become automatic or embedded in your muscle memory. You don’t have time to think when you get into an intense play exchange. Once you start thinking, you often blow the point. Repetition is key.
Drilling is absolutely essential to improvement in Pickleball. Proper drilling will promote sound fundamentals and also enhance muscle memory. The hardest part about drilling is finding the perfect drilling partner.
Pickleball is like any other sport or activity. You learn the basics, practice correctly and you will improve much quicker than if you just picked up a paddle, guitar or sat down at a piano and just started playing. You typically will not improve much by only playing. Sometimes people will tell me that they’ve been playing 1 or 2 years and not getting any better. You may know people who play almost every day, but their game doesn't seem to change. How often do you see these people practice their serves, 3rd shot drops or just go the courts to practice and not play? Most pros put in more time drilling and practicing than playing recreational games. As someone once said, “You don't win medals at tournaments, you win medals by practicing. You just pick them up at tournaments!”
In the words of pickleball author Joe Baker, “Playing is a very inefficient way to develop your game.” (At the Line Pickleball, pg. 143)
I am a retired literacy specialist who worked with both children and teachers, and I find a lot of commonalities between learning to read/write and learning to play pickleball, believe it or not. I have taught many children who found literacy learning to be very difficult. I always tried to puzzle out what would be the one thing that, if they could get control of, would make the biggest difference at that point in time. Then I would keep everything else easy to help them master this one critical skill. Drilling is like that. A pickleball game is a very complex environment. There are many variables, many unknowns, no matter who your partner and opponents are. But working on a single skill in a drill greatly simplifies the situation and allows one to focus on just one thing, with (hopefully), everything else being relatively easy. When that skill gets under conscious control, you can work to get it under automatic control. It is amazing how you soon find yourself performing during a game.
There are many reasons why people don’t drill, and I spent some time finding out why by asking players on the Facebook group Pickleball Forum. The reasons include:
One responder who plays only recreationally said, “Life is too short to drill. Just play games.” I get it. Yet games are more fun when you have the skills to play well. I would rather eat ice cream than brussels sprouts (except the ones sold at The Kitchen). Sometimes people do things they would rather not do because there are definite benefits.
Really? Really? The top players in the world drill.
It doesn’t have to be boring! Turn the actual drilling into a game. Ask an instructor to show you some drills that are not boring. And change your attitude! In the words of poet John Berryman’s mother, “Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources.”
This is a major issue for many, but Pictona has a solution!
Tough one. But if you have time to play pickleball, you can find time to drill. Even if you drill for only 15-30 minutes before playing a game.
Pictona has offered solutions to many of these obstacles to drilling. Because of the number of courts (24!), it is easy to find a place to drill. Just show up. And now Pictona has specific days and courts where you can meet others for drills:
Tuesdays 1pm - 2pm Covered Courts 1 & 2
Wednesdays 8am - 9am Uncovered Courts 11 & 14
Thursdays 6pm - 7pm Uncovered Courts 11 & 14
If those times don’t work, just post on Pictona’s Facebook page and ask if anyone wants to meet up to drill. And consider participating in Pickleball Palooza for World Pickleball Day (https://pictona.org/news-information/2020-09-18/pictona-pickleball-palooza/). Also, I strongly suggest that novices sign up for a Pictona Beginner Drills and Skills session, held Mondays from 3:30-4:30.
Don’t forget that Pictona has 2 pickleball machines for rent! An hour on the machine, by yourself or with a few others, can provide many more opportunities to practice specific shots than on a court playing a game.
When my brother attended dental school, he recounted an amusing ditty picked up there: “Drill ‘em, fill ‘em, bill ‘em.” I would like to change that up for pickleball:
Drill, skill, fulfill. Drilling develops skills, which enable you to fulfill your pickleball dreams.
This is just the first in a series of articles on drilling. Be on the lookout for others, including suggestions for using a pickleball machine. See the links and references below to find specific drills. Soon, I will highlight Pictona instructors’ favorite drills, plus tips on using the pickleball machine. In the meantime, drill, baby, drill!
Baker, Joe (2017). At the Line Pickleball: The Winning Doubles Pickleball Strategy. A Shot by Shot System for Success. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Carroll, Pat. (2018). Pickleball: Less is More. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Fontana, Claudia (2016). Pickleball CPR: Coaching Pickleball Readiness with Proven and Effective Drills. USA: 48 Hour Book.
Valleskey, James (2017). A Pickleball Playbook: A Guide for Instructors and Self Instruction. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Pickleball Magazine, published by USA Pickleball Association also includes articles and drilling suggestions. The current edition (August/September 2020) has an excellent article entitled “A Serious Conversation About Drilling,” pgs. 32-33.